Over the last week I've been talking about various myths and misconceptions people have surrounding pet foods. All of that is important, but there is also something that is just as important as the kind of ingredients....the amount of food given.
Almost daily I'll have a client ask "how much food should I give?" The answer is "it depends". Just like there is no single food that is "best" for every dog or cat, there is no single amount that is appropriate across all situations. There are a lot of factors that go into determining the right amount, such as age, activity level, health status, metabolic disorders, caloric density of the food, and so on. Nutritional specialists and some general practice veterinarians will calculate the daily caloric requirement for the pet and then calculate how many calories the food has. Honestly, that's too much math for me personally, so I try to make it simpler for myself and my clients.
A good starting point is the chart on the side of the bag of food. On just about every food you'll see a chart where you can look at the pet's weight and see about how many cups per day to feed. However, there are several things to keep in mind about that information. First, it's an average. Each dog has a slightly different metabolism, so the recorded amount may be too much for dogs with a slower metabolism. Second, they are generally made in the research facilities with animals that are not spayed or neutered. Having a dog or cat "fixed" lowers their metabolic rate by about 30%, which has given rise to the myth that spaying or neutering "makes pets fat". No, it doesn't, but it does slow metabolism so you have to be more careful with feeding habits. Third, the charts are made based on dogs of average activity. If your dog is extremely active or leads a sedentary life, they may need a higher or lower amount of food.
But even given those factors, the chart is a good place to start. If your pet maintains their weight, great! Keep it up. If your pet gains weight, you'll want to reduce the amount fed, possibly lower than the chart. I feed my own dogs about a cup less than the low end of the feeding chart, in large part because they spend most of their time inside the house on the bed or couch, and really aren't burning calories. I'm able to keep them at a lean, muscled body condition in this way. If my dogs were much more active I'd have to feed them more than I do now, and possibly more than the recommended amount.
So step number one in proper feeding is to measure the food. DO NOT just dump some in a bowl! Get an inexpensive measuring cup or scoop, and put a specific amount in the bowl. You'll want to know exactly how much your pet is getting, down to the fraction of a cup. This is important for a couple of reasons. If you're not feeding the right amount, you'll know exactly how much you need to increase or decrease. You'll also be able to more easily monitor when your pet may not be eating quite as much, possibly alerting you to the early stages of an illness.
Now I know that there are some people out there who just leave food out for their dog or cat. I don't have an issue with doing so IF (1) that is the only pet in the household, (2) you are still measuring out the food each day, and (3) your pet is maintaining a healthy weight. So if your dog eats 3 cups of food per day and you put that amount in the bowl in the morning for your dog to graze during the day, that's fine by me. We just don't want to exceed the recommended amount by filling the bowl as soon as it's emptied.
"But Dr. Bern, he seems so hungry when he's finished. That means he needs more!" No, that may not mean that he needs another scoop of food. Many animals, like many people, simply enjoy the taste of their food. How many times have each and every one of us continued to eat even when we're full, simply because it tasted so good? Many people in Western societies are overweight or obese because they don't understand the concept of portion control and continue to eat poor quality foods because it tastes so good. And I'll be the first to admit that I have that problem! I often have to make a decision to turn down desert that I want because I know that I'm not really hungry by that point. Most dogs and cats are the same way, but they have no self control.
Step number two of proper feeding is important in households with multiple pets. You must separate pets when feeding them! If you have three dogs and all of them are eating from the same bowl, how can you know how much each is getting? You simply can't know. If you have several cats and keep the food bowl full at all times, how much is each cat eating? Are you surprised that at least one of them is overweight? "But Dr. Bern, I put the bowls down in different places but as soon as Fluffy finsihes her food she goes over and pushes Butch out of the way." I'm not surprised by these situations and it's normal for dogs and cats. The solution? Put each pet behind closed doors!
Let me give you an example from my own house. We have three cats and two dogs. One of the dogs and two of the cats are very motivated by food and will finish theirs quickly before seeking out other food. In the past I would try to feed them in separate bowls but the same room. Inevitably we'd have to shoo someone away from a bowl that wasn't theirs. One of our cats is very docile and easily bullied by the others, and we started seeing him lose weight because he ate slower and would be pushed way from the bowl by a housemate. When it's feeding time at our house we put one dog in the family room, on in their kennel in the laundry room, one cat in the upstairs bathroom, one cat in my son's bedroom, and one cat in the laundry room. All doors are closed so nobody has access to anything but their own food. Once everyone has finished eating we open the doors and let them mingle again. That may seem like a lot of work, but the pets are trained to this method and will run to their respective places in anticipation of the meal. Our kids feed the pets and it takes a total of less than five minutes to do all five pets in separate locations. And all five of these pets are at a healthy, lean body weight.
Ask yourself this....are you willing to invest five minutes per day to help keep your pet healthy? Then you must separate pets to properly feed them.
Step number three....restrict the treats! Most people don't realize how quickly treats and snacks add up the calories. This is especially likely to happen in a household with multiple people. "Oh, I only give a couple of treats per day." Really? Are you sure about that? Take a week and write down how many treats you're actually giving. Then write down how many each family member is also giving. You may truthfully be only giving 2-3 treats per day. But if your spouse and two children are also "only" giving 2-3 treats per day, then suddenly your pet is getting 8-12 treats! Those calories accumulate quickly in cats and small dogs.
I'm not saying to never give treats. Your pets like them, we like giving them, and it helps us bond with our pets. But do so in a smart way. Here are a couple of simple things you can do to help manage treats.
Start out by getting a small resealable kitchen container (Tupperware or other brands). At the beginning of the day put a set amount of treats in that container (probably no more than 3-4, depending on the size of the treat and the size of the pet). Whenever anyone in the family wants to give the dog or cat a treat, it must come out of that container. When it's empty, no more treats can be given! You're done for the day! This method allows you to mange the snack output in the whole family without having to interrogate or hassle each member.
If you're still struggling with weight issues, use a portion of the food rather than separate treats. If your dog should get 1 cup daily, measure that out in the morning and put some of the kibble in a container. Those are the treats for the day! By adding this modification you're able to give treats throughout the day and yet still not go over the daily calorie limit.
Step number four....exercise! Like their human owners, animals need exercise to maintain proper weight and muscle tone. Most dogs and cats lead a pretty simple, sedentary life, such as my own. The more exercise in which you and your pets engage, the more calories you can get away with eating. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps eats around 6,000-8,000 calories per day when training, far greater than the 2,500 or so that an average person should consume. How can he get away with that? By having an exercise regimen that burns about 1,000 calories per hour! Some pets can be maintained at a proper weight simply with proper nutrition and portion control. Others need to be exercised more every day.
Other than in cases of metabolic disorders, pet obesity is a completely preventable and treatable condition. Humans have pretty much 100% control of their pets' food, so if a pet becomes overweight, the blame can be laid at the feet of their owner. Now, that may sound harsh and I'm not trying to beat anyone up. In fact, I think that philosophy is encouraging, because it also means that owners have 100% control over the improvement in their pets' weight!
Because this is a complicated issue, if anyone has pets with weight problems I strongly encourage you to talk at length to your own vet.