How Much Should I Feed My Dog?

Pet care & safety
lab holding food dish in mouth

Determining how much food a dog should eat can be tricky for a pet owner. From a veterinary standpoint, the amount of food a dog eats per day should be based on his ideal weight and the amount of calories an average dog of that weight needs per day.

A Healthy Weight for Dogs

Normally, your veterinarian will perform an exam and assess your dog for his ideal, or healthy, weight. If you want a general idea of whether your pet’s weight is normal, you can use the following tricks:

A pet at a healthy weight should have ribs that are easy to feel but not too prominent. For comparison’s sake, if you make a fist and lightly run your finger over the top of your own knuckle bones (the ones that connect your fingers to your hand), and that is what your dog’s ribs feel like, he may be too thin. If you flatten your palm and run your finger over the tops of your knuckles, this is more what a dog’s ribs feel like at a healthy weight. If you turn your palm over and run your fingers over the knuckle area (you should barely be able to feel them), and this is what your dog’s ribs feel like, he may be overweight.

Another way to measure general weight is to look at the top of the dog and ensure he has a waist, meaning his body tapers inwards after the ribs but before the hips. You can also look at him from the side and see that the belly region tapers upwards (isn’t as wide) compared to the chest. Dogs that have little to no tapering or shape change from the ribs to the hips are likely overweight.

Every breed is going to be a little different, so it is important to use these measurements as a general idea. If your pet doesn’t seem to be at a healthy weight, have your vet give them a check up to be sure.

How Many Calories Does a Dog Need Per Day?

Assuming your dog is at a healthy weight and activity level, you can use a formula to get an estimate of the amount of calories (also called kilocalories or kcal) your dog needs per day:

Calorie (kcal) needs = 1.6 [70 x (weight in pounds ÷ 2.2)0.75]

Basically, a healthy, 10-pound dog with an average activity level will need roughly 350 calories a day to maintain his weight. This amount is only an estimate and should be based on the dog’s needs - if he is overweight, he will need less calories. If he is a very active dog, he will need more. If this is a pregnant or nursing dog, she will need much, much more. Sick pets, such as those with cancer or kidney disease, will likely need more calories as well. Feeding puppies gets a little complicated because of their fast growth rates. Talk to your veterinarian for more information, because you don’t want to accidentally over- or under-feed your pet.

Calories in Dog Food

Once you figure out your dog’s ideal weight and the appropriate numbers of calories per day, you have to figure out how many calories are in the dog food you plan to feed. This number is often on the side of the bag,usually below the ingredients and percentages of protein, fat, etc. It may look like this:

Calorie Content: 3557 kcal ME/kg; 353 kcal ME/ cup

This means that one kilogram of this dog food contains 3,557 calories (kilocalories of metabolizable [usable] energy) and one standard measuring cup of it has 353 calories. This works the same way for canned food as well. So, if our 10-pound dog from the example above needs roughly 350 calories a day, one cup of this food should satisfy him for the entire day. If you can’t find this information, you may need to check the dog food company’s website or give them a call.

How Many Times a Day Should a Dog Eat?

How many times you feed your dog per day is not as important as making sure he gets the right amount of calories a day. The number calculated above is for a 24-hour period. You can split this up into 2 feedings and some snacks (remember, dog treats have calories too), or just feed him all at once. Some dogs benefit from splitting up feedings - maybe they eat too fast or they are prone to getting hungry later in the day. Others may want to graze all day from one bowl of food. With your veterinarian’s guidance, you should be able to feed whatever dog feeding schedule works best for you and your pet.

An Easier Way

Calculations, measurements, and detective work are not for everyone. Luckily, most dog food brands have made life easier for everyone by listing suggested feeding guidelines on the side of the dog food bags and cans, as well as on their websites. This means that once you and your vet figure out your pet’s ideal weight, you can look at the handy chart on the food, find his weight and age, and a range based on number of measuring cups (or amount per can if using wet, canned food) needed per day will be provided. As with calculating calories, dogs with high-calorie needs (e.g. sick, underweight, pregnant/nursing, or very active dogs) or overweight dogs will likely need an adjustment to these charts.

Quality of Food

Remember that the quality of food is JUST as important as the number of calories. The nutritional needs of a dog include adequate amounts of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, etc. Even if you were able to calculate calories perfectly, if you fed your dog a diet that was unbalanced, he won’t have his needs met and can’t benefit from the calories you have fed him. If you are not sure whether the dog food you are feeding is right for your pet, ask your veterinarian. If you choose to skip commercial diets and want to try home-made or raw diets instead, speak with a veterinary nutritionist to ensure you are meeting all your dog’s nutritional needs before starting the new food. If you have concerns about your pet’s current weight and health, get a check up and make sure you and your dog are on the right track so issues can be addressed and managed quickly.