Petfoodology

the scientific study of pet nutrition by veterinary nutrition specialists and experts.

Feeding Frenzy: How Accurate Are Your Pet Food’s Feeding Directions?

Feeding Frenzy: How Accurate Are Your Pet Food’s Feeding Directions?
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One of the common questions I get from pet parents is how much to feed their pets.  Some will let their pet eat free choice (although this usually results in overweight pets), while most put out a certain amount of food one or more times a day.  For those who use the latter approach, how do they decide how much to feed?  Many use the feeding directions on the pet food label (which is required information on all pet foods and treats labeled as “complete and balanced”).  Others “eyeball” how much food seems to be right. But given the fact that more than 50% of dogs and cats in the United States are overweight, relying on the feeding directions or guessing are clearly not successful approaches if our goal is to keep our pets as healthy as possible for as long as possible!

A pet’s diet is comprised of everything they eat including the pet food, treats, table food, dietary supplements, chews, foods used to administer medications, and any other food items (all important information you should share with your veterinarian).  But the main source of calories for pets should be the pet food.  Therefore, selecting an optimal diet and feeding the right amount of that diet is critical to a pet’s health.

Trying to sell more food?

It used to be that the feeding directions on most pet food labels overestimated the calorie needs of many adult dogs and cats unless they were very active dogs or if they were un-neutered adults.  While I often heard conspiracy theories that this was so pet food companies could sell more food, it usually happened because the calculations of dogs’ and cats’ calorie requirements were made from animals that were much more active than most of our house pets.  In fact, while feeding directions are required on all pet food labels, there are no requirements on how these directions are determined so companies can have a different approach.

What I found
Recently, I’ve found more variation in pet food labels’ feeding directions than there used to be.  In fact, in writing this post, I randomly selected 8 dry adult dog foods from a variety of companies – both large and small and with a wide range in calories.  I then compared the products’ feeding directions against standard calculations from the Pet Nutrition Alliance calorie calculator (see below) for calorie needs of adult, neutered dogs with average activity levels and ranging in weight from 5-175 pounds (and assuming they were in ideal body condition).  The results were very interesting:

  • Only two of the eight diets had feeding directions that matched standard calculations for dogs of all different body weights.
  • Four of the diets recommended appropriate calorie intake for dogs of small or medium sizes but recommended excessive calories for larger dogs. This is likely due to the fact that larger dogs require fewer calories per pound of body weight compared to smaller dogs (for example, a 100 pound dog does not require 10 times the calories as a 10 pound dog).  Not all feeding directions appeared to take this into account.
  • Some dog food labels provide separate directions based on the dogs’ activity level. One of the diets’ feeding directions were almost identical to my calculations if the label’s feeding directions for active dogs were used but if owners used the feeding directions for less active dogs (which is the case for most pet dogs), they would actually be feeding fewer calories than the dogs would likely need.
  • Finally, one of diets I randomly selected gave directions for an amount to feed that would provide too many calories at all body weights. In fact, the feeding directions recommended up to 61% more calories than a dog would really need!  You can imagine what we would look like if we ate 61% more calories than we needed every day.  For some perspective, that’s like an average woman requiring 2000 calories per day eating an extra 1220 calories per day (think about eating a Big Mac®, small fries, and small shake on top of your regular 3 meals every day!)

I identified some other problems in reviewing the feeding directions of these 8 diets.  Some diets only provided ranges of weights, making it difficult for pet parents to determine the exact amount to feed.  For example, “dogs between 0-15 pounds should eat 1/2-1 cup per day.”  Other diets only provided feeding instructions for dogs weighing up to 50 pounds, so it would be the owner’s best guess of what to feed to larger dogs.

Check your pet’s food

If your pet is a healthy dog or cat with average activity levels, the Pet Nutrition Alliance has a very useful calorie calculator that will give you an estimate of your pet’s daily calorie needs. Please note that if your pet is over- or underweight, the calculator should not be used and you should talk to your veterinarian about the most appropriate diet and amount to feed.

For healthy dogs and cats at ideal weight:

  1. Click “adult dog” or “adult cat,” depending on your pet.
  2. On the “Patient” tab, enter your pet’s body weight, whether she’s spayed/neutered or intact, her body condition score (click the link in that section to see the body condition score if you’re not familiar with it) and click “calculate now.” The calculator will determine your pet’s estimated daily calories.
  3. On the “Food” tab, you can enter your pet’s food along with its calories per can or cup (that information is required on all pet food labels). The calculator will then report a suggested feeding amount.
  4. Compare the number of cups or cans per day recommended by the calculator to see how close it is to your pet food’s feeding directions. The numbers may not exactly match because labels can only provide a limited amount of information and can’t provide individualized recommendations for every pet.  However, feeding directions should at least be close to the calculated amounts.

Your pet is unique

I hope this information emphasizes that feeding directions vary in their accuracy.  However, even with the most accurate feeding directions, it’s critical to understand that feeding directions are only a starting point.  Just like people, dogs and cats are individuals and their calorie needs depend upon their age, activity level, genetics, and a variety of other individual factors.  Therefore, if you take 100 different 10-pound cats, their calorie needs will vary.  So, while some good feeding directions and your own calculations can give you a estimate of calorie needs, your dog or cat may need more calories or fewer calories and you will need to adjust the amount of food to maintain an ideal body condition (4-5 on a 9-point scale).

Therefore, one of the most useful things you can do is learn how to assess your pet’s body condition score and adjust the amount you feed accordingly.  You should be aware that if you find that you’re feeding less than 75% of the label’s recommended amount , you should switch to a lower calorie diet or a diet designed specifically for overweight pets to avoid the risk of nutritional deficiencies.  Also, be sure to limit treats, table foods, rawhides, and other treats to no more than 10% of your pet’s total daily calorie needs (the Pet Nutrition Alliance calculator gives you an estimate of that amount).  Feeding your pet conscientiously and adjusting the amounts based on body condition score will keep your pet in ideal shape which can help him to live a long and healthy life.

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Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVN

Dr. Freeman is a veterinary nutritionist and a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. She is on the cutting-edge of science, with hundreds of articles in prestigious journals, speaking engagements at national and international conferences, and awards for her scientific achievements. However, she also is passionate about providing objective and accurate information on pet nutrition to veterinarians, pet owners, and other animal enthusiasts.

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