A cup is a cup, oh yup, oh yup, unless that cup is the cup my vet talks up! What in the world can this mean? Depending on the situation, when we are asked or think about a cup, our answers will be very different. When we think of a cup of coffee, especially if the morning is a bit rough, a cup better be the size of a soda bottle. But if we think of a cup of espresso we think of a tiny cup. Either way, we just think of a cup.
Why should this matter to you as a pet owner? It matters because when it comes to your dog’s or cat’s weight and their overall health, the myriad of empty containers people frequently use to scoop their pet's kibble aren't the “cups” we veterinarians (and the back of the pet food bags) are talking about. This especially becomes a problem when a pet owner feeds the number of cups the pet food bag suggests — something we will discuss later — AND they are using the extra-large coffee cup variety. Let's look at how much food you should actually be feeding your dog, how often you should feed them, and ways to help cut the calories if your pet is overweight.
How Much Food Should You Feed Your Pet?
I feel I must get on my soapbox. We all look at the back of the food bag for the recommended feeding amounts. While this is a good start perhaps, we must keep a few things in mind.
First, the guidelines for feeding amounts are typically based on mature intact (not neutered) male dogs. Intact male dogs typically have a higher metabolism and can consume more calories than the average canine, especially a spayed or neutered one.
Second, the range for the weights for feeding is relatively wide on many food bag recommendations. For example, on my dog’s food bag the first range is 3–12 lbs. One should never feed a 3-pound dog anything close to the amount a 12-pound dog would eat. Here's a photo example showing a range of guidelines from another Preventive Vet team member dog's food — notice how the range gets wider for larger dogs:
You should feed based on what the ideal body weight is for your pet. For example, if your dog’s ideal weight is three pounds, start off feeding at the bottom of the range. Do not feed based on actual weight if your pet is overweight. If you find your pet is gaining weight at that amount, you may need to cut back on the amount of food (also be sure you aren’t giving too many treats – better to cut those back than your pet’s main diet!)
Third, you must remember that each dog is an individual and their body structure and metabolism is unique to them. For example, dogs that are working dogs have a higher metabolism (more muscling and activity) and are burning more calories than a dog sleeping on the sofa. They need more calories to maintain weight. This is why there are performance diets designed to meet their needs, and as an owner of an athlete you will need to provide the needed calories for that lifestyle. Therefore, you must feed your dog based on your dog’s uniqueness!
The Pet Nutrition Alliance has created an online calorie calculator for dogs that, along with your veterinarian's advice, can help you determine how many calories you should be feeding your dog daily. Check out their calorie calculator here.
Another example, my small dog’s bag of food suggests he should get ½–1 cup a day. My little porker is very lazy, hates walks, and loves food. Now granted, he gets plenty of treats for being a good boy, but I only feed him about ¼ cup of food per day. If he gets more he gains a lot of weight. Excess weight on him could cause back and joint issues. By measuring his food or any other dog’s food, I know what amount is enough for them to maintain weight. The best thing to do is consult with your veterinarian as to the proper amount of calories to feed your pet.
Why Measuring Your Dog's Food Matters
Why is measuring your pet’s food so important? It's important because the pet obesity rate in the U.S. (and in many other countries, too) has truly ballooned to epidemic proportions.
Obesity in pets contributes to other health issues such as osteoarthritis in dogs or potentially diabetes in cats. And while overfeeding a pet their regular food isn’t the only contributing factor, it certainly is a big one — and it’s one that’s typically easy to change.
There are HUGE advantages to measuring your pet’s food. For one thing, your pet will be much healthier. Animals at ideal body weight are easier for your veterinarian to examine and it also allows more accurate bloodwork results. Additionally, since medications are based on weight, you not only have to administer less medication (that is especially nice with cats!) but you also save money. Typically, heartworm prevention and flea/tick prevention are more affordable for lower weights. Lastly, you will save a bunch of money on pet food because you are not overfeeding your pet and therefore not going through a bag or can of food as fast.
How Often Should You Feed Your Dog?
The answer to this question is dependent on your dog’s age, size/ breed, activity level, and health issues. Below are general guidelines for how often to feed your dog, based on their age, size, or activity level. Note that there are some health issues that require more frequent feeding. Your veterinarian can advise you in these cases.
Remember — the recommended feeding amounts on the back of your dog's food bag are for the total amount of food each day, not for each meal. Make sure to portion out this amount across your dog's regular meals.
How Often Should You Feed Your Puppy?
Generally, it is recommended to feed puppies every 6–8 hours (three to four meals a day). Puppies are more active and therefore need more calories. In addition, puppies usually need to use the potty about 10–15 minutes after eating. By sticking to a regular feeding schedule it can help make potty training your puppy go faster and easier. Need an easy way to track your puppy's mealtimes and potty training schedule? Download this free Puppy Potty Log.
How Often Should You Feed Your Adult Dog?
Dogs over 5 months old should be fed every 8–12 hours. One main reason for this twice-a-day schedule instead of once-a-day meals, is that stomach acid and bile can build up in your pet’s stomach. If your dog does not eat, they will become nauseated and vomit.
How Often Should You Feed Your Senior Dog?
Senior dogs need to be fed as often as adult dogs, so at least twice a day. However, senior dogs are fed a smaller amount because they are less active and not burning as many calories. A senior-specific food formula is best, and it's always a good idea to consult with your veterinarian about what food and how much your senior pet should be eating to maintain a healthy weight. Speaking with your veterinarian is also important if your senior dog has any health issues.
How Often Should You Feed a Toy/Small-Breed Dog?
Certain breeds, such as Chihuahuas, or very tiny dogs are often fed more frequently in a day. This is because they can become hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) and need food to keep their blood sugar up.
How Often Should You Feed a Large-Breed Dog?
Giant breed dogs usually need to consume more calories to maintain weight. But you don’t want to overfeed at a single meal because this can increase the risk of bloat. For this reason, meals are spread out to two or three per day. Typically I do not recommend feeding more than 2.5–3 cups per feeding.
How Often Should You Feed an Active Dog?
Dogs that are athletes or highly active typically need a lot of calories. As with giant breeds, you don’t want to risk overfeeding at one single meal. Athletic dogs sometimes need to be fed up to four times a day. In order to prevent the chance of bloat or other gastrointestinal issues, do not feed your athlete dog within two to three hours of activity.
Remember how important it is to measure your dog’s food and feed them based on their best weight and body condition so that they have a long and healthy life.