It was pointed out that this is a pretty common concern for a lot of dog owners (and kittehs too!), and warranted some discussion (thanks MMM, you're right!) So here goes...
A lot of dog moms and dads are concerned about how much food their pups are getting...are they getting enough? Too much? How do I KNOW if they're being fed the proper amount? These are good questions to ask, because proper portion control is essential to ensuring good weight management in our pets. We all know that obesity is a major cause of health concerns for humans, and the same applies to our furry family members...arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, kidney/liver disease can all be linked to carrying extra unnecessary fat.
Let's look at some common questions.
(Please note: although I say "dog" and use the male gender in reference to a hypothetical furry companion in this article, no predjudice against either the feline or feminine kind is intended, and all information can and should be applied to all our furry friends )
Q: I have a new dog. How much should I feed him?
The short answer is: as much as he needs to maintain a healthy body weight. How do you determine this? It takes some experimentation, because no two dogs will have exactly the same caloric needs
even if they're the same weight, breed and/or age. For example, I have two medium-sized dogs (roughly 55-60 lbs each)...one eats 4 cups of dry food a day while the other eats only 1 1/2 cups of dry food a day (or, more recently, 1.5 vs 3 lbs of raw food per day).
Start by getting a "baseline" amount. If you're feeding dry or canned food, look at the label or bag for their feeding recommendations (usually cups/day or cans/day according to body weight). Use your scale at home or at the vets to determine your dog's current weight, and use an actual cup measurer to measure out the appropriate amount of food. Try feeding your dog this amount of food for a week or two. (Note: if the recommended amount is significantly different from what you are currently feeding, gradually reduce or increase the amount over several weeks).
As you start this food experiment, you must start monitoring your dog's body condition very closely, both with your hands and your eyes. Here's a link with some illustrations to help get you started: http://vet.osu.edu/1851.htm
Have a look at body type #3.
Notice how the dog's waist has a nice tuck up towards the groin when viewed from the side, and an equally pretty waist when viewed from above. You cannot see ribs, except perhaps for the last few. Now, using your hands, feel your dog's rib cage. You should be able to easily feel the ribs, with just a small padding of flesh on top. If it's difficult or impossible to feel the ribs, you've got a dog that needs to shed a few pounds (see question below on "crash diets").
Don't be afraid to use your hands to check out other areas of your pet's body to get a sense of his overall "feel". I personally notice changes to Gracie's chest if she is putting on a bit of weight...she's a fluffy dog with lots of fur which can make it hard to feel ribs or see the waist, but the shorter fur on her chest makes it easier to notice when the flesh there is getting fatty.
Now that you know how your dog looks/feels, notice how it changes (if at all) as you feed your dog the portion suggested by the food manufacturer. Is your dog losing weight or feeling bony? Increase the amount of food you give at each meal or add a supplemental meal during the day. Is your dog starting to feel a tad too fleshy? Reduce the food a little bit for a period of time and see if that makes any changes.
Any change to the daily amount of food you give your pet should be made gradually
. Eventually you will find the "ideal" amount of food for your pup and will quickly recognize if the amount needs to change (perhaps because your dog is getting more exercise and requires more calories).
A NOTE ON RAW/BARF FEEDING:
Many of us are chosing to feed our pets raw diets. The same principles apply here. A good "baseline" for quantity to feed is 2-3% of the dog's body weight per day. Then, increase/decrease the quantity fed as required by the individual dog, based on body condition.
Q: What if my dog is really overweight, can I put him on a crash diet?
Absolutely not. It's NEVER healthy for anyone (human or animal) to lose weight too rapidly. Take your dog to your vet and ask for a body assessment and a recommendation for weight loss. Your vet (or a technician) can help you determine an ideal "goal" weight for your dog, and how long it should take to lose the excess pounds. Expect healthy weight loss to take several months, depending on the amount of weight to lose. Never impose severe restrictions on the amount of food your dog eats.
Q: How often should I feed my dog? Can I leave the food out all day?
Well, the dog police aren't going to come to your house if you leave food out for your dog (i.e., "free feed"), but it's not ideal for several reasons.
If you choose to free feed, you are probably mindlessly refilling the dish whenever you happen to notice that it's getting low or empty. You are probably not measuring the amount of food. You are probably not aware of how much your dog is actually eating during the course of a day.
So what? As we discussed above, portion control is the easiest way to make sure your dog maintains a healthy weight. If you are aware of the amount you feed, then you can easily make adjustments in order to help your dog acheive and maintain a good body condition.
Also, if you are not aware of how much your dog eats, then you could be missing important signs that your pet is not feeling well. A sick pet will often eat more or less than usual. It is harder to notice these changes early on if you are continually topping up that free-feed bowl, but you'll notice right away if Fido walks away from his usual breakfast time.
So how often should
you feed? Generally, 2 to 3 meals a day is adequate for most dogs. Smaller dogs, and puppies typically need to be fed smaller meals more frequently. Speak with your vet about the best feeding schedule for your pup's age and breed.
