Your Pet's Nutrition Needs

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on August 20, 2022
3 min read

Your pet may love to eat food fresh from your plate. But just because they like it doesn’t mean it’s good for them.

Those table scraps could lead to extra pounds on your pet. More than half of all dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese.

Cats and dogs have calorie needs that vary. For example:

  • A 10-pound cat needs about 200 calories a day.
  • A 50-pound dog needs 700 to 900 calories.
  • Larger dogs may eat 1,350 calories or more.

A balanced diet needs the following things to help keep your pet well.

Dogs tend to prefer foods high in protein. And cats are descended from hunters, so they’re natural carnivores.

Protein is important for cell growth, muscle repair, and general body maintenance.

Animal-based proteins have all the essential amino acids pets need, including:

  • Arginine
  • Methionine
  • Histidine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Isoleucine
  • Threonine
  • Leucine
  • Tryptophan
  • Lysine
  • Valine
  • Taurine

Taurine is key for cats. They need it for their vision, hearts, and to be able to reproduce. Taurine is found only in animal-based proteins. A cat’s digestive system breaks down animal-based proteins and absorbs nutrients from them.

Dietary fats come from animal fats or the oils of a plant seed. They’re the biggest source of energy in your pet’s diet. Per gram, fats have more than twice as much energy as protein or carbohydrates.

They provide essential fatty acids, which a dog or cat’s body does not make on its own. Fatty acids, such as omega-3s, are needed to:

  • Keep skin and fur healthy
  • Produce some types of hormones
  • Absorb vitamins
  • Insulate the body
  • Protect organs

Plus, fats make your pet’s food even tastier (to them, at least).

Carbohydrates deliver energy, help maintain digestive health, and affect reproduction. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that affects the bacteria in your pet’s intestine.

For your pet to get the biggest benefit from fiber, the fiber should be fermentable. Fermentable fiber can be found in wheat, rice, or vegetables.

High-fiber foods aren’t good for young cats and dogs that are still growing. Their energy needs are high, so their diet should have more fat and protein.

Dogs and cats must get vitamins and minerals from their diet. If you feed your pet a balanced diet of protein, fat, and carbs, they’ll get everything they need.

Vitamin supplements usually aren’t needed unless your vet prescribes them to treat a vitamin deficiency. In fact, an overload of vitamins can cause health problems. For instance, too much vitamin A can lead to brittle bones and joint pain. And too much vitamin D can cause overly dense bones and kidney problems.

Cats and dogs also get essential minerals from their diet, including:

  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Magnesium
  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Chlorine
  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Zinc
  • Manganese
  • Selenium
  • Iodine

Calcium and phosphorus are important for healthy bones and teeth. Magnesium, potassium, and sodium are a key part of muscle health.

About 60% to 70% of your pet’s body is made of water. Without enough of it, your pet could get sick or die.

Your pet needs access to fresh, clean water at all times. Some, but not all, of the water they need comes from their diet.

Cats and dogs have different thirst levels. Dogs are thirstier when they’re active, so make sure you have water for them as they exercise. On warm or hot days, dogs may drink twice as much water than on a cool day.

You can tell if your pet is overweight at a glance. Is there a waist -- a dip between their rib cage and thighs -- that you can see from the side and when looking at them from above?

Or you can use this touch test: Run your hand along your pet’s backbone and ribs. Can you feel the bones without pressing down? If not, your dog or cat may be carrying some extra pounds.

Exercise is a great way to help your pet slim down. Talk to your vet about a plan to boost your pet’s physical activity. For a cat, that may mean more playtime during the day. For a dog, that may mean running at the dog park or longer walks during the day.

And all that play will be good for you, too!