8 things you need to know about AAHA’s Nutritional Assessment Guidelines

They say you are what you eat. This is true not just for humans, but also for our pets. Proper nutrition can help treat certain diseases and support our pets as they cope with illness or injury.

Because of the broad array of high-quality pet foods, offering a dog or cat proper nutrition requires little additional time or cost. Best of all, it will enhance their quality and quantity of life. To help veterinarians best support pet owners by customizing a nutrition plan based on each pet’s individual needs, AAHA worked with veterinary experts to create the Nutritional Assessment Guidelines for Dogs and Cats.

What you need to know

  1. Your pet has unique nutritional needs. Variations in size, breed, age, physical activity, and environment—as well as special circumstances, such as pregnancy or food allergies—greatly influence a pet’s nutritional needs. That’s why it’s so important to discuss what to feed your pet with your veterinarian at every visit.
  2. Diet and exercise go hand in hand. Your pet’s activity level directly affects how much they’ll need to eat. Whether your pet helps you train for marathons or prefers life as a couch potato, your veterinarian will want to know about how often he exercises, whether walking on leash, playing in the backyard, or hiking off leash.
  3. Being a “fat cat” isn’t a good thing. Obesity leads to many dangerous conditions, from heart disease to joint issues. If your veterinarian thinks your cat or dog needs to shed some pounds, ask for tips to help them safely do so.
  4. Learn to tell if your pet is overweight. Your veterinary team knows how to evaluate your pet’s body condition score and can share insights into how you can tell if your pet is a healthy weight. Generally, you should be able to see your pet’s hourglass waist when looking from above. When viewed from the side, your dog or cat should have a “tucked up” abdomen and minimal fat on their belly and ribs.
  5. You can measure success. It’s amazing what a difference using a traditional measuring cup can make. Ask your veterinarian to suggest an exact amount of kibble (or canned food) to feed your pet and measure accordingly instead of “eyeballing it” by using the common but inaccurate measurements of a “scoop” or “a few handfuls.”
  6. Environment has a direct impact on nutrition. For instance, if you have an indoor-only cat who likes to lounge around your home, try food-dispensing toys to bolster their physical activity. If you have dogs who compete for food, try feeding them simultaneously in separate areas of your home.
  7. Tell your veterinarian about any changes in activity, food intake, or behavior. If you start or stop a new sport or exercise regimen with your pet, their caloric needs will change. If you notice your pet eating more (or less), or having issues with chewing, swallowing, nausea, or vomiting, call your veterinarian as soon as possible.
  8. You are in charge. Your pet depends on you to provide the right nutrition and exercise. By following your veterinarian’s nutrition plan—and making sure everyone else in your home does, too—you’ll have the best possible life together.

What to ask your veterinarian about your pet’s nutritional needs

  • How can I meet my pet’s nutritional needs and help him maintain a healthy weight?
  • How many times a day should I feed my pet?
  • I have multiple pets in the house. How can I keep them from eating each other’s food?
  • Are grain-free diets necessary?
  • I’m concerned my pet is allergic to her food. How can you help me figure that out?
  • Should I use a measuring cup to feed my pet?
  • How many and what kind of treats can I give my pet each day?
  • My pet is really picky and I have to tempt him to eat using gravies, canned food, and/or table scraps. What do you think is going on?
  • What do you think of chew treats like antlers or bones?
  • I really like offering table scraps. What kind of healthy “people food” can I offer my pet?
  • Do you recommend using food puzzles and games?
  • How can I tell if my pet is overweight?
  • Do you recommend I just follow the feeding instructions on the bag of kibble or can of food, or can you help me tailor a feeding plan to meet my pet’s specific needs?
  • My dogs are competitive when it comes to food. How can I safely feed them?
  • I’m thinking of starting my pet on a raw, vegetarian, or vegan diet. Is this a good idea?
  • I want to make my pet’s food instead of buying it. Any suggestions?
  • I’m starting to exercise more with my pet. Do I need to feed him differently?
  • I’ve noticed a change in how much food my pet eats. What could this mean?
  • My pet is vomiting. How soon can you see us?
  • Now that my pet is over seven years old, do I need to make any changes to his diet?

These guidelines were supported by an educational grant from Hill's Pet Nutrition.