Q: My dog doesn't really want to eat a full meal all at once...what can I do?
Most dogs can be taught to eat a full meal at a chosen time, and this is particularly useful if you have a multi-pet household...it is especially difficult to monitor food intake when all three cats and four dogs are nibbling out of open-access food troughs all day.
Dogs LOVE and thrive on routine, and will quickly catch on that 7am and 7pm = time for food, and will often remind you if you're more than a second late filling that bowl. To start your pet on a routine, pick feeding times that you can easily stick to with consistency, and then spread out the meals evenly throughout the day. Put out the dog's measured portion of food, and if he hasn't noticed yet (I'm sure most have, but just in case), feel free to announce "It's dinner time!" to get him running. Leave the food out for 15-20 minutes, then put the rest away. Your pup should quickly learn that you control the meals in the house, and that they'd better eat up if they don't want to go to bed on an empty tummy!
Q: My dog inhales his food and follows me around with sad puppy eyes all day, begging for more. I'm worried that he's not getting enough to eat, and that he's feeling hungry all day. I feel so mean! Should I feed him more?
There's a few things to consider here.
First of all, dogs have different "food" personalities. Some dogs are absolutely mind-blowingly driven by food. Any food, all food, they would gladly leap across the Grand Canyon if there was a crumb of bread on the other side. These dogs will inhale their meals, often without chewing, and then frantically sniff and search the premises in case there's more hiding somewhere. Then they'll BEG their humans for MORE, PLEASE OH PLEASE MORE!!!
Other dogs really couldn't be bothered to eat. As in, if you didn't point out to them "hey dummy I just put some food in your dish"...they would probably forget to eat. Sometimes they DON'T eat. Or they nibble at their food over the course of several hours. Sometimes you have to bribe them a little.
Many dogs are somewhere in the middle.
The food-crazy dogs are NOT starving, and giving in to their begging is not only reinforcing bad doggie manners, it's also going to load them up with extra calories they don't need. Those extra calories turn into fat. Fat=unhealthy. So no matter how "sad" your dog seems, please do the kindest thing and stick to his regularly scheduled meals.
Now, there are legitimate health issues that can cause a dog to eat more than normal and you should keep this in mind.
If your dog is showing signs of eating unusual amounts of food (especially if he's not food-mad) then you may consider a trip to the vet to rule out issues such as intestinal parasites, diabetes, or other metabolic conditions. If your dog is eating more and losing weight, that vet visit should be on the top of your "to do" list.
Q: Ok, so I have a food-crazy dog...is there anything I can do to prolong his meals?
Sure, there are a few tricks and tools that might stretch out his inhalation a little bit. If you have some cash to spare, you might consider investing in something like this: http://www.eatslowerpetdishes.com/dogdishes.html
There are many varieties of dishes designed to make eating a bit more challenging...
You could also try a food-dispensing toy...sometimes these are called puzzle balls or puzzle feeders. The dog must roll and paw the toy in order to make the kibbles fall out. It's more work, and they get some extra exercise too!
For a simpler solution, try putting a tennis ball or two in your dog's food bowl (*make sure the ball is too large to fit in your dog's throat to prevent choking!!!)
. He'll have to eat around them, which might slow him down a bit.
You could also turn mealtimes into training or play time. Get the kids to practice the "come" and "sit" commands with your pet...one participant can stand on either side of room with a portion of the dog's meal, and pup can trot back and forth between the kids as he responds to the commands and is rewarded with part of his meal. If your dog has a great nose, teach him the "find it" game...hide portions of the meal around the room and let him sniff them out.
On a personal note, since introducing my dogs to a raw diet, my "inhaler" of kibble has now become a thorough chewer! Something to think about!
Q: Does "portion control" mean I can NEVER feed my dog treats, like, EVER? But...but....
Ok, don't panic, that's not what I'm saying. My dogs get occasional treats. There's nothing wrong with treating. The key is to be AWARE of what your dog is eating and how much, and the body condition. It's also a good idea to chose healthy treats for your dogs. Many manufactured treats are, while tasty, loaded with calories and fat, not to mention artificial flavours and colours and preservatives and *blech*. It's like handing them a chocolate bar or a bacon-double-cheeseburger. Consider giving raw veggies or fruits. Many dogs are just as happy to get a baby carrot, peice of sweet potato, or a slice of apple as they are that greasy pizza crust they've been eyeing. Look for more natural meat-based treats like freeze-dried liver (my dogs would sell their souls for a crumb of freeze-dried liver). You don't have to completely deprive your dog of "yummies", just be conscious about it. Some people toss food at their dogs all day (a little o' this, a nibble o' that...) and it can add up to one chunky dog very quickly.
Hopefully this information was helpful, and if more questions (or suggestions)come up, I'll try to keep this updated. Remember, feeding is not an exact science, and it's up to you as your pets' caregivers to find out what works best for your animals. Good luck!