How Much Food Does Your Dog Really Need?

More than half of dogs in the US are overfed and overweight, but only 39% of pet parents realize it. My easy-to-follow formula takes the guesswork out of feeding your dog, so whether your pup is where he should be - or needs to slim down - you'll know exactly what to do for the best results.

feeding guide for pets

STORY AT-A-GLANCE

  • Over 50% of dogs in the U.S. are overfed and overweight, but only 39% of pet parents realize it
  • With so many overweight dogs around, pet parents now think too much weight = normal weight, but it’s crucial to understand that overweight and obese dogs are too heavy to be healthy
  • Use my easy-to-follow formula to calculate the number of calories your dog should consume each day to return to or maintain an ideal weight; just as important: ignore the feeding guidelines on commercial pet food packages
  • Once you know the right number of calories to feed, control those portions, monitor your dog’s weight, and make adjustments as necessary
  • A good guideline for how much drinking water your dog needs each day is between ½ and 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight
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Believe it or not, over 50% of dogs in the U.S. are overweight or obese. I say “believe it or not,” because according to a recent survey, only 39% of dog owners consider their pet too heavy.

Too many calories, coupled with low quality, biologically inappropriate, high-carb diets and lack of exercise are the reasons behind not only the epidemic of fat pets, but also the rapidly rising rates of degenerative diseases in companion animals.

Most dog lovers feel strongly that the lifespans of canine family members should be much longer. One of the most important things we can do to influence the quantity and quality of our pets’ lives is to never let them become overweight.

The sad reality is that many dogs are overfed throughout their lives, which is why it’s so crucial to know how much food to offer your canine family member.

Strategy No. 1 — Overcome Fat Blindness

To understand the quantity of food your dog should eat each day, you first must determine her ideal weight. Unfortunately, these days many pet parents don’t realize their dog is too heavy because being overweight has become the "new normal." Many people can no longer tell the difference between a fat pet and a normal-sized pet (which is also why they assume dogs who are naturally lean like most of sighthounds look underfed).

If you’re not sure about your own dog, look down at her from above. You should be able to see a tapered-in waist. If she's oval-shaped, she's probably too heavy. You should also be able to feel (but not see) her ribs as well as the bones near the base of her tail (except in the case of sighthounds — see link just above).

If she's obese, you'll see noticeable amounts of excess fat on her abdomen, hips, and neck. Also compare your pet to the body score chart I included in The Forever Dog book I co-wrote:

pet body score chart

The goal is a body condition score of 3. If you’re still not sure whether your dog is overweight, check with your veterinarian.

Strategy No. 2 — Calculate Your Dog’s Daily Calorie Requirements

Once you’ve settled on an ideal weight for your dog, you can use the following general formula to calculate how many baseline calories he requires each day:

                        Daily calories = Body weight (kg) x 30 + 70

First, convert his weight from pounds to kilograms. One kilogram = 2.2 pounds, so divide his ideal weight in pounds by 2.2. For example, if he’s 20 pounds with a body condition score of 3 (meaning he’s not overweight), divide 20 by 2.2. Your dog's ideal weight in kilograms is 9.1. Now the formula looks like this:

                                Daily calories = 9.1 (kg) x 30 + 70

And finally, it looks like this:

                                             Daily calories = 343

If your dog eats 343 calories a day, he’ll maintain his current ideal weight of 20 pounds if his daily activity level remains the same. If he starts getting more aerobic exercise each day (which benefits almost any dog, by the way), you may need to increase his calorie intake a bit.

But if for some reason he’s suddenly not getting the workout he’s accustomed to, it may be a good idea to reduce his daily calories a bit until he’s back to exercising at his former level.

If you’re calculating daily calories for an overweight dog, you must use the ideal weight (not the current weight) in the above formula to arrive at the right number of calories to feed for weight loss and maintenance at the new, ideal weight.

It’s important to routinely monitor your dog’s body for signs of weight gain, and weigh him regularly as well, either at home or at a veterinary clinic if he’s too large to weigh on a bathroom scale. If his weight starts to creep up, adjust those daily calories down.

