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Your dog's nutrition is important for a healthy & happy life. petMD experts help you to know what to feed your dog, how much food to feed, and the differences in dog foods, so your dog gets optimum nutrition.
Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

Size Does Matter

September 21, 2012 / (7) comments

I love practical research. Don’t get me wrong, even seemingly esoteric studies can end up having great, if sometimes unforeseen, benefits, but when I see a title like "Size of food bowl and scoop affects amount of food owners feed their dogs," I rush to read the paper. An article entitled, "Array-based comparative genomic hybridization — guided identification of reference genes for normalization of real-time quantitative polymerase chain reaction assay data for lymphomas, histiocytic sarcomas, and osteosarcomas of dogs"… maybe I’ll get to that one later (but don’t hold your breath).

So about the scoop/food bowl paper — does size matter? You betcha!

Fifty-four dog and owner pairs took part in the study. Over the course of four visits, each owner fed their dogs a "normal" meal of kibble using a small bowl and small scoop, a small bowl and large scoop, a large bowl and small scoop, or a large bowl and large scoop, and then the amount they offered was measured. Statistical analysis showed that the mean "amount of food portioned using the small bowl and small scoop was significantly less than all other bowl and scoop combinations."

So, if you are trying to help your dog lose weight and/or are having difficulty maintaining his weight, switch to a smaller bowl and smaller scoop. You’ll still want to measure out the amount of kibble you are offering, but this study shows you might be more successful if you measure out the recommended amount, one cup for example, using a 1-cup measuring scoop and putting the food into a bowl that looks like it’s about to overflow in comparison to placing ½ of a 2-cup measuring scoop of food into an oversized bowl.

To explain their results, the authors cite the "Delboeuf optical illusion and the Ebbinghaus-Titchener size-contrast illusion." I guess even such practical scientists aren’t immune to technospeak.

A while back, I ran across another piece of useful research regarding canine weight loss (though I can’t find the reference and would love it if anyone could forward it to me). The gist of this paper was that exercise, at least at the level that most owners can provide on a routine basis, does not help dogs lose weight. This does not mean that exercise is not good for a dog’s mental and physical health, it absolutely is, just that when it comes to weight loss, results come from restricting calories.

So go ahead and walk your pudgy pooch; just keep him on his diet (and follow the small bowl/small scoop recommendation) when you get home.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Nestling Measuring Cups @ Swiss Miss

Comments  7

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  • Dish Size
    09/21/2012 11:12am

    It seems I read something awhile back about when humans eat popcorn at a movie. Regardless of container size, the same amount was uneaten. I believe it's also true about plate size at dinner and using a plate smaller than a standard dinner plate.

  • Measuring Accurately
    09/21/2012 02:24pm

    What is the correct conversion from cups to ounces? Or is there one? The accepted conversion is 1 cup = 8 ounces, but by volume three cups of kibble weighed about 18 ounces, or 1 cup = 6 ounces. For consistency, our pup with a target weight of 70 pounds gets 15 ounces of chow every evening (the scale is an inexpensive, electronic, postal scale), which is the recommended amount for this food, and she's doing well. Lean, but definitely not skinny, and her coat is good.

    Besides being OCD, have I got this about right? Using the scale certainly takes guesswork out of it!

  • 09/21/2012 06:32pm

    There is no one blanket formula for converting volume to weight or vice versa. The confusion comes from "ounces" being a measure of both weight and volume. Ideally, all labels would contain information about how much food to offer by weight and we would use food scales to measure out meals, but that isn't the norm today.

  • Measuring Accurately
    09/21/2012 05:19pm

    The pet food companies have a hard time sorting out what measurement means what, so the rest of us don't have a chance.

    Once I tried to tackle Royal Canin on this and they sent me a prepaid container to send back to them with what we considered "1 cup" of their product in our country. I never did hear back from them, nor did we receive compensation for our contribution to help them find answers. What I have seen since is a wide array of what might or might not be considered a cup of their food, and at the same time, every time an ingredient changes because their supply of ingredients has changed, the caloric count of their food seems to be going up. Luckily one of their other products is going down as far as caloric count, so we can still use the same type of ingredients for our grazing food. And that, of course, is contingent upon being able to find what the company considers the caloric count to be. They hide that figure well for good reason.

    When I say "grazing", I mean 18 crunchies every two hours for any overweight cat we have, using timed feeders so the cat isn't nagging. Eventually the cat's stomach reduces size and you can manage to free feed, but this will be an individual experience depending upon each cat.

    We managed to knock a major amount of weight off the last dog we took in. He started at 68 pounds and we dropped him to 40 pounds, using about 1/2 cup of the food we used, 4 times per day. The measurement was based upon calories in the food as we were also dealing with ingredient intolerances. Of course with the dog, regular exercise helped immensely, too. This was an hour walk per day for a dog of that size.

    The more often you can spread those servings out and reduce their size, the more the stomach will reduce in size. With cats this can move you back to free feeding, but I wouldn't say that dogs are as capable of self control.

  • Feed and exercise
    09/22/2012 12:40am

    I always use a salad plate rather than a dinner plate for myself. It DOES help with portion size. I give my dog his meals in a very small bowl, too. He is a sheltie so he needs to eat small portions.

    I also remember reading something about exercise not helping. It had to do with the fact that most people do not walk their dogs quickly enough to give them real aerobic training. If you watch most people dawdling along, it is not surprising. My sheltie loves his treats and he gets too many because he competes in obedience and rally AND does a large number of tricks, so he is always getting rewards. (He will offter tricks if he thinks there is a treat nearby.) So, I make sure he has plenty of 3-1/2 to 5 mile walks, with hills, at close to a 4-mile-an-hour pace. For a dog his size, this is strenuous enough to help. When you walk your dog for exercise, he should be in a "trot" not a walk. (Just remember not to overheat him!)


  • 09/22/2012 09:09pm

    Deb Zoran wouldn't agree with you, and neither do we when it comes to the importance of including exercise.

    There are also a lot of studies out there supporting the fact that any cardio exercise is good for your dog: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167587703000096 and
    http://jn.nutrition.org/content/136/7/1940S.long are a couple of examples. I don't know who would say that exercising your dog isn't an important component as that is a rather negligent comment to make, IMHO.

  • read more carefully
    09/22/2012 09:25pm

    I did not say exercise was not important. I indicated that I had read about the study, mentioned in the article, that had. I noted that I exercise my dog EVERY DAY vigorously and considered it essential.

    As I noted, the STUDY said that many people do not exercise their dogs vigorously enough to burn significant calories.

    Nothing I said was irresponsible.




Photo of Jennifer

... graduated with honors from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. In the years since, she has practiced veterinary medicine in Virginia, Wyoming, and Colorado. She is the author of several books about veterinary medicine and animal care, including the Dictionary of Veterinary Terms, Vet-Speak Deciphered for the Non-Veterinarian .

Jennifer also writes short stories that focus on the strength and importance of the human-animal bond and freelance articles relating to a variety of animal care and veterinary topics. Dr. Coates lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband, daughter, and pets.