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Nutrition for the holidays -- a time to stuff your stockings, not your pet

Posted: December 17, 2013 1:05 p.m.
Updated: December 18, 2013 5:00 a.m.

The holiday season is one filled with gleeful celebrations among friends and family. Often, these celebrations entail large holiday meals, festive desserts and snacks, and enough leftovers for a month’s worth of sandwiches. While we try to be cautious of our own health and nutrition throughout the season, it is just as important that we care for our pet’s nutrition as well—no matter how convincing Fido’s "begging" face is for the chocolate cake in the center of the table.

While you’re out grocery shopping for the perfect holiday meal is a good time to reevaluate the foods that you’re feeding to your pet. "Foods should be individualized for the pet, not chosen based on what one pet needs and then given to all of the other animals," says Dr. Debra Zoran, Associate Professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. "The key is to feed a diet that is complete and balanced."

For cats and dogs, both wet and dry foods are perfectly acceptable. As long as you know what to look for, the decision of which to feed your pet should be based on which they prefer. "Wet food has a high water content (about 80% water) and can also be high in protein and low in carbohydrates, all of which is good for cats," said Zoran. "Dry foods can be quite acceptable as long as they are high in protein (at least 40%), low in carbohydrates (less than 15%), and fed in meals, not by free choice on the part of the pet." Dry food for dogs is typically preferred due to its lower costs, especially when supplying food for larger dogs.

As for "all natural" or "diet" dog and cat foods, it is again most important that the food is balanced and has all of the necessary vitamins and minerals. "All natural pet foods are like commercial wet or dry (processed) foods in that you can't always be sure whether they are a high quality, highly digestible product that is complete and balanced and if they will be a good choice for your pet. The same considerations exist for diet foods," said Zoran. "In general, diet foods are fine if they are high quality and fed in the proper amount. However, there is nothing magical about weight loss diets; if you feed them too much they will still gain weight or at least fail to lose weight." Consulting with a veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist is important if you are unsure about the quality of the food you are selecting.

While we have all fallen victim to those big puppy dog eyes or soft, sweet meows from underneath the dinner table, it is vital that we are aware that some foods that can be incredibly detrimental to their health. "Chocolate, grapes, raisins, and onions are examples of common foods people eat that can have disastrous consequences for pets, such as seizures, kidney failure, anemia," Zoran said.

"In general, it is best not to feed dogs or cats anything spicy, fatty, or not in their typical diet," says Zoran. "However, small pieces of cooked meat or a vegetable can be okay. For example, feeding a small piece (it should not be more than 10% of their total diet) of cooked chicken thigh with no bones or skin is completely fine and a reasonable treat."

When the first of the year rolls around, fitness centers become filled with people beginning their New Year’s resolutions to get in better shape. But what about when our pets need to shed a little excess holiday weight to keep healthy? "Just like with us, weight gain is a combination of genetics, metabolism, what we are eating, how much we are eating, and how much we are exercising," says Zoran. "Any of these can have a major effect on body weight, so it is important to feed your dog or cat good food, the right amount of it, and keep them active. The ideal situation is not to let your pet get overweight – you can help prevent this by weighing them often and then adjusting how much food they are eating up or down accordingly, and asking your veterinarian for help if you have questions or concerns."

This holiday season, just remember that most of the holiday treats we enjoy are not good for our pets, so to be sure that Fluffy and Fido enjoy the holiday celebrations as much as we do, it is best not to share our holiday food. Instead, stuff their stockings with pet toys that will keep them active, thin, and healthy.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at vetmed.tamu.edu/pettalk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

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