Caloric requirement is influenced by many different factors: age, body size/weight (the larger the dog, the less calories per pound are needed to maintain weight), activity level, ambient temperature, metabolism and so on. Dog food manufacturers can really only take age, size/weight and, to an extent, estimated activity level into consideration for their feeding recommendations, since other factors vary too much and most owners are too subjective when it comes to assessing them.
Even the assessment of activity level is questionable – a rather sedentary person might think that their dog is “active” when all the exercise it gets are two quick walks around the block for going potty and some play time indoors, while someone else who owns a dog of the same breed/size takes it along as a jogging partner for several miles each day and then plays fetch with it in the back yard for another hour.
The ideal weight of a dog is assessed from the body condition. Some charts are available, such as for example provided by Purina, but going only by a visual aid isn’t helpful enough for many people.
Here’s a much simpler method that you can use to evaluate your dog’s body condition:
Curl your left hand into a loose fist. Don’t clench, just fold the fingers into your palm until they touch it. Run the fingertips of your right hand across the knuckles. If your dog’s ribs feel like this, he is underweight and you should increase the daily feeding portion.
Next, run your fingers across the back of your hand. If it feels similar to running your hand over your dog’s rib cage, he needs to lose some weight.
Now run your fingertips across the front of your fist, below the knuckles. This is how a dog’s ribs feel if he is at ideal weight.
Of course results will vary, depending on how thick a dog’s skin and coat are, but it’s a good rule of thumb. Highly active performance dogs are often even a bit thinner than what would be considered normal, but generally speaking it is healthier for a dog in the long run to be slightly underweight than overweight.
Normally I would recommend that people talk to their vet about their dog’s weight at the annual wellness exam, but in my experience it seems to be a sad trend that even many veterinarians aren’t honest about their patients’ weight, often because they don’t want to offend the owner and risk losing a client by telling them that little sweet pea is getting too many cookies and could stand to lose a few pounds.
I’d like to mention this link to the results of a study done by Cornell University:
If your dog needs to lose weight, I suggest reducing the daily feeding amount by about 15% as a first step. Don’t just go by eye and scoop, use a food scale and actually weigh out the daily portion, since volume measurements can be deceiving. Keep a diary and honestly assess body condition and weigh the dog once a week (your vet’s office will be happy to make their scale available!) to track progress. You don’t want your dog to lose a large amount of weight in a short time frame, slow and steady is much better.
Learn about better quality dog food at the Dog Food Project.
If you need answers and would like a personalized feeding and supplementation plan, please feel free to contact me.