Cups and Calories—How Much Food Does Your Pet Need?

Pet food producers are required to list serving recommendations and calorie counts on the label.

This makes it easier to decide how much food your dog should get but there’s still a bit more you need to know.

Assess Your Pet

Before changing anything, you need to take stock of your pet’s weight and overall health. It’s good to get a vet’s opinion but the basics can be done at home. Weigh your dog or cat and, if he has a short coat, take a couple photos to show his overall physique.

Feel around his ribs, hips, and backbone—is there meat over them or is he boney? Have his bones disappeared under a layer of pudge? Each breed has different characteristics but the general rule is that you should be able to feel his bones through the skin and muscle. He should also have a waist without too much tummy.

Unique Challenges

Puppies and kittens generally need 20% more calories than adults. There will be variations depending on the breed and size as well as how fast he’s growing. This can change quickly so keep revisiting your choices as he grows. Dogs seven years and older tend to need 20% fewer calories than an adult of the same size.

Dogs and cats who live outside in a cold climate will need significantly more food and it should be higher in fat. Those who live outside in hot climates will need less food as they will be less active in the heat.

Pregnant, nursing, ill, and injured pets will all have unique nutritional needs that should be discussed with a veterinarian.

Start With the Recommended Amount

Whether you’re measuring food by cups or calories, start with the recommended amount of food. Make sure you measure, however, and don’t just scoop out what you think is the right amount. This lets you make more deliberate and precise adjustments.

It’s important to keep in mind that weight loss and weight gain should be slow. Crash diets are no better for your pet than they are for you so make changes carefully.

Keep Track of Changes

Keep track of your pet’s changes and what caused them. Is he losing or gaining weight? Is he maintaining it? Adjust his food and exercise according to your goals for him.

Take a look at his coat too. You may not see any change after just one week but as time goes on you may. If his hair gets oily or dry, brittle, or starts falling out, take a step back and check with your vet.

Just like humans, pets’ diet and exercise needs change periodically. Keep an eye on his activity levels, mood, and health then adjust accordingly.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to

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