Ask the Vet: Top Pet Nutrition Questions Answered

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In honor of World Veterinary Day this past Saturday, we called for questions for PetCareRx veterinary nutritionist, Dr. Joe Wakshlag. Today, he is answering your questions!

Thanks to all who submitted questions — we are so pleased to be sharing Dr. Joe Wakshlag’s answers with you. While we couldn’t answer every question, we hope that this roundup of the biggest stumpers and most-asked questions about pet diets and food will help you and your pets to be happier and healthier!

Have a question about puppies or pet diet and weight loss? Take a look at questions from pet parents like you, and the answers.

Perfecting Puppy Diets:

Q: What is the best way to allocate treats into a puppy’s diet so that he or she doesn’t get too heavy? 

A: This is a tricky question, but we veterinarians tend to agree that people should follow the body condition of their dog and not feed more than 20% of calories as treats. For example if your puppy typically eats 4 cups a day of dog food then replacing about 1/2 cup of food with calories from treats sounds reasonable. This would typically be about 200-250 calories a day. This equals about 8 of the small milk bone style treats or 2 of the large ones (not the jumbo ones). Pig ears, pizzle sticks (6 inches), and rawhide 7-inch knot chews also contain calories (150-250 calories) so keep this in mind, too.

Q: My new 3-month-old puppy was thought to have high bile acids. Now they are saying it is neurological because of his symptoms. The ultrasound showed no shunts, yet they are still treating for toxins and his bile levels are still high. He is pacing and has some blindness now. Alternative therapy guy says he needs whole foods and supplements…. and no meds. Can the two theories work together? I am so confused and just want my pup to get better… 

A: Not all liver problems in puppies with bile acids are straight shunts, there are other diseases such as microvascular dysplasia. I would defer to a specialist in Medicine. Look for a boarded specialist from the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. Although whole foods sound good it’s more important to utilize a lower protein diet that is made from liver friendly sources like dairy, egg, and soy, which the therapeutic diets have. Recently a research paper has suggested that puppies will grow sufficiently on the liver diets like Hepatic LS from Royal Canin and Hill’s LD. A home prepared diet can be made, but I am not sure if your alternative therapy person has the training to do this for you.

More on Puppies: The Proper Nutrition for Feeding a Puppy

Special Diets for Special Senior Dogs:

Q: My aging standard poodle has liver degeneration and the vet has recommended a low protein food, which gets none of its protein from beef. In this age of high-protein-must-be-better this has been next to impossible. I have hefted and scrutinized dozens of dry foods. Currently I am just trying to reduce her protein intake by adding cooked brown rice to her food. How about a tip on a low protein food or a recipe I can cook up for her that meets her dietary needs?

A: Chronic degenerative liver disease often leads to very different protein recommendations depending on the stage of the disease.

If your dog is early in the disease process it’s often recommended to increase dietary protein, while in the end stages we recommend low protein when the liver can no longer handle the higher protein load. So any recommendation will depend on blood work, ultrasound, and the dog’s symptoms and mental status (whether they seem dull and drunk-like from nitrogen build up).

That said there are many board certified nutritionists throughout the country that would be able to work with you to create a home prepared diet that is adequate for your poodle’s needs based on the medical record from your veterinarian. Tufts, University of Tennessee, Cornell, Davis, Florida, UNC, and University of Pennsylvania all have nutrition programs in their hospitals and you could utilize the services of one of these places.

Q: My 13 year old Chihuahua just had to have her gallbladder removed and I’m wondering what will be the best food for her? I don’t mind cooking for her I just want it to have all of the nutritional value.

A: Assuming that weight is not an issue (as long as your dog is not too thin), there are plenty of foods on the market that will be low enough in fat (12% or less — as labeled on the bag). Many of the light and weight management formulas will be adequate. Some folks advocate lower than 7% fat, but I have had many patients at around 10-12% fat that do just fine.

More on Senior Dogs: Nutrition for Your Senior Dog

Curious Cats:

Q: For 40 years I have fed my cats dry cat food — not one disorder. I have adopted a rescue who was fed wet cat food, and am gradually reducing the wet. What are your thoughts about wet food?

A: There are really two camps: the dry food camp suggests that dry food is better since it may help with dental health and many cats have dental issues.

The wet food camp says that often these foods are higher in protein (which may be better for a carnivore) and that the increased water in the canned food will increase urination, which may help retard crystal formation and hence prevent urinary tract irritation and inappropriate urination.

In my mind it really depends on the cat’s medical problems. If your cat is healthy then I think feeding both types of food is a good idea so that when a medical problem develops that requires either dry or wet the cat is used to eating both so the transition is not as much of a shock.

Q: My nearly 16-year-old cat is sneezing up a storm. Body not hot to the touch, eating well and drinking. I just moved to a small apartment from a seven room house and although she is finally adjusting, loud “guttural meows” scare me. She is and always has been an indoor cat. We live alone. Does she have a simple cold? Could it be allergies, as windows are open, or is she “run down” from the move (Nov 2012), and this is the cause?

A: It’s hard to consider all the possibilities without seeing your cat — however it can be something as simple as a viral cold which many cats get. On the other hand the move to a new home may have introduced an allergen that could be causing the sneezing.

