Rethinking “Just Feed Less” to Reduce Calorie Intake

Educating clients about weight management and choosing the best diet for the pet is part of optimal wellness care

By Laura Gaylord, DVM, DACVIM (Nutrition), Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist®, Fuquay Varina, N.C. • Virbac

One of the most common questions we are asked as veterinarians is, “How much should I feed?”

One of the most common questions we are asked as veterinarians is, “How much should I feed?”Given that currently >60percent of our clients’ pets are overweight, this question is critically important.1 As veterinarians we need to ask, “How can we support our clients in choosing the best foods so that they can feed their pets appropriately?” At each exam we might assess the pet’s weight and body condition score, then, when pressed for time, simply say, “Just feed less.” Yet this answer may not be providing the best advice for the pet or the client.

Eighty-five percent of our dogs and 93 percent of our cats are spayed and neutered2

While spaying and neutering is advocated for virtually all dogs and cats, this intervention does have consequences. It is the largest risk factor for obesity for our pets.3,4 This happens primarily through a decrease in metabolic rate and an increase in desire for food intake.5-7 The removal of sex hormones can result in an increased appetite, up to 63percent in dogs and 23percent in cats.8,9 If no changes in diet are instituted, weight gain is likely.

“Just feed less” may ignore the amount of food being fed and the diet type

This is critical information needed to confirm that the pet is consuming the proper amount of food and the best diet appropriate for its life stage. Can the diet be safely reduced in quantity and still meet nutritional needs? We need to collect information about other foods, treats, etc., that are offered, as these could be unbalancing the total daily diet.

“Just feed less” may create hungry pets

Hungry pets beg. Food and treats are an expression of our love for our pets and an important part of the human-animal bond. Not acknowledging this and failing to have strategies to manage begging may result in clients giving in to their pet. As “food is love,” “just feed less” may feel like we are giving less “love.” Reducing the volume of food fed reduces the volume of food within the stomach, which is a known trigger for satiety.10,11 With average diets, less food also means reducing intakes of protein (amino acids) and fiber, two nutrients that have been confirmed to help reduce voluntary food intakes and begging behaviors in dogs.12,13

“Just feed less” may put pets at risk of nutrient deficiencies

Studies have confirmed that restricting adult maintenance diets and weight management diets will result in nutrient intakes that fall below recommended guidelines from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the Recommended Allowances from the National Research Council (NRC).14-17

Changing puppies or kittens from growth diets directly to adult foods while still within their growth phase is not an optimal recommendation. Diets intended to support growth have been specifically formulated to provide the necessary higher levels of amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, even up to two to three times that provided in adult maintenance foods. This means that if we select an adult diet prematurely when growth is still occurring, we are potentially underfeeding nutrients needed for optimal development.18

It is often difficult to clinically appreciate the effects of nutrient deficiencies in our pets unless they are severe.

Protein or amino acid deficiencies may manifest as poor muscling and skin/haircoat, poor immune function and even heart disease (dilated cardiomyopathy). Insufficient intake of omega-3 fatty acids may result in poor nervous system and/or retinal development as well as suboptimal trainability in young dogs. Severe mineral deficiencies may result in suboptimal growth, impacts on bone metabolism, pica, muscle dysfunction, anemia and even fluid imbalances. Vitamin deficiencies may cause poor growth, impaired bone metabolism, poor skin, mucous membrane and haircoat quality, anemia, nervous and cardiovascular system dysfunction, impaired clotting as well as many other adverse effects.19,20 The best option is to ensure a proper diet is fed, with adequate nutrient levels included to support growth to its completion.

How then do we intervene and do better?

It starts at the puppy and kitten visits. We need to train our technicians and nurses to take good diet histories (what food, how much, how many treats/snacks, etc.) and document this at every visit. Make nutrition important! Just having the discussion acknowledges that we care about nutrition, that we are interested and that we understand the powerful tools that nutrition and food are in our pets’ lives. Train staff to check body weight when the pet is present for any visit, and we can also teach them to be excellent at body condition scoring and muscle mass scoring. Document this information consistently in the medical record and follow it throughout the pet’s life. We can also track diet changes and how these have impacted the pet’s health over its lifetime.

