(MNN.com) -- Before you pop open a can of Irish lamb stew or fork out a hearty helping of Chicken De-Lite for your beloved pet, you may want to stop and read the nutrition information on the food label more carefully.
Our love affair with oversized portions has trickled down to our pets, resulting in a mountain of veterinary bills for familiar ailments such as diabetes, heart disease and joint-related issues.
In addition to regular exercise, here are a few pet nutrition tips to help your dog or cat get the most out of that bowl of kibble:
Less is more: Pet food labels typically suggest a larger serving size than most pets need, said Dr. Edith Rogers, a veterinarian with Peachtree Hills Animal Hospital.
She noted that pet food companies conduct tests with working dogs that burn many more calories than household pets. To determine a more realistic portion size, record the number of kilo-calories per cup in your pet's kibble and call your vet for advice.
"If you are feeding treats, that will affect the number of calories," she said. "Lifestyle also is a huge factor."
Lifestyle also can play a role in how many times your pet prefers to eat each day. Rogers said indoor cats can drive owners crazy if they don't eat twice a day. The same applies to food-motivated Labradors, but small-breed dogs tend enjoy the call of the dinner bell once a day.
"A lot of dogs like routine and look forward to it," she said. "Our dogs are so much a part of our lives -- and they have become such family members -- that it has become a social thing."
Wet vs. dry food: If your pet is prone to periodontal disease, Rogers suggests feeding dry kibble. Canned food tends to glom onto their teeth and promote tartar buildup. Otherwise, there isn't a major difference between wet and dry options.
Instead, she said pet owners should look for food that features the AAFCO label. The Association of American Feed Control Officials establishes laws for labeling, manufacturing and distributing pet food in the United States so there is some degree of regulation.
It also pays to make sure the food is relatively easy to find, your pet likes it and there are no adverse reactions.
Read the label: In addition to the AFCO label, Rogers said that a quality protein should be the first ingredient for healthy dogs. The percentage of crude protein should fall between 21 to 28 percent, she said. Dog food with a protein content above 28 percent can be too rich and cause digestion issues.
For felines, she noted that the protein content varies based on lifestyle. Outdoor cats tend to get their protein from hunting which means they can do well with dry food.
Otherwise, the same rules apply regarding the list of ingredients. The fewer ingredients the better, and the first item should be a high-quality protein such as chicken or fish.
If your kitty has a little more junk in the trunk, Rogers said a high-protein and low-carb diet is the way to go.
Resist the urge to cave when they beg for potato chips, French fries or other calorie-laden treats that most humans should avoid. Instead, try a canned cat food; the higher water content will help your pet feel fuller longer.
Change happens: If your pet suffers from hot spots, itchiness or other skin ailments, a change of diet may deliver quick relief. Many dogs and have allergic reactions to chicken, beef, corn, wheat or dairy products.
"That translates into a skin condition," said dog trainer Zsolt Menesi of Frogs to Dogs who has seen his share of itchy and disobedient pooches. "An itchy dog is uncomfortable is not going to be open to the approach of another dog," he said. "Normally grain is the major offender."
To determine whether food is the culprit for your itchy pet, slowly introduce a new food with a limited protein and carbohydrate source over a period of a few weeks. It's often a less expensive route to allergy relief than skin tests or a lifetime of medication.
Andrew Zbeeb, owner of Frogs to Dogs, added that a diet change typically complements his company's approach to behavior modification, particularly for itchy dogs.
"I don't want to walk around with burning skin all the time," he said. "I don't think you would be able to teach me much in a classroom."
Raw food diet for dogs or cats: Some pet owners completely forgo commercial kibble and opt for raw. After success with their pets, Menesi and Zbeeb are proponents of this approach.
When Ubu, Menesi's Labrador retriever, suffered from hot spots, flea allergies and nearly daily seizures, veterinarians gave him two choices: conduct an allergy test or change Ubu's diet. After reading and researching raw diets, Menesi took the latter route.
"It's not like his seizures went away altogether, but they went to once or twice a year and were much milder," Menesi said of Ubu, who lived to be 16 years old. "He had a quality of life and could move around well until the day he died."
Preparing food at home for your dog or cat takes more time and energy, but Zbeeb noted that raw diets typically cost the same as premium pet food. If you want to pursue this option, he and Menesi suggest researching the topic and consulting a holistic veterinarian for guidance.
Before you schedule a visit, research Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF) on the internet or check out books on the topic.
Rogers also noted that pets on raw diets tend to have more fecal bacteria, and the risk of salmonella, E. coli or Clostridium. This is a major factor if you have small children in the house. Properly balancing your pet's diet also requires greater care.
"Just feeding your dog raw steak is not going to give them all the nutrients," she said, adding that pet owners need to understand which nutrients are necessary. "Get educated on all the nutrients; some supplements you can order online."
Go green: Dogs will eat just about anything, including shoes, socks and the occasional iPhone. With the exception of grapes, raisins, onions and night shade plants -- fruits and veggies will help stretch your pet's food.
"Green beans make good treats for overweight dogs because they are low-calorie and a little bit sweet," Rogers said. "Broccoli is another good option."
While sweet veggies are good, she said to avoid the temptation of feeding table scraps. Fried, salty and sweet foods can irritate your dog's digestive system. Table food also may cause dogs to reject their kibble or worse -- beg incessantly for what's on your plate.
Good food gets results: Instead of encouraging bad behavior, Zbeeb and Menesi suggested ways to modify a pooch's attitude with treats.
Dogs with a short attention span typically will sit up and take notice when you lure them with steak, baked chicken or hot dogs, Menesi said. Just be sure not to provide too much food as praise.
"For more secure dogs, commercial training treats are good enough," Menesi said. "I suggest natural, freeze-dried treats with very short ingredient list."
Food also can be used to help dogs overcome aggression or fear. Offer treats and praise at the same time, and the pet will eventually associate getting treats -- and praise -- with good behavior.
"Once the behavior is understood by the dog, replace treats with everyday activities important to the dog," Menesi said.
Proper nutrition can help your pet live a longer and happier life, but it can't cure everything. A finicky feline will remain finicky, and bad dogs simply have more fun. Menesi learned that lesson with his 16-year-old pooch, Ubu.
"He was not a pleasant dog," Menesi said. "But he lived a good life."
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