Common Pet Health Issues Affected by Nutrition: Part 1

“Let medicine be thy food and let food be thy medicine” — a quote attributed to Hippocrates, considered the father of modern medicine — applies just as much to our pets’ health as it does to ours. While a healthy diet is a powerful tool for protecting health, the appropriate food also can be used to help manage health-related issues. Your veterinarian likely recommends a specific diet for his or her patients with weight problems, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, diarrhea or urinary tract problems such as bladder stones — just to name a few common health issues that can affect our canine and feline companions.

Read on to learn more about two problems — obesity and diabetes — that can be directly impacted by a pet’s diet. In part 2, we’ll look at how urinary crystals and stones can be affected by food.


The most common form of malnutrition among American dogs and cats is excessive body weight. It’s a nationwide epidemic that affects more than 50 percent of cats and dogs according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. Obesity is more than a cosmetic issue; it’s harmful to your pet’s health. Overweight dogs and cats are at increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, joint and mobility problems, and some types of cancer. Plus, overweight pets often have a decreased quality of life that tends to be shorter than that of normal-weight pets.

For overweight pets, food is both the cause and the solution to the problem. Overfeeding, which often occurs when pets are fed “free choice,” is a common pitfall that pet parents need to guard against. Some pets naturally limit how much they eat, but others simply can’t, especially when the food is really tasty. That’s why many veterinarians recommend feeding portion-controlled meals at least twice daily and paying special attention to the number of calories your dog or cat eats.

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If you’re concerned that your pet is overweight, be sure to talk with your veterinarian. Not only can your veterinarian determine your dog’s or cat’s body condition, but he or she can provide specific recommendations on what food and how much to feed your pet for weight loss or maintenance. Many weight management pet foods are available, both as prescription and over-the-counter diets. These dog and cat foods are designed to provide all of the essential nutrients that pets require while reducing the number of calories eaten.

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Diabetes is a condition caused by a lack of, or resistance to, the hormone insulin, and is one of the most frequently diagnosed endocrine (hormonal) conditions in dogs and cats. According to Canine and Feline Nutrition written by Case et al., dogs are at an increased risk of developing diabetes if they experience recurring episodes of pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), have Cushing’s disease (overproduction of certain adrenal gland hormones) or belong to a specific breed. In cats, obesity is an important risk factor for diabetes, although other risk factors may include pancreatitis, Cushing’s disease, hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland) and genetics that may or may not be breed related. Risk factors shared by both dogs and cats include gender, lack of activity and age.

The primary treatment for diabetes is daily insulin replacement. However, which diet and how it’s fed play important supporting roles. The goals of diabetes management are to:

  • provide the nutrition a diabetic pet needs for moderate body condition
  • coordinate feeding times with insulin injections for blood glucose (sugar) control
  • manage coexisting diseases or complications of diabetes

common pet illnesses

A pet’s body weight and condition at the time of diabetes diagnosis will influence the veterinarian’s pet food recommendation. Typically, a diet for a diabetic dog will have a controlled fat content and increased amounts of complex carbohydrates and fiber. For a diabetic cat, a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet takes advantage of a cat’s unique ability to use a high percentage of food protein to make glucose in their liver, which provides a consistent, steady release of glucose into the bloodstream. You’ll want to work closely with your veterinarian to determine a food and feeding plan that’s best for your pet.

Many other health issues can be addressed through diet, although not necessarily treated by food alone. When dogs and cats develop health-related conditions that keep them from eating diets designed for healthy pets, that’s when they can benefit from specially designed foods. If you have any questions about your pet’s diet, be sure to discuss your concerns with your veterinarian.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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