There are some basics that every pet parent needs to know in order to both compare different dog foods, and understand their dog’s basic nutritional needs. These include…
- How to calculate your dog’s caloric needs.
- How to calculate how many calories in treats is appropriate.
- Understand how much to feed
- How to convert a guaranteed analysis to a dry matter and caloric basis for comparison purposes.
- How to calculate if a particular food meets your dog’s basic nutritional needs for protein and fat at the calories fed, based on the guaranteed analysis.
- The questions to ask pet food companies to assess quality control, formulation expertise and research & development.
At the end of this blog post I’ve created a simple excel spreadsheet that does all these different calculations, so you can just do an analysis of the final product. I use an excel sheet just like this one for the nutritional consultations I do for clients in order to compare foods to see if they fit their pet’s nutritional needs.
Calculating your dog’s caloric needs
The caloric needs of dogs can vary by as much as 50% – which means that though we may be able to estimate caloric needs by calculation. It is truly an estimation. We will need to tract our dog’s weight and body condition score over time and adjust as needed.
The best true way to figure out our own dog’s caloric needs is to actually look at how much we are feeding our dogs – including treats, chews and additions – per day while maintaining a healthy weight and muscle-condition.
But you can estimate your dog’s caloric needs based on calculation. The first way of doing this is by using an equation designed by the NRC for low, medium and high activity for dogs. This will give a general estimate with the general understanding that actual needs may vary as much as 50% outside this estimate.
For Dog’s who are obese-prone, overweight or have very low activity:
(weight in kg) ^0.75 x 70
For Dogs who have low to moderate activity (30-1hr)
(weight in kg) ^0.75 x 95
For Dogs who have moderate to higher activity (1-2 hrs)
(weight in kg) ^0.75 x 130
Another way to calculate caloric needs is using what is called a “k factor” this. For using the mode of calculating caloric needs we have more of a range for each activity level.
For Dogs who are obese-prone, overweight or have very low activity:
[(weight in kg) ^0.75 x 70] x 0.8-1.2
For Dogs who are lightly active:
[(weight in kg) ^0.75 x 70] x 1.2-1.4
For Dogs who are moderately active:
[(weight in kg) ^0.75 x 70] x 1.4-1.8
For Dogs who are highly active
[(weight in kg) ^0.75 x 70] x 1.8-3
For working dogs with multiple hours of strenuous activity:
[(weight in kg) ^0.75 x 70] x 3-6
Neither of these methods for calculation are “wrong” it’s more just general preference. Personally I like the “k factor” method of calculation because I feel like it gives more nuance in the values.
Calculating how many calories from treats
Now that you know what your dog’s caloric needs are, it’s time to calculate how much of that can be treats! Board-certified veterinary nutritionists recommend that 10% of your dog’s daily caloric needs come from unbalanced foods – like treats, chews, and additions.
What this means is if your pup eats 1000 kcals per day – 90% or 900 kcals should come from one or a combination of complete and balanced diets. And 10% of 100 kcals can come from unbalanced foods – like single-ingredient treats, biscuits, chews, or unbalanced “toppers”.
If you want to calculate your dog’s 90/10 split. Simply take their total calories per day, and multiply it by 0.1 (10%). Then subtract that by your total kcals per day.
Total calories per day x 0.1 = Calories from Treats
Total calories per day x 0.9 = Calories from Complete and Balanced Foods
Why it’s important to NOT give too many treats
The reason why boarded nutritionists recommend only 10% of your dog’s diet come from treats isn’t just to help with their waistline, but also to prevent your “add-ins” from unbalancing the overall diet.
The easiest way to explain this is that when you add something to do the diet, you are diluting the diet of everything your dog needs that is not contained within that food.
Aka: when you use chicken breast as treats, it’s a great source of protein – but it’s a very poor source of zinc. So every calorie you are adding in of chicken breast is proportionally diluting your dog’s diet in other nutrients not in that food.
Why your dog might need less than 10% of calories in treats
It is extremely important to note that in some cases – it is not advised for dogs to eat many unbalanced treats, chews or additions. Situations, where this might be true, will be for certain medical conditions where strict diet adherence is needed (like with some gastrointestinal diseases or urinary disease).