Train clients to do body condition scoring

Making clients proactive in monitoring their pets can prevent excessive weight gain or at least catch it before it is affecting a pet’s health status. Start talking about calories or kcals in foods early and often so that clients will monitor this and appreciate how much their pet is eating. Adjust feeding amounts according to changes in body weight. Give specific guidelines and recommendations for exact foods and feeding amounts. Suggest a defined limit on treats. Teach clients that they should use a gram scale to weigh foods rather than cup volume measurements, especially for smaller dogs and cats.

Most importantly, choose diets that set us up for success

Feeding a diet that provides a lower caloric density, higher protein and higher fiber level will promote satiety, reduce potential begging behaviors and may prevent weight gain. A critical time to assess diet and feeding amounts is at the time of spay or neuter. It is our obligation as veterinarians to educate our clients on the changes that have occurred with this procedure. We can put steps in place to keep pets healthy and at an optimal body weight.

Key factors of weight management success are compliance and follow-up for any recommendations made concerning diet 21-23

This means we must have continued interaction with our clients after recommendations are given to ensure they understand and are following our recommendations moving forward. Scheduled rechecks can enhance our ability to keep clients on track as well as build our veterinary client-patient relationship. Keeping in touch with clients often will greatly improve success in achieving our weight management goals.

Our goal as veterinarians is to support optimal health in pets throughout every life stage

Educating clients about weight management and choosing the best diet for the pet is part of optimal wellness care. We can proactively choose diets at the time of spaying and neutering that provide optimal nutrient levels such as protein and fiber to promote satiety, reduce begging and prevent weight gain, rather than telling clients to “Just feed less.” This intervention alone will reduce that pet’s risk of disease conditions associated with obesity, improve quality of life and potentially extend their life span by avoiding weight gain.


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This Education Center article was underwritten by Virbac.

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2 thoughts on “Rethinking “Just Feed Less” to Reduce Calorie Intake

  1. Spaying and neutering is no longer “advocated for all pets”. Those vets that do advocate for it are uninformed, old school, and protecting an ill gotten revenue stream. In fact, scientific data has shown and continues to show that spaying and neutering a healthy dog at any stage is highly detrimental to a dogs short and long term health, See the UC Davis study for one..

    Please stop making statements that can inform dog owners in the wrong way and put dogs at risk of severe health issues.

    This is one of many areas of veterinary practice that is out of touch with scientific data and reality.

    Spaying and neutering began in 1941 as a population control practice only. It was not put into practice for health reasons.
    Today, that reasoning is still present. That, and the fact that spaying and neutering created a new revenue stream for veterinarians that they simply don’t want to lose, continue to drive the promotion of spaying and neutering by veterinarians.
    It’s scientifically wrong, unethical, and driven more by the desire for financial gain.

    1. I whole heartedly disagree with you Marco. Cats and Dogs have far less health risks by being spayed and neutered. For females not being bred they are susceptible to devastating consequences of Pyometra, Mammary gland cancer, which both have a very high mortality rate! Males are at risk for Testicular and prostate cancer. These risks and suffering of the animal are absolutely unnecessary. And it must be worth mentioning the obvious, the millions of unwanted animals that suffer from being abandoned and are euthanized annually! And the behavior issues and frustration of our pet animals when they cannot mate, it is just BAD for them and their human families!
      I have been raising Dogs in multi pet households for 4 decades and use to think like you in the 80’s, 90;s, but WE do KNOW BETTER now! Every female and male dog I did not have sterilized died from one of those conditions listed above and it was devastating AND unnecessary for the animal and myself that led to very painful lessons. My sterilized animals now live healthy happier lives being spayed and neutered at the APPROPIATE AGE.
      The other part of this equation of pet health lies in larger part on pet owners. The majority of health issues for our pets post sterilization weighs on the pet owners them selves! I cannot express enough to pet owners, “stop loving your pets to death”!
      Just as we must set limits and boundaries to raising human children, we must practice the same for our pet children we raise. Stop FEEDING them to death! Our pets must be raised with the appropriate, and quality food in the correct amount, scheduled fed if they are unable to control the amount of food they eat on their own. As pet owners we need to be exercising our pets, all living mammals need regular physical activity to maintain health!
      So, pet owners I can only hope you do not think EVER that NOT spaying or neutering your pets is the better alternative!
      My three canine children of various ages are all in optimal body condition and very happy, healthy spayed! My almost 9 year old doodle had her annual physical examination and she is in top condition. The doctor quoted “I have not seen a dog her age healthier than most 2-3 year old dogs I see”
      Optimal health is not difficult to achieve and is far less costly in every way”