By Fiona Robertson
Take a look at the package of your current dog food. Somewhere on the label you will find the feeding instructions - they are there for a reason. It might be a chart, or a simple list. In it you will see the manufacturer’s recommendations for how much of the food to feed a dog by weight. This information can also be found on manufacturer websites.
Why are the feeding instructions important?
Simply feeding “X amount of cups per day” of (any) dog food does not take into account the energy density and kibble size of the food. Ideally, food rations should be weighed rather than measured by volume, but for the purposes of this post, we’ll measure in “cups” as this is the more common practice than using a food scale.
Commercial pet foods that are appropriately labelled “complete and balanced” (as per AAFCO) are formulated to provide all the nutrients required by dogs according to scientific research (accrued and published by the National Research Council) per unit of measure (usually kilogram). To ensure dogs get the nutrition required, calculations are made by company nutritionists to determine the minimum and maximum amount of the food to feed to dogs of certain weights and life stages so that the nutrients (protein, fat, vitamins and minerals) are provided at their correct dosages. Some foods have a wider range and some are more specific.
Nutrients all interact with each other, and some also have absolute minimums as well as safe upper limits for dogs, as determined by scientific research. Long-term feeding outside the manufacturer’s feeding instructions can result in malnutrition. This is especially true for dogs being underfed, although obesity by definition is also a form of malnutrition, and is a primary contributor to many diseases in dogs.
While obesity is not a concern in working sheepdogs, weight gain is often a problem as a dog ages and eventually retires. To curb the weight gain, a dog owner might reduce the dog’s ration. Reducing the amount fed will certainly cut the calories ingested and help to maintain an ideal weight, but this practice concurrently reduces the nutrients provided to the dog. This is not a problem if the amount fed still falls within the range of the manufacturer's recommendations. However, if the amount of food required to maintain the dog’s weight falls below the range on the label, the owner should switch the dog to a food formulated with a lower energy density (less calories) so that nutrition is not compromised.
On the other end of the scale is the calorie burning youngster, who, despite continually increasing food rations, has difficulty maintaining weight. This is due to the “bulk limiting” factor of lower energy diets when fed in large volumes and there are a couple of things explaining this. First, the dog may eat a large amount of food, but perhaps has some GI issues such as intermittent diarrhea, vomiting, and / or more frequent (and bigger) stools. This can happen because a large meal passes through the GI tract more quickly than a smaller meal, which negatively affects digestion and assimilation of nutrients and ultimately leads to more waste. The second reason for weight loss (despite an increased ration) is that the (otherwise healthy) dog repeatedly chooses not to finish his bowl. In both cases, switching the dog to a more energy dense (less “bulky”) food and feeding within the guidelines would be indicated to ensure energy requirements are being met without oversupplying other nutrients.
“Spot” is a 3 year old, working sheepdog who weighs 40 lbs. Spot is past his teenage years, but still requires more than twice the energy as his housemate. Spot requires 1,200 kcals (calories) per day to maintain his ideal weight.
“Meg” is a 30 lb., 9 year old spayed female, still working but leaves the hard chores to Spot and enjoys long naps in the sun. Meg requires only 500 kcals per day; any more and she starts to get a bit chubby.
Food A is a food labeled for adult maintenance and has 3997 kcal/kg, 399 kcal/cup and the feeding guidelines for each dog is as follows:
1½ - 2¾ cups per day for a dog weighing 33-44 lbs. (Spot)
1¼ - 2¼ cups per day for a dog weighing 22-32 lbs. (Meg)
Food B is a food labeled for active dogs has 4091 kcal/kg, 442 kcal/cup and the feeding guidelines for each dog is as follows:
1¾ - 2½ cups per day for dogs weighing 36-50 lbs. (Spot)
1¼ - 1¾ cups per day for dogs weighing 21-35 lbs. (Meg)
Food C is a food labeled for “ultra” sport performance has 4505 kcal/kg, 720 kcal/cup and the feeding guidelines for each dog is as follows:
1 - 1½ cups per day for dogs weighing 22-44 lbs. (Spot and Meg)
X = ration is outside the feeding recommendations
G= ration is within the feeding recommendations
In order to maintain his ideal weight, Spot would need to consume:
Food A: 3 cups a day X
Food B: (Slightly more than) 2½ cups a day G
Food C: (Slightly more than) 1½ cups a day G
In order to maintain her ideal weight, Meg would need to consume:
Food A: 1¼ cups a day G
Food B: (Slightly more than) 1 cup a day X
Food C: (Slightly more than) ½ cup a day X
Spot could eat Food B or C, but Food A is not ideal (too low in energy for Spot).
Meg could eat Food A, but foods B and C are too energy dense and she’ll get fat eating within the guidelines.
Multi-dog kennels and households looking to optimize nutrition are probably not going to be able to feed one formula to all dogs, especially if some are puppies and others are seniors. Puppies have very specific requirements in terms of nutrients to promote optimal growth and development; they should not be fed foods formulated for adult maintenance – but that’s a topic for another day!
My journey into science-based canine nutrition began in 2018 with my home-bred working border collie, Fen. A scary cancer diagnosis accompanied by a very poor prognosis led me to a canine nutrition consultant with years of experience in canine cancer cases. Beginning with a consult and recipe for a home cooked diet specific for Fen and her stage of disease; I then completed 2 years of mentored learning from the same nutritionist. Hungry for more, I pursued an additional 2 years of study at CASI, of which I am nearly through, working early mornings, late nights and weekends in between my full-time job as a Contract Manager for a European medical equipment company. I graduated from CASI’s science-based Canine Nutrition course with an overall grade of 98% and began doing practice consults for friends’ dogs as well as continuing to hone my skills on my own pack. Currently I am enrolled in the grueling Advanced Canine Nutrition course and hope to be finished in 2023.
My Fen lived three years past her prognosis, until the age of 14; living life 500% as was her way up until the very end. I am convinced that her diet contributed to those three bonus years. Nutrition can be powerful medicine!