The most common reason why we may extremely limit or not want treats in the diet is for a dog that is obese-prone or overweight and being fed a very low-calorie diet. Again, this isn’t just to keep their weight down. This is because of nutrient density. Most foods are not formulated for low-calorie feeding, and nutrient deficiencies very often occur when doing so. This is where combo-feeding can be particularly useful.
Calculating how much to feed
After you have estimated your dog’s caloric needs, and how much of their daily portion can come from treats – it’s time to figure out how much to feed!
You can look at feeding charts on bags for an estimate of where to start, but often these charts are created for the feeding of more moderately active dogs at 100% of their diet. Meaning that if you have a less active dog, or are feeding treats – you would likely feed less than the bag recommends.
By Volume (cups or patty)
To calculate the amount to feed by volume you will need to find the kcals/cup, or kcals/patty. Then you will take the 90% calories per day, and divide by the kcals/volume – this will give you how much to feed per day.
Keep in mind that feeding by volume can be inaccurate – research has actually shown that even when veterinary professionals feed by volume in clinic, it can fluctuate. Thus, if you have a dog who have trouble maintaining a healthy weight – feeding by weight might be a better options.
90% of calories per day / kcals/cup = cups per day
By Weight (grams)
Probably the most accurate way to feed will be to do so by weight. For this you will need your 90% calorie number, along with the kcals/kg. The kcals/kg should be found on any pet food package (or online) – this gives your the calories per 1000g fed.
First I like to convert this to kcals per gram just to make it easier. To do this you take the kcals/kg, and divide by 1000. This will give you kcals/gram.
Next, take your 90% of calories per day, and divide by the kcals/gram. This will give you the grams to feed per day.
STEP 1: kcals/kg / 1000 = kcals/gram
STEP 2: 90% of calories per day / kcals/gram = grams per day
Comparing Pet Foods Accurately
It’s extremely important to understand that you should never, ever, ever compare pet foods based on the guaranteed analysis. The guaranteed analysis (found on pet food packaging) is influenced by both the caloric density, and the moisture content of the food. This means that if either the moisture content (% Moisture) OR the caloric density (kcals/kg) differs between two diets – the guaranteed analysis is not very useful.
Converting the Guaranteed Analysis to a Dry Matter Basis
The first step to compare pet foods will be to convert the guaranteed analysis (which is influenced by moisture content), to a dry matter basis (which removes moisture). Keep in mind that these values are still influenced by caloric density, so it’s not the most accurate. But it’s probably the easiest math-wise if you’re in a pinch.
Converting Guaranteed Analysis to Dry Matter Basis
100 – % Moisture = Dry Matter of Diet
% Crude Protein / Dry Matter of Diet = % Dry Matter Protein
% Crude Fat / Dry Matter of Diet = % Dry Matter Fat
Quick Carbohydrate Calculation:
100 – % Dry Matter Protein – % Dry Matter Fat = % Dry Matter Carbs
More Accurate Long-Form Carbohydrate Calculation:
100 – % Moisture – % Protein – % Fat – % Fiber – % Ash = GA % Carbs Calculated by Difference % Carbs Calculated by Difference / Dry Matter of Diet = % Dry Matter Carbs
Converting the Guaranteed Analysis to grams / 1000 kcals
This is the most accurate way to compare pet foods other than looking directly at a typical analysis. It allows you to know the grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrates estimated by calculation per calorie fed to your dog. And this accounts for not just the moisture content of the food, but the caloric density of the food.
Calculate GRAMS of Protein, Fat & Carbohydrates
(% Crude Protein + 1.5)/( kcal/kg / 10,000) = grams of protein per 1000 kcal
(% Crude Fat + 1)/( kcal/kg / 10,000) = grams of fat per 1000 kcal
100-(% crude protein + % crude fat + % crude fiber + ash + moisture) = carbohydrates by difference (CHO)
(CHO + 1)/( kcal/kg / 10,000) = grams of carbohydrates per 1000 kcal
Is this the right food for my dog?
Now, this is really the hundred dollar – but to know if any particular diet is the right fit for your dog you first have to know what your dog’s nutritional needs are. There are many different things that influence nutritional needs – age, activity level, and medical conditions – are our big three.
