For most dogs, food is life…and some may even believe that life is food! Food is a wonderful path straight to your dog’s heart. Perhaps more importantly though, nutrition has long been established to be the cornerstone of health and longevity for dogs, starting from birth. The nutrients that dogs consume daily have a profound effect on their growth, internal body functions, weight, mobility, skin, and coat. Through proper diet and exercise, keeping your dog in the ideal body condition can help afford them the long, comfortable and healthy life that they deserve. Veterinarians commonly field the question “How much should I feed my dog?” Continue reading to discover tips on keeping your adult dog healthy and happy through their diet.
Selecting Food For Your Dog
Before diving into how much to feed a dog, let’s first talk about how to choose the best food for your pup. Walking down the pet food store aisles can be overwhelming, as shelves are stacked with brightly colored bags and delicious-sounding descriptions. What brand of dog food is best for your dog? What does it all mean? With so many options, how do you choose?
Since pet food labels can be difficult to read and decipher as a pet parent, the best way to certify that the diet you are considering for your dog has been proven as nutritious is to identify the AAFCO statement on the bag. These statements will indicate that the diet is formulated to meet or exceed the nutrient feeding guidelines for dogs, OR that feeding trials performed following AAFCO guidelines have proven (even better!) that the diet provides good nutrition. Also, many brands of dog food will use words like “organic”, “natural” and “non-GMO” and these are largely a marketing appeal to pet owners and do not have any proven benefits. Human diet trends tend to spill into the animal food realm too, so some buzzwords like “grain-free” and “high protein” might grab your attention but can have little, or even detrimental, effects. Check for that AAFCO statement and your AskVet veterinarians are always ready to assist with selecting a high-quality diet based on your pet’s needs too.
What are AAFCO Nutrient Profiles?
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) implements regulations and standardizes the recommended nutrient profiles for dog and cat foods. The National Research Council of the US National Academy of Sciences is the leading provider of nutrient recommendations for dogs and cats, and their publications formulate these AAFCO nutrient profiles. Board-certified Veterinary nutritionists are also constantly studying the effect of diets on animal health. Lots of smart people have studied this for decades and animals are now living longer than ever! Innovations in diet and feeding are, in large part, to thank for that!
An Important Note About “Grain-Free” Diets
One diet type that veterinarians are cautioning against at this time is “grain-free.” Unfortunately, some grain-free diets have been associated with a heart condition called Diet-Related Dilated Cardiomyopathy. While we don’t know how this type of heart disease happens, we do know that health problems related to feeding grains to our dogs are extremely rare. Until further research is completed, veterinarians generally don’t believe the possible rare health benefit of feeding a grain-free diet is worth the risk of a deadly heart disease. A balanced diet that includes grains is healthy and appropriate–without the risk of diet-associated heart disease.
Diets for Senior Dogs (ages 7+)
Just like puppies need special nutrients for growth, as dogs advance through their years, dietary and metabolic needs change and their bodies start to show the effects of aging. Although always a youngster in your eyes, your large breed dog will be considered a senior at the age of 7 years old, and small breed dogs can be considered seniors around the age of 8-10 years old! At this time in their lives, your dog’s metabolism changes and they may start developing health conditions that require different dietary needs. Decreased caloric content, additional omega-3 fatty acids as well as joint-friendly glucosamine and chondroitin are all beneficial changes found in many foods formulated for senior dogs. If your pup is approaching a birthday, ask your veterinarian if they recommend making the transition to a food labeled for older dogs.
Home Cooked Diets
Some pet parents are enthusiastic cooks and desire to prepare their dog’s meals at home instead of buying commercially available products in the store. While the devotion to their dog is very admirable, making homemade dog food for a pet daily is actually more difficult than imagined! As we mentioned previously, decades of research on animal health have led us to the nutrient profiles that commercial companies use today. Re-creating these into practical meals at home requires a variety of meats, vegetables, carbohydrate sources, vitamins, and additives, which can be quite expensive and time-consuming. Unfortunately, leaving out key nutrients (or overdosing on some of them) can result in serious illness to your dog. Our veterinarians can discuss your plans and might recommend consulting a veterinary nutritionist certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutritionists to formulate a diet appropriate and complete for your dog if you are considering this option.
In general, veterinarians do not recommend feeding a raw diet to dogs due to the public health risks to humans and animals commonly associated with the handling and consumption of raw meat. Under few circumstances are raw dog food diets recommended or do they show benefits. Raw diets should only be used at the direction of a veterinarian to address a specific medical issue and also strict precautions during preparation and clean-up should be maintained.
Figuring Out How Much To Feed
Just like the foods we eat, dog foods all have a different calorie count per cup of food. This means that there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for the number of cups (or cans) of food your dog needs per day. So, how do you know how much to feed daily?
When selecting a dog food type and portion size it is important to know the answer to this question: is my dog overweight? Fortunately, veterinarians are well prepared to help you assess this, as obesity is quite common in dogs. We have a very fancy formula for computing the Daily Energy Requirements of each animal based on their body weight, age, breed, and current body condition … and often we will put that formula to use when we come across a dog that needs a bit of a weight adjustment and weight loss program crafted. If you find yourself in need of recommendations for a diet for dogs that are overweight, your veterinarian is the best resource to guide you through the weight-loss process.
