As I mentioned in a previous post, "What should I feed my dog?" is probably the most common question that veterinarians hear in practice. The next most frequent question — I’d put money on it — is, "How much should I feed my dog?"
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. A dog’s caloric needs depend not just on his size, but on his metabolic rate, the amount of exercise that he gets, and even the temperature of his surroundings. Add to this the fact that different foods can have wildly different caloric densities, and you can see that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. This does not mean, however, that owners are without any resources to help figure out how much to feed their dogs.
As a starting point, use the feeding guide on the dog food label. You’ll see something along the lines of, "for dogs between 51 and 75 pounds, feed 2 ¼ to 3 cups per day." This gives you a ball-park figure, but the ranges are usually pretty large in order to accommodate for the needs of different individuals within a certain weight range.
While you are taking a look at the label, make sure your dog’s current food is providing him with the high quality ingredients and balanced nutrition that are appropriate to his lifestage. Quality is just as important as quantity when it comes to feeding dogs well. petMD’s MyBowl tool can help you determine whether your dog’s current food is meeting his needs, and can also be used to compare foods if you think he’d be better off eating something different.
Once you’ve picked a nutritious food and used the back of the bag to come up with a starting point on how much to feed, assess your dog’s body condition to narrow in on what the correct amount will be.
Several different systems are used by veterinarians to assess a dog’s body condition score, but what is most important for owners to recognize is what an ideal canine body condition looks like. Dogs that are at a healthy weight:
- Have an "hourglass" figure when looked down upon from above. The abdomen should be narrower than the chest and hips.
- Are "tucked up" when looked at from the side. This means that a dog’s chest is closer to the ground than his belly when he is standing.
- Have ribs that are not readily visible but are easily felt with only light pressure.
If your dog is already at an ideal body condition, offer an amount of food that falls in the middle of the range recommended on the bag. If he’s a little thin, use the bigger numbers. And if he’s a little "stout," use the smaller ones. Once every two weeks or so, reassess your dog’s body condition and adjust how much food you offer accordingly. When he has an ideal body condition score (i.e., he’s not too thin, not too fat), you can use monthly weigh-ins in addition to body condition scoring to keep him right where he should be.
If your dog needs to gain or lose a lot of weight, talk to your veterinarian. He or she can rule out any health disorders that might be to blame for your pet’s condition and put together a plan specific to the needs of your pet.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Image: EraPhernalia / via Flickr