Have you ever wondered how many calories your dog should be eating each day? Dog food labels offer some guidelines, but you can calculate the ideal number of calories needed in a few steps. Of course, your veterinarian is always the best source of advice when it comes to canine nutrition.
What Are Calories?
A calorie is a unit of energy. The term is used to describe energy content in food and the energy requirements of animals. One kilocalorie, or kcal, is equal to 1000 calories. However, the term "Calorie" is generally used to describe one kcal when looking at food labels or discussing dietary needs.
When looking at pet food labels, the term kcal is used most often. However, you can consider Calories and kcals interchangeable terms. Kcal content is helpful when shopping for dog food and treats. You should also consider the calorie content of any safe human food you may feed your dog, as these add to your dog's daily intake.
Calorie Needs of Dogs
Like humans and all other animals, dogs need a certain number of calories to maintain energy and body mass. To determine a dog's caloric needs, the dog's resting energy requirement (RER) and maintenance energy requirement (MER) must be calculated from the dog's weight in kilograms, or kg.
To calculate kg, divide the weight in pounds by 2.2. For example, a 22-pound dog is 10 kg. A 60-pound dog is 4.5 kg. A 100-pound dog is 27 kg.
Resting energy requirement, or RER, is the basic energy needed to sustain essential bodily functions like metabolism, circulation, respiration, and digestion. To calculate RER, multiply 70 by the body weight in kilograms raised to 3/4 power.
- 70 * (BWkg)0.75 = RER (kcal/day)
RER does not include additional energy needed for activity, growth, and overall health maintenance. It must be multiplied by certain factors to estimate the dog's maintenance energy requirement or MER. A dog's MER is the estimated number of calories needed in a day. To calculate this, multiply RER by "X," the number that represents the dog's additional energy needs.
- X * RER = MER (kcal/day)
To estimate "X" and calculate a dog's individual daily caloric needs, consider the dog's activity level, life stage, and any health conditions or environmental circumstances that may affect energy needs.
The general caloric needs of dogs are listed here by weight. Once you have determined your dog's life stage and activity level, use your dog's weight in pounds to find the appropriate caloric intake.
Caloric needs vary by life stage, so puppies have different needs than adult dogs. In addition, pregnant or nursing dogs need more calories than the average adult dog.
Active dogs burn more calories than sedentary dogs, so they need more calories each day. Certain dog breeds may typically tend to be more or less active. Your dog's breed can help as a guideline but should not be the only factor. Assess your individual dog's average daily activity.
Your dog's body condition is an important thing to consider. General recommendations for caloric intake are based on an ideal body condition. If your dog is overweight or underweight, you should feed the number of calories listed for your dog's ideal weight.
Consult your veterinarian for help determining your dog's ideal body weight and caloric needs. If your dog needs to lose or gain weight, this should be done gradually and with medical supervision. In addition, your vet will need to assess your dog's overall health and make sure there is not an underlying disease affecting your dog's weight.
Calories to Feed Per Day
WSAVA has provided a quick and easy reference of caloric needs for healthy dogs of ideal weight if you want to skip the calculations.
The Pet Food Alliance has published information that simplifies the process of estimating a dog's MER. The following information is based on this publication and should be used for general purposes only. Consult your vet for help customizing your dog's MER.
Average Activity Level and Ideal Weight
- Spayed/Neutered: RER * 1.6
- Intact: RER * 1.8
- Pregnant females: RER * 1.6-2
- Nursing mothers: RER * 2-6
- Puppies: RER * 2-3
- Seniors: RER * 1.6 (adjust based on activity level and medical needs)
Overweight: RER * 1 (your vet can help you design a weight loss plan for your dog)
Sedentary, low-energy, and dogs prone to obesity: RER * 1.2-1.4
Underweight: Consult your veterinarian for advice. Your dog may have an underlying condition causing the weight loss and may need testing and treatment before adjusting the diet.
Putting It Together
Consider a 10-pound Shih Tzu that is 12 years old with an average activity level for a senior dog. We can calculate her weight in kilograms (10 * 2.2 = 4.5kg), and plug that into the first equation to calculate her RER.
- 70 * (4.5)0.75 = 216.3 (kcal/day)
Then, referring to the list of X values determined by the Pet Food Alliance, we can plug in 1.6 (because she's a senior dog) for X and our calculated RER value to find out her MER.
- 1.6 * 216.3 = 346.1 (kcal/day)
That's 346.1 kcal/day, or 173 kcal/meal.
Not All Calories are Equal
Feeding treats or table scraps will add to your dog's calorie intake. Be sure that treats and snacks make up only 10 percent or less of your dog's daily intake. Ninety percent of your dog's daily calorie intake should come from a complete and balanced diet. Consult your vet for advice when choosing a diet for your dog.
When choosing a commercial diet, look for diets that meet AAFCO standards for your dog's life stage (this should be on the label). The daily feeding recommendations on the label can be used as a general guideline and are fine for many dogs. However, you may need to adjust the amount you feed based on your dog's needs. Dog food labels typically list the kcal per cup or can of food. The kcals may also be broken down by gram.
Homemade dog food is more complicated. In addition to calories, you must consider protein, fat, and water content as well as the appropriate amount of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. It is essential to work with a veterinarian to design a complete and balanced homemade diet for your dog.