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Nutritional Requirements for Your Pet

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Proper pet nutrition requires the owner's attention.  Knowing how to read a pet food label is the first step in assuring that your pet is being adequately and properly nourished. Taking that step means that you know how to find out the answer to the question "What's in this stuff?'' The second - and crucial - step is to answer the question "Is this what my dog/cat needs?''

In order to answer that all-important question, you need some basic knowledge of the requirements of dogs and cats. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) - the same organization whose regulations govern the labeling of pet foods - has established "Nutrient Profiles'' for dogs and cats. Dog and cat foods that are labeled as "complete and balanced'' based on the AAFCO profiles must meet certain specified nutrient levels. These Profiles are available as tables to "Selecting Nutritious Pet Foods,'' a publication of the Center for Veterinary Medicine of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The AAFCO Profiles state the minimum requirements for all of the essential nutrients. However, they go beyond this by distinguishing between the "Growth and Reproduction Minimum'' and the "Adult Maintenance Minimum.'' This is an important distinction because the nutritional requirements of dogs and cats do not remain constant through all life stages.

In addition, the Profiles give maximum levels for those nutrients that are potentially dangerous to pets if consumed in excess. The FDA publication states that maximums are now listed "because of concern that overnutrition, rather than undernutrition, is a bigger problem with many pet foods today.''

When using the Profiles to assess your pet's needs, keep in mind that nutrient requirement levels are stated on a "dry matter basis''. Since the nutrient amounts on pet food labels (usually stated as the "guaranteed analysis'') are stated on an "as fed'' basis, it is necessary to convert those amounts to a dry matter basis. The FDA publication explains the simple calculation used to do this.

Since new research into pet nutrition may result in revised recommendations, it is a good idea to review your pet's nutritional needs periodically with your veterinarian.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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