Maintaining a healthy weight and lean body condition are among the most important, and accessible things you can do for your dog’s long-term well-being. And managing weight is all about knowing exactly how much food your dog should eat each day. Here’s why precise portions are so important, and how to figure out how much to feed.
A big problem (that’s easy to overlook)
The majority of dogs in the U.S.— 56%—are overweight or obese. For a dog, being overweight comes with significant health consequences as it’s linked to a ailments including arthritis, chronic kidney disease, bladder/urinary tract disease, liver disease, diabetes, heart failure, high blood pressure, and cancer.
And here’s where your dog’s weight can sneak up on you as a significant health issue: it doesn’t take many extra pounds to start seeing negative effects. As Dr. Ernie Ward, DVM, CVFT, and founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) tells us, there’s often a gap between what pet owners think is “normal” and what a healthy weight actually is. “In human terms, we think we just need to drop five pounds,” says Ward. “Well, the amount of physiological impact of a few pounds is much, much greater and more concentrated in pets than in people. We think, a few pounds off my Lab; what could the consequence of that be..? But the consequences are that Lab’s hips are deteriorating, it’s causing damage to the kidneys, it’s probably causing high blood pressure which is causing a constellation of problems, and it’s increasing cancer risk.”
Studies have shown that being overweight was associated with lifespan reduction of two-and-a-half years. Conversely, overweight dogs may benefit from even just slight weight loss; one study showed that osteoarthritis can improve with a weight loss of just 6%. Read more about obesity and how to help your dog lose weight here.
Why it’s key to get daily calories right
Dr. Ward and other experts agree—weight loss begins and ends at the food bowl for dogs and cats. Exercise is important, but even an active dog will gain weight if consistently overfed.
Given the outsized importance of diet, and the slim margins between an ideal weight and being overweight, portion accuracy is critical. To get accurate, you need to know how many calories your dog really needs each day. Like many experts, Ward cautions against using the “cup” or “scoop” guidelines on most commercial dry dog food packages to determine how much you’re feeding. The parameters, which are based on adult dogs for all life stages, are far too broad to accommodate every dog’s needs. For example, Ward says, spaying or neutering a dog may reduce their energy requirement by 20-30%. “So already, if you’re feeding according to guidelines you’re overfeeding a pet who is spayed or neutered,” he says. “I see so many pet owners say ‘I’m feeding exactly what they say on the bag,’ and it’s like ‘no, that’s too much.’”
How to calculate your dog’s daily caloric intake
If you’re not feeding pre-portioned fresh food,, there are many tools online to provide rough feeding guidelines based on weight and breed (you might start by consulting the guide published by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention).
For at-home calculating, you can use the Resting Energy Requirement (RER) formula. Take your dog’s weight in kilograms, multiply by 30, and add 70 (or, take their weight in pounds, divide by 2.2, multiply this figure by 30 and add 70). You can then factor in a metabolic energy requirement (MER) depending on things like health, whether they’re spayed or neutered, etc.
Typical MER factors:
Weight loss–1.0 x RER
Neutered/ Spayed Adult–1.6 x RER
Intact Adult–1.8. x RER
You can find a MER multiplier table here.
These tools provide an estimate, but every dog’s metabolism is different, so be sure to keep monitoring your pet’s weight, and speak to your veterinarian about your dog’s requirements.
How a fresh-food plan takes the guesswork out of precise portions
You can also sign up for a fresh-food plan (like the ones we offer customers of The Farmer’s Dog). A plan like this makes it easy to determine the correct total caloric intake and food portions based on your dog’s very specific requirements, and also makes it easy to adjust daily calories based on changing weight-management needs.
When you sign up for a plan, we ask for several pieces of information about your pet. The more we get to know your dog, the better we can determine the right recipe and plan for them. We use the information you provide to calculate a baseline recommendation for your dog’s daily calorie requirements, also known as their daily portion. Since every dog, and metabolism, is unique, we use this as a starting place, and are always on hand to help with any necessary adjustments.
Here are the elements that go into our calculations and how they help us determine your portion:
Your dog’s age: Age can affect how much food your dog needs. Puppies and younger dogs may require more calories as they use some of that energy just in the process of growing! Dogs’ metabolisms also slow down as they age, just like ours do—they may require less energy to function and burn fewer calories. They may also be exercising at a less intense pace than before. At around age 7, depending on the breed, you may need to re-examine your dog’s caloric intake.
Whether or not your dog is neutered/spayed: This often gets overlooked but when a dog is spayed or neutered it can reduce their energy requirement by up to 30%.
Your dog’s weight: Weight provides a starting place for determining how many calories we recommend. Once we have that starting point, we’ll use the other information you provide to get even more precise about our portions. Your dog’s body condition is a key factor we use to adjust and maintain the right amount of food as your dog grows and changes.
Your dog’s breed: Some dog breeds require more or less energy than others. Smaller breeds can have a higher metabolism than some bigger dogs and require slightly more calories per pound. Some breeds are also more genetically predisposed to obesity, including Labrador retrievers, Shetland sheepdogs, pugs, Basset hounds, dachshunds, Cavalier King Charles spaniels, and beagles. And, if you have a giant breed puppy, it’s important that they don’t grow too fast.
So, if you know your dog’s breed, it helps provide that much more insight to help us determine the ideal plan.
Your dog’s body type/condition: Body condition is a crucial measurement of your dog’s health. While we already know your dog’s weight, getting a picture of their condition is important, because every dog is different, and has different dietary needs. One 20-pound dog might be rail thin, and another might be chunky, and this is vital information when it comes to determining portion sizes. When you visit your veterinarian, they will assess your dog’s body condition by sight and touch using something called a Body Condition Score. Using a 1-5 or a 1- 9 -point scale that ranges from too-skinny (1) to obese (9), they will determine whether your dog needs to lose, maintain, or gain weight.
It’s important, and easy, for you to keep an eye on this body condition over time.
Read, and watch, more about the simple test you can use to track body condition here.
Your dog’s activity level: With very few exceptions, all dogs should get a minimum of 30-60 minutes of exercise per day. But as with all things dog and human, one size does not fit all. Activity level can be a reflection of a dog’s breed, their personality, and your lifestyle. If your hobby is hiking, and your dog is always along for the adventure, they may need some extra fuel; if they’re a senior who’s happy to make it a few times around the block, it’s important to not let their weight creep up.
One thing to keep in mind is that, again, even a dog who’s getting a good amount of exercise will gain weight if they’re being consistently overfed. The biggest factor in weight management is what’s in the food bowl.
Your dog’s “extras” (treats and scraps): Treats seem like they don’t count, but they can add up. Most experts (including us!) advise that treats should make up no more than 10% of your dog’s daily diet. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what 10% really looks like, and that’s another reason calorie-awareness is so important. It’s very easy to feed four or five of your dog’s favorite treats, or a few tablespoons of peanut butter, in the course of training (or just rewarding extreme cuteness). But if you know your dog should eat 400 calories a day, and the treats are 40 calories each… You can see how a handful of treats is adding too many calories, and, potentially, too much weight over time.
Visit The Farmer’s Dog to build a precisely portioned plan for your unique dog.