Thankfully pet parents with healthy dogs do not need to get that detailed with calculations and counting calories if their dog is maintaining an ideal weight already. Simply using the food package as a guideline is actually a great start! Each package of food should have a chart on the back (or online) listing how much to feed your dog based on their current weight. Start out by using a measuring cup and filling it to the recommended volume of food, and then serving it up! From there, make adjustments based on volume eaten (is food left in the bowl after every meal?) and satiety level (is your dog suddenly begging for food ALL the time?). Of course, if there are any changes to your pup’s energy level, stool consistency, or any weight gain or loss over time, a different diet may be more ideal. If things don’t seem to be quite right, reach out to one of our veterinarians for advice. Once you find a diet and volume that works for your dog, stay there! Dogs do best with a constant and unchanging diet…the more variety, the increased possibility of some uncomfortable and undesirable digestive issues arising!
*ANY time you change food brands or flavors, make sure to transition dogs slowly to their new food. See below for how to safely accomplish this transition.*
When evaluating portion size, it is also important to monitor any extra food your dog receives in the form of treats or table scraps as it can all add up to extra calories, and pounds too! Any weight gain over time usually calls for an adjustment of caloric intake, or perhaps an increase in activity and exercise. Sometimes weight gain in dogs, or weight loss too, can indicate health problems, like diabetes, thyroid disease, or Cushing’s disease, so it is important to have any unintentional weight gain or loss evaluated by your family veterinarian.
To make sure your dog is maintaining a healthy weight and not becoming too thin or too chubby, you can evaluate their Body Condition Score at home.
Transitioning From One Diet To Another
Changing from puppy to adult food, adult to senior food, beef recipe to salmon, swapping Science Diet for Royal Canin…there are times when pet parents will be switching their dog from one food to another. A word of caution when a change is on the horizon though––any time a diet is switched from one brand to the next, a slow transition over a minimum of 1-2 weeks is recommended, to avoid stomach and intestinal upset due to new foods. Although some dogs seem to be “garbage disposals,” most dogs will experience some degree of vomiting or diarrhea if their diet changes too quickly. They are just not adapted to varying diets like humans are; once you find a high-quality food they love, stick with it!
How Often to Feed Your Dog
And as far as the frequency of meals? There are several factors! Do you have a large herd of dogs competing for food? Is your dog “food motivated”? Do you have just one dog who eats just enough to keep himself functioning?
Twice daily feeding is ideal for most dogs, although some dogs prefer to take their meals once a day. Dogs that have pressure and competition from other dogs around them do tend to eat all of their food promptly when given. Some eat TOO quickly and will benefit from slow feeders and food puzzles to prevent them from inhaling their food (and promptly vomiting). If you have multiple dogs who are on different diets, be sure to monitor that everyone eats their designated food … sometimes they will make trade between themselves and swap out for their neighbor’s bowl instead!
Occasionally, healthy adult dogs will only prefer once-a-day feeding, or even skip a meal! As long as they are energetic, acting normally, drinking water, with normal potty habits, missing a meal is ok! Missing multiple meals, or seeing signs like vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, or decreased energy, can mean something is wrong, and that would be a good time to check with your veterinarian to see what the problem might be and if follow up care is needed.
Some singleton dogs that are not “food motivated” might want to free-feed through the day. Leaving a measured bowl of kibbles out for them to browse at their leisure is a fine alternative if it works for your family. Just be sure that you do accurately measure dog food portions daily, as free-feeding and a bottomless bowl can lead to obesity due to the constant availability of food.
Are Treats OK?
As we all know, dogs love treats–and we love treating them! How do you know what treats are healthy? It’s best to stick with products that are made in the USA, as there are more quality-control standards involved in the manufacturing process. Try to keep your pup’s treats to 10% or less of their daily calorie intake, or they might start to decline their regular dog food due to a tummy already full of treats. Too many treats can also cause obesity and associated health issues.
Expert Tip: breaking treats up into tiny pieces makes them last longer, seem like they are getting more, and all the while actually adding up to fewer calories!
Another thing dogs love? Chewing! Board-certified veterinary doggie dentists have created a list of recommended dental chew treats that combine your dog’s love of chewing with an easy way to maintain healthy teeth and gums at home. Any time you offer your dog a new chew treat be sure to monitor that they are indeed chewing it and not swallowing it whole (potentially causing an intestinal obstruction), especially that first time! Once you find chew treats that work for your dog, keep a stash handy for rewards and distractions.
Whenever you introduce a new treat, along with making sure they do not gulp it down in one piece, also watch for any signs of an upset stomach in case the treat doesn’t agree with them. If they have any diarrhea, vomiting, or seem uninterested in their food in the following days, it may be that the new treat is too rich for them. Reach out to AskVet or your family veterinarian for advice and guidance.
Next time you and your dog take a field trip to the pet store to replenish the food and snack bins, hopefully you’ll stride a bit more confidently down the food aisles armed with some new tips for deciphering a healthy and complete diet for your dog and how to feed it! AskVet and your family veterinarian are always wonderful resources for extra advice on the needs of your dog too. Happy feeding!
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Alexa Waltz, DVM
Dr. Waltz was raised near the beaches of Southern California but has spent her adult life living all over the beautiful United States while serving in the military and as a military spouse. She left California for the first time to pursue a career as a veterinarian at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine and graduated as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 2006. She was accepted into the US Army Health Professionals Scholarship Program during vet school and upon graduation spent her military years as a veterinarian in San Diego working for the US Marine Corps and US Navy Military Working Dog programs as well as caring for pets of service members. After her military service, she became a civilian veterinarian and continued as a small animal general practitioner at clinics in California, Rhode Island, Colorado, and Maryland. Dr Waltz loves to see her “in person” patients just as much as communicating with and assisting pet parents virtually on AskVet. Dr Waltz is also a Mom to 3 humans, 2 guinea pigs, and 1 Australian Shepherd and in her spare time she loves traveling, adventures, exercising, and doing just about anything out in nature!