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How Much Should I Feed My Dog? Our vet answers

How much should i feed my dog
(Image credit: Getty)

As a veterinarian, one of the most common questions I hear from clients is, “how much should I feed my dog?” It’s a natural question; clients want their pets to be healthy and veterinarians are a good source of nutrition information. Unfortunately, although it’s a seemingly easy question, there isn’t a simple, one-size-fits-all answer. 

Firstly, even when you pick from the best dog food available, each will have a different calorie content. Just like the quantity of food you need varies based upon the calorie density of your food (one cup of fresh spinach is much lower in calories than one cup of sausage gravy!), the same is true for your dog’s food. Second, every dog has a slightly different metabolism. Therefore, determining how much to feed your dog requires some combination of research, calculations, and trial and error. 

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Am I overfeeding my dog?

While it’s certainly possible to underfeed your dog, it is far more common for well-meaning owners to overfeed their dogs. Between your dog’s daily meals and dog treats, many dogs receive far more calories than they need to maintain a healthy weight. In fact, the majority of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese

While obesity is a problem in and of itself, it’s primarily concerning because it may lead to other serious health conditions. Obese dogs are more likely to develop arthritis, back pain, and other disorders of the musculosketal system. This happens for two unique reasons. First, overweight dogs are carrying extra weight on their bones and joints, increasing the pressure on these body parts. Even worse, though, is the fact that fat itself triggers inflammation within the body. In fact, carrying excess weight can interfere not only with a dog’s quality of life, but also decrease their lifespan.  

If your dog is overweight, talk to your veterinarian before beginning a weight-loss program. A significant reduction in calories should not be attempted without the guidance of your vet, because a sudden crash diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies. If your dog is currently at a relatively healthy weight and you’re hoping to prevent weight gain, however, read on to learn how to ensure that your dog is eating an appropriate diet! 

How to read dog food labels

Whether you're using dry dog food or wet dog food, every pack’s label should have a section titled “Feeding Guidelines.” This section tells dog owners how much of the diet a dog should eat per day, based on their pet’s weight. In general, this is a good starting guideline when determining how much to feed your dog. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that dogs are individuals. Like humans, individual dogs may vary significantly in their metabolic rate and their daily calorie requirements. Additionally, a recent analysis of dog food label recommendations found that many labels are not entirely accurate, often overestimating how much food a dog actually needs. The dogs involved in feeding studies are often far more active than a typical pet dog. Therefore, feeding the amount listed on the label may result in overfeeding your pet. 

Despite the limitations of this method, feeding according to the label recommendations can be a good starting point. Be sure to use an accurate measuring cup when measuring your dog’s food; “one cup” does not mean an 8 oz. drinking glass! Additionally, if you decide to go this route, you will need to be prepared to make adjustments. Feed your dog according to the bag’s label recommendations for a few weeks, then evaluate your dog’s weight. Make adjustments as needed, based upon your dog’s body condition. 

How much should i feed my dog

(Image credit: Getty)

How to calculate your dog's required calorie intake

There are a number of ways to calculate how many calories your dog needs to eat each day. Online calculators, such as the one found at the Pet Nutrition Alliance website provide a simple way to determine your dog’s required daily caloric intake. 

Once you have calculated how many calories your dog needs per day, it’s time to see how many calories are in a cup (or can) of your dog’s food. In many cases, you can find this information on the pet food label. If you see the phrase “kilocalories per cup,” realize that a kilocalorie is another word for a calorie. In some cases,you may need to do a bit more detective work to find out how many calories are in a cup of the food. Call the pet food manufacturer’s customer service line for an accurate calorie count. 

While this method is often more accurate than following the label recommendations, you should still be prepared to make adjustments to reflect your pet’s individual metabolism.

Monitor your dog's body conditions and make changes as needed

Regardless of whether you feed your dog according to label recommendations or calculated caloric requirements, you should carefully monitor your dog’s weight. A dog with an ideal body condition should have a nice tuck at the waist, when viewed from above or from the side. Additionally, you should be able to easily feel your dog’s ribs, with minimal fat covering. If your dog begins to lose his defined waist or you can no longer feel his ribs, he is becoming overweight. If your dog’s ribs, pelvic bones, or vertebrae become visible, he is becoming underweight. 

By monitoring your dog’s body condition closely, you can make necessary changes to his food intake that help him maintain a healthy weight. You may need to make small changes to his food intake based on his activity level, how many treats he is getting, and specific medical conditions. Many owners make seasonal changes to their dog’s food, because their dog gets more exercise and outdoor time in the summer than in the winter. Carefully monitoring your dog’s body condition and making appropriate diet adjustments can help keep your dog within a healthy weight range. 

Nutritional management is part of responsible pet ownership

While all of this may seem like a lot of work, you hopefully now understand why there is no easy question to the eternal question “How much should I feed my dog?” There are far too many factors that go into answering that question for a dog owner, a veterinarian, or any individual to ever provide a simple, off-the-cuff answer. However, by combining some planning with some trial and error, you should easily be able to determine the amount of food your dog needs in order to maintain a steady body condition.