Typically when I chat with clients about their dog’s needs I will give them a macronutrient profile that is appropriate for their dog based on an extensive questionnaire. But if you are unsure of your dog’s nutritional needs and they are doing well on their current diet – what I like to advise instead is to check to make sure your dog’s basic needs (for protein and fat) are being met at the amount you are currently feeding your dog.
How much protein is my dog currently consuming?
Protein needs vary based on many different factors including age, and activity level. But if you have an average, healthy middle-aged dog a good place to start is looking for 1g of protein per pound, or 2-2.5g per kg.
To figure out how much protein your dog is eating of their current diet, you can estimate using a quick equation:
% Crude Protein x grams of diet fed = grams of protein fed
Eg: 30% crude protein x 100g fed = 30g protein
Further Evaluation of your Dog’s Food:
The last step that we like to take when figuring out if a pet food is a good fit for our pet is by asking questions to the company about their formulation expertise, quality control, and research & development process. This will help us screen for potential areas of concern like if they don’t have testing procedures for incoming ingredients – it’s possible ingredients may have contaminants or not be consistent making recipes potentially dangerous to feed or unbalanced.
Questions to Ask Pet Food Companies:
- Who exactly formulates / has formulated your diets and what are their credentials?
- Do you have anyone on staff with a background in small animal nutrition? If so, please explain their education level and certifications?
- Where are your foods manufactured? Do you manufacture your own foods?
- Where do you source your ingredients? What testing do your ingredients undergo prior to getting to your facility?
- Where do you source your vitamin/mineral supplements? What testing do these supplements go through prior to getting to your facility? Could you provide me with a copy of the COA of these products?
- How exactly does your company prevent cross contamination within the manufacturing process and prevent the spread of disease within your facility? Can you describe your procedure in detail?
- Are the meats you use USDA inspected? Are your foods considered human-grade – fit for human consumption per AAFCO’s current definition?
- What post-manufacturing testing does your company do for pathogens such as E.Coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, Mycotoxins, Aflatoxins, Heavy Metals, and Arsenic? Could you provide me with a Laboratory Analysis of this testing?
- What post-manufacturing testing do you do to ensure nutritional adequacy – do you do Guaranteed Analysis Batch Testing? Or do you send out for full AAFCO Nutritional Panels?
- Have your products ever gone through AAFCO feeding trials?
- Have your foods undergone Digestibility Feeding Trials, if so what is the Total Dry Matter Digestibility of your Dog Food?
- Have your products undergone palatability or other testing?
- Has your pet food company ever had a recall? If so, what was the recall for and how have you changed or modified your product/procedures to make sure it will not happen again?
Excel Spreadsheet – It does the Math for you:
If you’re not a math person, or you’d just prefer to be able to plug-and-chug to compare multiple recipes. I’ve created a simple and easy-to-use excel spreadsheet that does all the math (listed above) in one simple format. I typically give this excel spreadsheet for free with all my consultations, to allow clients to continue to evaluate and compare foods even after our chat.
Dog Food Comparison Excel Spreadsheet
Calculates: caloric needs based on weight and activity level, 90/10 split for treats, amount to feed of a diet at 90% of calories, conversion of guaranteed analysis to dry matter, caloric and g/1000 kcals for comparison, g or protein and fat fed per amount fed of the diet. Also includes charts to see if protein/fat needs are fed and classification or low/moderate/high protein, fat & carbs.
You will receive an email with this spreadsheet within the next working day (Monday-Friday PST). Please make sure to check your spam folder! And if you don’t hear from me within two working days email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Nikki is a Registered Veterinary Technician (Veterinary Nurse) and Dog Mom with over a decade of experience with dogs and cats. Since graduation from college (BS Biology, AS Animal Health -2013) she has adopted two mixed breed dogs – Ranger and Ash, and has focused her time learning about pet food and nutrition.
Nikki shares information on a range of dog nutrition topics: from how to create a homemade complete and balanced dog food recipes, to how to choose a dog food. Nikki strives to give dog parents the information they need in order to make the best nutrition decisions for their pup!
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