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Like humans, dogs and cats eat different foods throughout their life stages. Puppies and kittens, for example, need food with a higher protein level and calorie count to help them grow, according to Jennifer Freeman, DVM, PetSmart resident veterinarian and pet care expert. When your pets reach seniorhood — around age seven for both cats and dogs — they may need to switch to a senior diet, which tends to contain fewer calories and more fiber content, said Freeman.
But age isn’t the only factor that can affect your pet’s diet. Weight, gastrointestinal issues or a dull, flaky coat may signal that it’s time to consider a new type of food. It’s important to introduce your dog or cat to a new diet gradually and with guidance from your vet, explains Jessica Romine, DVM, DACVIM, small animal internal medicine specialist at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Southfield, Mich.
Below are three signs to look out for if you’re thinking about switching your pet’s food.
1. It could be time to switch your pet’s food if your pet needs to gain or lose weight.
An estimated 60 percent of cats and 50 percent of dogs in the U.S. are overweight or obese, so chances are your pet needs to lose weight rather than pack on some pounds. It’s not always easy to tell if your pet could afford to lose a few, but there are some other signs that can tip you off. One important factor? The waist. “Most people don’t know what a normal cat should look like,” says Romine. “But cats should have waists, too.” The vet says you should be able to feel your pet’s ribs through its coat, and when you look down at them, they should have an hourglass shape — just like a person.
For some overweight pets, you may want to switch to a new food entirely; foods with “light” or “healthy weight” labels usually have an increased fiber content to help the dog or cat feel fuller, and a varied protein-to-fat ratio, Romine notes. Another option is to feed them less of the food they currently eat, Freeman suggests. “Make sure you’re eliminating table scraps and high-calorie treats like dog biscuits,” she says.
It’s important to figure out what your pet’s ideal weight is as you’re helping them to lose. Romine advises working with your vet to get the right number, and if you’re following the portion guidelines often printed on food labels, to feed them the amount associated with the weight you want them to be, rather than the weight they currently are.
Food isn’t the only factor that can impact your pet’s weight. Romine stresses the importance of exercise in keeping your pet healthy. For cats, just 10 minutes of indoor play each day can make a difference. For dogs, know that letting them out in the back to do their business is not enough. You’ll have to exercise with your dog to really get them moving.
In the case that your pet needs to gain weight, you’ll be able to tell if the animal’s ribs, vertebrae and pelvic bones are visible from a distance. “This may signal the need to increase their food intake,” says Freeman. Your vet will be able to help assess this.
2. It could be time to switch your pet’s food if your pet is showing signs of an allergy.
“If your pet’s coat is looking dull and flaky, it may mean it’s time to switch to a diet containing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to bring your pet’s coat back to life,” says Freeman. This condition isn’t necessarily a sign of an allergy, but a diet lacking in nutrients. Freeman recommends consulting your vet before making this switch.
If your pet is scratching a lot, it’s quite possible they are experiencing a food allergy. This is something you’ll want to examine with the expertise of your vet, Freeman says. “Veterinarians can recommend either a prescription diet or a low-allergen diet that can help determine if food allergies are the culprit,” she adds. You’ll want to cut out any table scraps, people food and treats to reduce the amount of variables in your pet’s diet while you’re trying to identify the allergen.
When dogs have allergies, Romine says the vast majority of the time, the culprit is the protein source. “Ninety percent of the time, the allergy is to chicken, beef, fish [or some other meat] in their food,” she says. “Switching the protein source can often alleviate the allergy.”
You should know that it could take some time to figure out if your pet is allergic to their food. “We caution people to rapidly switch to different foods quickly,” says Romine. “Especially for skin allergies or itchy ears, it takes six to eight weeks to be able to say if the diet was the culprit or not. It takes a while for the allergen to get out of the [animal’s] system.
3. It could be time to switch your pet’s food if your pet is experiencing gastrointestinal issues.
It’s often pretty easy to tell if your pet is having tummy issues — the proof can appear in the smell or consistency of their poop. “GI issues can be the result of food intolerance,” says Freeman, who advises consulting with your vet to determine the best course of action — whether that’s “switching to a different dog food brand or switching to a sensitive stomach diet.”
So, how do you switch your pet’s food?
If you and your veterinarian agree that it’s time to switch your pet’s food, you’ll want to do so gradually. Both Romine and Freedman recommend mixing the new food with the pet’s old food to prevent any issues. “Slowly mixing is important, especially if you’re going from grain-free back to grains,” says Romine. “If you’re introducing an entire new food group, like grains, you have to let the body adjust back to it again. “If you go too fast, [your pet] could have flatulence or [irregular] stools.” If this happens, your pet isn’t necessarily allergic to the new food, it may just need time to adjust.
If you are changing your pet’s food and you’re finding they’re refusing to eat it, Freedman suggests mixing their old food in for a longer period of time. This will “help them transition to the new flavors.”