We love our dogs and want to do what’s best for them. But when those big brown eyes come begging, can we splurge for them? Here’s a rough guide to how much to feed your dog, and how to tell if your dog is underweight, overweight, or just right.
First, make sure to start with the right food.
Every bag or can of food has an AAFCO statement in tiny print under the ingredient list that says who the food is designed to feed and how the recipe was analyzed. Start here.
1: How old is your pup?
Growing puppies need food labeled for growth. Small breeds (up to 35lbs) should eat puppy foods until they are 6 months old. Medium breeds (35-50lbs) should eat puppy diets until they are 9 months old, and large breed dogs should eat puppy food until they are close to a year old. Once your pet is spayed or neutered, switch to adult food (even if they’re younger than the ages above) because their metabolism will slow slightly and we want to prevent excess weight gain. Pregnant and nursing mothers need growth food to keep up with the demands from their puppies.
Adult and senior dogs should eat food labeled for adult maintenance only. If the food is labeled “for all life stages” it is too rich for all but the most active adults because it’s actually meeting the needs of growing or nursing dogs.
2. How is the food tested?
The AAFCO statement will tell you whether the food is formulated to meet the needs of… or if feeding trials were conducted to test the food. Feeding trials are usually preferable to formulation since they prove that none of the ingredients were toxic. Computer analyses can sometimes be manipulated to meet the nutritional requirements without being healthy for our pets.
Ok, now that we have the right food for your pet’s age and it’s been correctly tested by the manufacturer, it’s time to look at your dog. The best part is that you get to pet him or her all over!
Is your dog underweight, ideal, or overweight?
An ideal weight dog will have a waist when seen from above and the belly will be tucked up when seen from the side.
Run your hands along your dog’s spine.
Can you feel the vertebrae? Is the top of the back smooth like a table or is there a ridge in the middle?
- underweight: spine sticks up and lumbar spine may be visible
- ideal: spine is easily felt just under the skin with firm muscle on either side
- overweight: pressure is required to feel the spine, the back may be flat
Run your hands along your dog’s ribs.
Can you feel the ribs? Do you have to press inwards to get to them? Can you see the ribs from across the room?
- underweight: ribs are visible under the skin
- ideal: ribs are easily felt with the last few ribs visible (certain breeds like boxers will have more visible ribs at ideal)
- overweight: ribs are felt with some pressure, they are not visible as your dog moves
Last, feel for your dog’s hip bones (actually the wings of the pelvis). They are on either side of the spine at the level of the front of the hind legs. Are they deep down or jutting up sharply?
- underweight: tops of the pelvic bones are prominent
- ideal: pelvic bones are felt with gentle pressure
- overweight: firm pressure is needed to find the bones, and a fat pads are forming in the lumbar area and base of the tail
Most of all, remember that weight will change over time. Make a habit of feeling your pup’s body condition regularly, and adjust the amount of food and treats accordingly. Small changes make a huge difference when started early. My labrador retriever gains weight easily, so sometimes her meals need to be cut from 1 and 3/4 cups to 1 and 1/2 cups for a few weeks.
So, how much food do I give?
Most important – your pet needs less food than the label on the bag says.
A very general rule of thumb:
- 10lb dog – 1/2 cup per day
- 20lb dog – 1 cup per day
- 30lb dog – 1 1/2 cups per day
- 50lb – 2 1/2 cups per day
- 75lb dog – 3 3/4 cups per day
- 85lb dog – 4 cups per day
These numbers are for a food like Science Diet Adult, with 365 calories per cup. Please check your bag carefully. Some foods have almost double the number of calories per cup, so you will want to feed half as much.
There is an easy to use calorie calculator from the Pet Nutrition Alliance. You can put in your dog’s current weight, whether they are underweight, ideal, or overweight, and even search for your exact flavor of food. It even gives an allotment of calories from treats!
If your dog is overweight, we need to feed less to bring that body weight back in line. Please talk to your veterinarian for specifics, especially if your pet has a medical condition.
If your dog is underweight and you are already feeding the recommended number of calories, please talk to your veterinarian. There may be a medical condition preventing your pet from absorbing the nutrition he or she is eating.
If your dog is ideal, great job! Keep up your monitoring and stay that way!