Myth 24: You feed a dog by following the instructions

Updated November 29, 2020

hamish the cavalier king charles spaniel
Are Dog Food Instructions Accurate?

I’m going to start with an admission; my dogs have been fat. This will come as a relief (and possibly a delight) to those thousands of dog owners over the years to whom I’ve discussed their dogs’ weight. Today I’m going to explain why this happens to all of us, how to judge your dog’s weight and how to decide how much to feed them.

The guidelines written on dog foods are almost never right for your dog.

Hamish & Basil

Hamish and Basil visited us this week; their owners kindly allowed me to use them as examples of each of the two things that happen to most puppies of their age. After looking trim and lean while he was growing, Hamish has spread out around the middle. Whereas Basil’s owners were humiliatingly singled out in the dog park by an outspoken man for under-feeding their dog.

Dogs have a big advantage over people; someone is watching over them concerned only for their best interests. Sometimes we confuse loving them with feeding them but most of the time if we are aware our dogs are getting too fat or too thin, we help them fix it. The key is to be know how to judge what we are doing.

basil the border collie
Does Overweight Matter?

Why should we care about their weight? At the end of this article is a reference to a truly amazing study, where 48 Labrador retrievers were divided into two groups at birth, fed different amounts and studied for their entire lifetimes. Imagine the cost!

The results showed that the group of dogs fed to their ideal body weight lived on average two years longer, and the onset of chronic disease was significantly delayed. That is, more life and more quality of life. And fewer vet bills.

If you want to know more, this article discusses the evidence of harm caused by overfeeding and what you can do to help a dog lose weight.

What Weight Should My Dog Be?

Published weights of dog breeds are never accurate enough for individuals.

Dogs vary because:

  • they have different activity levels
  • their base metabolism varies
  • they all stop growing at different ages

In fact, I regularly see two dogs of the same size where one needs three times as much as the other one.

Now look at it from the point of view of the food company. If there is such a huge variation, they don’t want to be accused of starving dogs. Imagine the lawsuits, Facebook & Twitter. Therefore, they will choose the upper limit as their recommended amount.

My dog Tinker is a good example. The packet advises me to feed 135-190g. Actual amount: 90g.

So how do I know this? By assessing his body condition regularly and adjusting the amount until it keeps him lean. Follow these instructions and you can do the same:

How To Assess A Dog’s Body Condition

  1. The ideal dog has a well-defined waist, easily felt ribs and a muscular frame.
  2. With your dog standing, look down from above like in the photos. You should see or feel a waistline.

  3. With your dog pointing away from you, place the palms of your hands on the chest without applying pressure.

  4. You should feel ribs under your hands. If you have to push to do this, the spongy layer you are pushing through is excess fat.

  5. Now run your hand down the back. The back should have a cross-section that is round, with good muscle coverage and the tops of the spine only just detectable. This will get triangular and bumpy when your dog is too lean.

  6. Once you have an adult at their ideal weight if you prefer you can weigh them and use this as a target. Our scales are yours to use as you please.

Trust me; the dog who tells you he’s had enough to eat is truly a rare beast. As dogs stop growing or slow down, they will continue to act as starving as before, except now they are storing the excess as fat. He’s acting just like a wolf in Alaska stocking up fat reserves before winter. If he refuses food, he may not make it through.

Stand Up To Busybodies!

Have you already worked out what happened to Basil’s owners? This will happen to you too so watch out! Basil is actually spot-on his ideal weight- athletic, trim and raring to go. He looks great.

The world is full of know-it-alls, and nowhere more so that with pets and babies. Many people have overweight dogs, this becomes normal for them, and a waistline scares them. The frustrating thing is that they feel so sure of themselves they are prepared to give misleading and harmful advice.

As Claire says to dog owners: if the busybodies are telling you your dog is too thin, then your dog is probably about right. Using our guide above you should be able to become confident in your own judgment, and ignore this unhelpful advice.

Ask Your Vet!

Don’t forget we are always here to help. We seem like nags at times, but our aim isn’t to make you feel bad. We want to empower you to take the control of your dog’s food intake away from the food companies and the wrongly opinionated.

It says a lot about our trust in those around us that we instinctively believe the written word, whether it’s in a newspaper or on a food packet, and take the confidently spoken word as truth.

Kealy, R. D., Lawler, D. F., Ballam, J. M., Mantz, S. L., Biery, D. N., Greeley, E. H., … & Stowe, H. D. (2002). Effects of diet restriction on life span and age-related changes in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 220(9), 1315-1320.

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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.