the scientific study of pet nutrition by veterinary nutrition specialists and experts.

You Are What You Eat – Providing a Good Diet History

You Are What You Eat - Providing a Good Diet History
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Typically, when I ask pet owners what their cat or dog eats, they tell me all about the pet food – “it’s made with the best quality ingredients,” “it’s grain-free,” “it contains fruits and vegetables,” or
“it’s made with love.”  Or they tell me they home-cook for their dog and provide details about all the ingredients they use in their recipe – “organic”, “free-range”, “non-GMO”.  However, basing your decision on the ingredients is a mistake and I’ve previously discussed better approaches to selecting the best food for your pet .

Finding the best food for your pet is key to his health, but the commercial or home-prepared pet food is only one part of the story. And in some pets, it’s only a very small proportion of the overall diet.  Here’s how to provide your veterinarian with all the information she or he needs to take the best possible care of your pet and to enhance overall health.

One of the ways you can help your veterinarian or veterinary technician is to provide all the facts needed for them to have a full understanding of what your pet is eating and to be able to make the best recommendations to keep her in optimal health and to help treat diseases when they arise.

Here are some examples of why this dietary information is so important:

  1. The diet, treats, supplements, or other components of the diet can actually contribute to health problems. I’ve had patients eating a home-cooked diet that’s not nutritionally complete and balanced (most of them are deficient in multiple essential nutrients) and causes a nutritional deficiency which can be severe enough to cause bone fractures or seizures.  I’ve also had patients that are eating commercial pet food made by a small company with minimal quality control that causes deficiencies, such as B vitamins, or toxicities, such as vitamin D (see our post on pet food recalls).  Pet food (especially when it’s raw), treats, or rawhides can make a dog sick if they’re contaminated with dangerous bacteria like Salmonella or Listeria. It may not always be a problem with the food, but just a food that’s not appropriate because of an animal’s medical conditions.  An example is a cat with underlying heart disease that develops congestive heart failure because her diet is changed to one that’s high in sodium.  Knowing exactly what the pet eats can help to narrow down the causes of some medical problems.
  1. Complete information on the pet’s diet also helps me figure out if the overall diet is nutritionally complete and balanced – meaning that the pet is getting all of the essential nutrients that she needs. One way a diet can become unbalanced can happen is if the pet is getting more than 10% of her calories from treats, table food, or rawhides. These products don’t have all the nutrients a dog or cat needs so dilute out the balanced pet food and make overall diet unbalanced. Another sure sign of an unbalanced diet is a pet food that has on the label (usually on the back or side in very tiny font) “for intermittent or supplement use.”  Unless this is a veterinary therapeutic (“prescription”) diet, this phrase means the diet is not nutritionally complete and balanced and shouldn’t be fed as a major component of your pet’s diet. That means it should only be part of the treat allotment making up no more than 10% of the total calories in your pet’s diet. Not sure what 10% is? Calories for packaged pet treats should be on the label. The total number of calories from treats should add up to less than 10% of the calories your pet needs daily.
  1. Information from the pet’s diet history also helps me to know what to feed a dog or cat that must be hospitalized. This information helps to avoid intestinal upset and ensures she eats well during hospitalization, which is very important for recovery.
  1. Finally, this information helps me to determine if the pet’s diet is optimized. There’s not a single diet that is optimal for all dogs or all cats – it depends on your pet’s age, activity level, medical conditions, and individual variation.

Your veterinary healthcare team needs information not just about the pet food, but also about everything your dog or cat eats since that makes up your pet’s total diet. Depending on the individual pet, components of the diet may include:

  • Pet food. We don’t just need the brand but also the individual product and even the specific flavor.  There should be enough information that I could go to the store and buy the exact product.  Telling me you feed dry food “in the green bag” isn’t enough!  Copy the full name from the label or take a photo and bring that with you to your next appointment.
  • If you’re feeding a home-prepared diet, write down the exact recipe(s). It should be in enough detail that I could purchase the same ingredients at the store and cook it myself!
  • Commercial dog treats can make up a very large proportion of a dog’s diet (less common in cats, although I’ve seen exceptions).  Many commercial treats are very high in calories.  You should provide complete information about the brand, product, and flavor.  Again, a picture can be worth a thousand words.
  • Table food. Many dogs and some cats get table food.  Write down all the different “people foods” that you give your dog or cat, the amount, and the frequency.  No one is judging you – it’s critical information to have.
  • Rawhides or similar products. This includes bully sticks (which are bull penises), tendons, lungs, hooves, ears and other similar products.
  • Dental products – chews, treats, toothpaste, water additives should also be listed with the exact products, amounts, and frequency.
  • Dietary supplements. Be sure to write down the brand, product, and dose.  Since supplements are not well-regulated, they can contain contaminants or can be given at doses that cause serious side effects. Feeding multiple supplements can also cause problems due to overlapping ingredients building up to toxic levels.
  • Foods used to administer any medications your pet might be taking. Most dog owners and many cat owners use foods to administer medications – these also contribute to the overall calories and other nutrients in a pet’s diet.

The reason that all this information is needed is that it’s not just the pet foods that can be an issue.  Some of my patients have been taking dietary supplements that contained contaminants or were being given at too high a dose.  I’ve also had cats whose owners unknowingly gave them foods containing onion or garlic that can damage their red blood cells (this can also happen in dogs but cats are even more sensitive to these ingredients). Smaller companies may be less likely to meet all the criteria for high-quality pet food so their diets are more likely to be nutritionally unbalanced or have labeling that does not meet current guidelines. Finally, if your pet is eating a home-prepared diet, it is almost guaranteed to be nutritionally unbalanced unless it’s been formulated by a veterinary nutritionist and you are following the recipe exactly.

One easy way to ensure you collect all of this information to take to your next visit to the veterinary clinic is to fill out the diet history form from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association. Be sure to also check out the other useful Nutrition Toolkit.

Providing your veterinary healthcare team with this information can ensure your pet is getting the very best nutrition and help to keep him healthy!


Dr. Freeman is a veterinary nutritionist and a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. She is on the cutting-edge of science, with hundreds of articles in prestigious journals, speaking engagements at national and international conferences, and awards for her scientific achievements. However, she also is passionate about providing objective and accurate information on pet nutrition to veterinarians, pet owners, and other animal enthusiasts.

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