Look at the mucus discharge in your cat’s eyes. If it’s clear then it may just be irritation, if colored yellow or green then a trip to the vet is needed. In an old cat there are many possible issues you’ll want to rule out including a nasal tumor or fungal or bacterial infection, in addition to allergy or a viral cold.

More on Feeding Cats: Nutrition for Adult Cats

Making Pet Food at Home:

Q: I cook for my two Bichons, making them chicken, brown rice, and vegetables. Needless to say they love it. They have a little James Well Beloved dry food in the morning. Do you think they are getting all the nutrients they need from this diet?

A: If they are eating well over half of their calories as chicken, rice, and veggies then it’s likely that they are not getting what they need to have a complete nutritional profile. From my experience I’d guess they could be deficient in B12, vitamin A, vitamin D, Vitamin E, zinc, iron, copper, calcium, magnesium, iodine, and selenium.

Things to help round out the diet plan would be a canine vitamin (but these vary tremendously) and some bone meal. At least you will be getting closer to complete.

You can always look for a veterinary nutritionist to help you out, or there is a website called Balanceit that sells an all in one supplement that can be fed with a diet plan they put together for you from ingredients you choose. It may be a good alternative for your Bichons.

Q: My Pomeranian won’t ever touch dog food, though I’ve tried everything. 5 years it’s been like this. What do I do?

A: If you are feeding a home prepared diet then you may want to get the book called Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets by Patricia Schenck. It’s a good reference for home preparing food. You can always get in touch with a boarded veterinary nutritionist to help you with a diet formulation that is complete.

More on Homemade Pet Food: Homemade Dog Food Tips and Recipes, Homemade Dog Treat Recipes

A Burpy Eater:

Q: My now 4-year-old Toy Poodle has always burped loudly and had reflux since she was a puppy. I can visually see her burp up food and swallow. I raised her food bowl and feed expensive dry food. What can I feed her or do to help this? Is there any medication that may help? Are there tests that can be done to determine the cause? 

A: It would be best to discuss this with a veterinarian to try to determine the cause for this reflux. Like people, there are medications such as Omeprazole or Pepcid that can help alleviate this problem, and your vet would likely know the best option for your dog.

Putting On, or Keeping Off, the Pounds:

Q: I need to know what to make or feed a 12-year-old little dog who needs to gain some weight.

A: If your dog is eating regular dog food, but not too enthusiastically, then you may want to try switching to a puppy food or a performance food. Often these foods have more protein and fat than regular adult food so they may be more palatable; examples are Proplan Performance or Eukanuba Puppy Food.

They are also higher in calories, often having close to 500 calories per cup while adult foods only have 400 calories per cup on average. Of course adding in some wet food to his regimen may also make things more palatable too. Either of these changes may help the situation. There is also a supplement called Annamaet Impact which is a high calorie supplement used to keep weight on sled dogs, so this may be worthwhile too if he/she will eat it.

Q: I have a Mini Schnauzer who has lost 5 pounds (much needed) on a weight reduction diet. Now that she is at her desired weight, should we continue to feed the weight management diet food, or how do we proceed without adding the pounds back?

A: Very often when you end a diet like this, if you are using a commercial over the counter food, then you can add in about 15% more food than what you were feeding during weight loss, of the same food.  In another month weigh your dog to see if she is maintaining weight. If she has actually lost more, then add in 10% more (so now 25% more than you were feeding her while she was losing weight) for a month and reweigh her again.  This usually works to keep dogs lean and allows them to keep eating the same food, just more of it!

Q: I have 6 dogs, 5 of which are a healthy weight… ok, maybe 3 of them are a little fluffy, but my concern is with my Whippet/Greyhound mix. I know they are thin naturally, but it worries me that her rib bones show at times. She eats like a pig and we give her peanut butter sandwiches in the morning and at night. Should I be worried or is this normal for her size? She just turned two years old in March.

A: It’s difficult to assess your dogs’ weight without seeing her, but I often tell clients that I want their dogs’ ribs to show naturally. If your neighbors think you are underfeeding your dog, then your dog is likely in great body condition. If a Whippet/Greyhound was not showing their last 3-4 ribs most of the time, then there is a good chance she is a bit overweight. As you said the breed is naturally lean and if you are feeding what the bag recommends as well as the sandwiches then it’s doubtful that the dog is underfed.

More on Weight Management for Pets: 6 Diet Pet Food Ingredients that Burn Fat, Food to Help Your Cat or Dog Gain Weight

In addition, we’ve rounded up the answers to some other commonly-asked questions below!

Dogs Eating Their Own Feces

This is more than just a gross habit, this is actually a real condition called coprophagia. Learn all about the causes, symptoms, and treatments of coprophagia.

Dogs with Food Allergies

Dogs who seems to have food allergies—which can show in symptoms like scratching and itching, will probably have to go on a hypoallergenic or novel protein diet. Learn about how to implement these, and what the difference is.

Dog Dental Health

Keeping dog teeth clean is vital to preventing dental and gum disease, which can result in bad breath, tooth decay, and pain for your pet. Here are 5 easy ways to improve your dog’s dental health.

If you have more questions, take a look at our comprehensive articles on pet health and wellness, and leave your questions below.

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This post contains responses written by PetCareRx Consulting Nutritionist Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University’s program for Veterinary Medicine. The information contained, however, is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian.