How much food should I feed my dog?

The age-old question of how much dog food should I feed my dog is actually both rather simple and complicated. What you need to understand to start out is that just like each person has a different metabolism and activity level – dogs are similar. With the added complexity that dogs also come in a TON of different sizes – and the amount of food doesn’t just “double” from a 10 to a 20 lb dog, or triple from a 25lb to a 75lb dog, even if fed the same food.

How do we calculate a dog’s caloric needs?

We can do this by first calculating the resting metabolic rate – or the calories a dog needs in order to maintain basic functions for life – these are things like respiration, digestion, circulation and metabolism. 

Then we can take that resting metabolic rate – also known as RER (or Resting Energy Requirement) – and multiply it by a factor that adjusts for the activity level and/or life-stage of an animal. This final number is called the Maintenance Energy Requirement – also known as MER.

STEP 1: dog weight in pounds / 2.2 = dog weight in kg

STEP 2: dog weight in kg ^ ¾ x 70 = RER or Resting Energy Requirement

STEP 3: RER x K Factor = MER or Maintenance Energy Requirement

Calculated RER for dogs from 5 lbs to 100 lbs

Dog Lifestage/LifestyleK Factor
Neutered adult=1.6 x RER
Intact adult=1.8 x RER
Inactive/obese prone=1.2-1.4 x RER
Weight loss=1.0 x RER for ideal weight
Weight gain=1.2-1.8 x RER for ideal weight
Active, working dogs=2.0-5.0 x RER
Puppy 0-4 months=3.0 x RER
Puppy 4-12 months=2.0 x RER
K Factors for dogs for calculating MER

For Example:

My dog Ranger is a 50 lb mixed breed adult dog, who will be eight this year. He is lightly active – and gets one leisure 3-mile walk per day. What are his caloric needs?

RER = 729

K Factor= 1.6

MER= 1166

How to know how much to feed your dog

The above calculations are wonderful at telling you how many calories your dog needs, but only work as a starting point to calculate how much to actually feed your dog. And I know there are generalizations out there saying 1-3% of your dog’s body weight for raw fed dogs – but the truth is – how much you feed your dog will also be highly variable due to the caloric density of the food.

What is the caloric density?

This the calories per gram,  ounce or volume of food (like cup). By law all dog foods should have the caloric density stated on the dog food label. But if you feed a homemade or homecooked diet it might become a bit more complicated. 

In order to calculate how much to feed your dog you will take your dog’s calculated daily caloric needs and divide it by the caloric density of the food. 

MER / kcal per cup = cups per day fed

For example, if I wanted to feed my dog Ranger…

FoodCaloric DensityAmount Fed
Hill’s Science Diet Adult Light 271 kcal per cup1165/271= 4 ¼ cups per day
Nutrisource Beef and Rice393 kcal per cup1165/393= 3 cups per day
Open Farm Raw Beef Freeze-Dried226 kcal per cup1165/226= 5 1/10 cups per day
Ziwi Peak Air-Dried Beef Recipe312 kcal per scoop1165/312= 3 ¾ scoops
Instinct Grain-Free Beef Canned Food536 kcal/13.2 oz can1165/536 kcal = 2 1/10 of the 13 oz cans
Primal Raw Beef 48 calories per ounce1165/48= 24 ¼ ounces
Just Food For Dogs Beef and Potato43 calories per ounce1165/43= 27 ounces
Calculating how much to feed of different foods.

Calculating how much to feed of homemade dog food

How much to feed of a homemade dog food is HIGHLY variable based on meat alone can vary quite a bit as far as the basic calories per ounce or lb of meat. The best way to make sure that your dog is eating the correct amount of calories per day is that the recipe STATES THE CALORIC CONTENT. If a recipe you find online does not state the caloric value DO NOT USE IT. And if a recipe generalizes saying that you can use “1 lb of meat” DO NOT USE THE RECIPE – depending on the meat and the cut or grind of that meat caloric content can vary from 750 to 1280 calories per pound. That is a HUGE range of calories.

MeatCalories per OunceCalories per Pound
85/15 Ground Turkey731168
Lean Ground Turkey61976
80/20 Ground Beef721152
95/5 Ground Beef711136
Chicken Breast47752
Chicken Thigh61976
Ground Lamb801280
Calories per ounce and per pound of different protein sources used in dog food.

These caloric values do not even take into account the overall digestibility of these meats within the body. The simple answer to “how much homemade dog food do I feed?” is “it depends”. You will probably feed a higher volume of a food that contains something like chicken breast, lean turkey, or cod than you feed of something like ground beef- but even beyond the protein within the food, carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables will also play a role as to the volume of food fed.

If you would like more information about homemade diets and how to find a complete and balanced diet for your dog I have several blog posts on this topic that discusses resources, and I even have some dog food recipes using balanceIT.

The problem with calculating dog caloric needs

These calculations tell us how many calories a dog -might- need per day. However you should know that depending on the individual dog there can be a lot of variation – and I do mean A LOT. According to research caloric needs of dogs can vary up to 50% meaning that even though you might calculate your dog’s needs at 1000 calories per day, the acceptable range for your dog may be between 500 to 1500 calories per day.

We do have research that suggests that leaner breeds of dogs like greyhounds or rat terriers tend to have a higher metabolic rate than that of less-lean dogs like labradors or miniature poodles – even when the dogs are similar sizes. Thus if you do own a dog that is very lean you may find they require more calories than a typical dog of that size.

This is where monitoring your individual dog comes into the equation! The easiest way to do so is actually not be watching a scale (though the numeric value can be helpful) but by looking at your dog’s body condition score.

A body condition score looks at your dog’s overall condition and places it on a scale of either 1 to 5 or 1 to 9. When your dog has ideal body condition their tummy will tuck up towards their spine. You will be able to feel their ribs by running your hand along their side, but will not be able to see more than the last two while your dog is at rest. Finally when looking from above your dog will have a distinct waist.

Thin Dogs

If you can see projections from your dog’s spine, more than the last two ribs – your dog is either thin or has something called muscle wasting. Feeding a calorically dense food and speaking to your veterinarian is usually a good idea if your dog is having this problem. Some dogs struggle to maintain their weight and depending on the reason WHY may indicate that your dog needs a different overall diet composition. There are also certain medical conditions and medications can cause weight loss or muscle wasting – so having that conversation with your vet is ideal to start. Some dogs may need higher protein, fat or carbohydrates within the diet in combination with higher calories in order to help with their particular nutritional needs.

Overweight Dogs

In contrast, if when you gently rub your dog’s sides you cannot feel their ribs, and they do not have a distinct waist but are instead more “sausage” or rectangular in shape then your dog probably needs to lose some weight. We know from research that just keeping your dog lean and at a healthy weight it will extend their life for between 1-3 years depending on breed. If you notice your dog is overweight – the best thing to do is create a log of all the food, treats, and additions that your dog currently receives – often all these items will add up to be much greater than your dog’s daily caloric needs. However, if you do add up these items and you find your dog is actually getting well below the recommended daily amounts discuss this with your veterinarian – some diseases such as Hypothyroidism – can cause shifts to metabolism which can lead to weight gain.

If you do find that your dog needs to lose a couple of pounds there are several considerations to keep in mind before rushing into “replacing half the bowl with green beans”. The first is that rapid weight loss is not healthy for dogs and severe caloric restriction can cause long-term health problems. The second is that reducing calories is not the WHOLE picture – you must still meet your dog’s basic nutritional requirements for things like protein (essential amino acids) and fat (essential fatty acids) while reducing calories. Meaning you will need to feed a nutrient-dense food that is potentially NOT calorically dense. Overal diet composition can also be helpful – there is research that suggests that higher protein meals paired with fiber will satisfy for longer than purely high protein or high fiber diets alone. 

Treats / Additions

Another consideration is how many treats or additions your dog is getting per day. According to board-certified veterinary nutritionists, all treats/additions should be kept at 10% of the overall daily caloric value. So for example for my dog Ranger who requires 1165 calories per day, 10% of that is 116 calories. BUT the trick here is in order to maintain his weight I will need to reduce his food calories because of his treats so that he doesn’t get too many calories per day!

Ranger can get:

1149 calories from Food

116 calories from Treats/Additions

Treats and additions are things like supplements, chews, training treats, table scraps, or basically anything given by mouth OTHER than food items. These additions can quickly add up to be large portions of a dog’s daily caloric needs – leading to dog either becoming picky or overweight.

Fish Oil1 tsp41
Coconut Oil1 tbsp180
Peanut Butter1 tbsp90
Yak Chew1 large300
Bully Stick6 inch100
Whimzees1 small44
Whimzees1 large176
Greenies1 small54
Greenies1 large141
Freeze-Dried Chicken Treat10 pieces30
Calories in different common items given to dogs.

In ideal situations using your dog’s regular food for enrichment by stuffing it inside puzzle toys and items instead of using chews, or using diets that already include items like fish oil or MCT oil to provide therapeutic benefits will be better than adding these supplements on top. For example – if you have a dog with arthritis giving your dog a diet like Hill’s j/d would already include the added fish oil with a low omega 3 to 6 ratio. Alternatively creating a homemade diet that was high in omega 3 fatty acids with a low omega 3 to 6 ratio could provide similar benefits. Both would include and adjust for the added fat and calories to the diet.

If you are doing a lot of training you can use their food as a “treat” and use different “flavors” of food to provide the same drive or novelty as if you were using just meat by itself. Another option is to create meatballs with a complete and balanced canned pate or fresh food item for training sessions. By offering your dog’s regular meals as “training treats” you don’t have to worry about unbalancing the diet. However, you will still need to adjust how much you feed at meals based on how much you use as treats.

Finally, for chews and enrichment you have a couple of options – first is to consider teeth brushing to assist with dental health. The second is to consider alternative toys that can be stuffed with your dog’s regular diet to provide lots of mental stimulation – these are things like frozen kongs, kong wobblers, maze feeders, for the classic muffin tin with tennis balls. The idea here is to simply make your dog PROBLEM SOLVE while getting their food, providing that similar satisfaction to chewing on a toy.

Overall what I want you to keep in mind is these calculations are estimates – and depending on your dog you may need to adjust how much they are fed per day.  If you are ever unsure of how much to feed your dog your veterinarian will be your best touch-stone to contact to know for sure fi your pup is at an ideal body weight or not. But once you are good at assessing your own pet at home, frequent body-condition score check-ins and weigh-ins will help you keep your dog at a healthy weight.

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, Dip. Animal Nutrition, AS Animal Science) 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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