If he below his ideal weight due to increased physical activity, you may need to increase his daily calorie intake as well. The above formula does not consider dogs burning lots of calories if they’re working hard for many hours a day (because most dogs simply aren’t). Older animals often lose muscle mass and require more calories to maintain their ideal body weight.

If your dog loses weight for no apparent reason, it’s important to make an appointment with your veterinarian for a wellness checkup.

Strategy No. 3.1 — Ignore Pet Food Package Feeding Guidelines

Most dog parents follow the suggested feeding guidelines printed on pet food packages, which very often isn’t the best approach.

These recommendations typically use overly broad weight ranges for dogs such as “under 20 pounds” (a 15-pound dog requires significantly more calories than a 5-pound dog), “20 to 50 pounds,” and “over 50 pounds” (some breeds tip the scales at well over 100 pounds and may need twice the calories a 50-pound dog requires).

Package feeding instructions also use wide serving ranges, such as “feed ½ to 1 ½ cups.” These suggestions obviously don’t consider, for example, a dog’s activity level, and they tend to be short on other important details, such as whether “feed ½ to 1 ½ cups” is a daily or per-meal guideline.

Strategy No. 3.2 — Portion Control

Once you know exactly how many calories to feed your dog each day, measure her food using an actual measuring cup and practice portion control — typically a morning and evening meal.

To keep your dog in peak metabolic health you might also want to consider intermittent fasting (feeding all your pet’s calories in a set number of hours a day, allowing the digestive system to rest the remaining part of the day).

This strategy has proven to be a very successful way for many species of mammals to maintain an ideal body weight throughout life. Another great alternative is to offer some of your pet’s daily calories in food puzzles or a snuffle mat to make mealtime mentally stimulating.

A high-protein, low-carb, nutritionally balanced, fresh food diet with the right number of calories, controlled through the portions you feed, and adjusted up or down according to exercise level and body condition, will help your dog reach and/or remain at an ideal weight.

It’s also important to drastically limit treats (be sure to include any treats you feed in the total daily calorie count). I recommend setting aside a small portion of food that can be rolled into tiny pea-sized bites and used as treats throughout the day. Other options: a few raw pumpkin or sunflower seeds, berries, frozen peas, or homemade treats.

Small amounts of other fruits (melons and blueberries, for example) as well as tiny cubes of low-fat cheese also make good treats. Just be sure to feed quantities that are no more than a one eighth-inch square and all treats for the day fit into a tablespoon for every 30 pounds of dog, especially if they’re trying to lose weight. Bone broth popsicles are an excellent treat for overweight dogs, as well.

Ensuring Your Dog Is Well-Hydrated

The amount of drinking water your dog needs each day depends on his size, diet, age, activity level, and weather conditions.

  • A good general guideline is that a healthy dog should drink between ½ and 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight each day. So, a healthy 65-pound Labrador Retriever should be drinking between about 33 and 65 ounces, or about ¼ to ½ gallon of water daily.
  • If your dog is eating a moisture-rich, species-specific diet, she’s getting some of her hydration needs met with each meal, so she may not drink as much from her water bowl. But if she’s eating primarily dry dog food (which I don’t recommend), she may actually need more than the average daily intake to compensate for the lack of moisture in her diet.
  • After a period of hard play or exercise, use caution when your dog rehydrates. If he immediately laps up the contents of his water bowl, rest him for a bit before you refill the bowl. If your dog is very active, it’s a good idea to have water with you when he exercises so that you can give him frequent short water breaks to keep him hydrated.
  • During the warmer months of the year, especially during summer, it’s important to monitor your dog’s water intake to ensure she’s adequately hydrated.

To determine if your dog may need more water, lift some skin at the back of her neck and release it. If he’s well hydrated, the skin will fall quickly back into place. The skin of a dehydrated dog will fall more slowly and form sort of a tent.

Another method is to check your dog’s gums. Moist, slick gums indicate a good level of hydration; dry or sticky gums mean your pet’s body needs more water.