I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen people ask some variation of “how much should I feed my dog?”, or “I think / someone said that my dog is overweight / too skinny, how much do you feed yours?”.

It’s generally a well-meaning question from an owner who wants to do the right thing, realizing that a dog who is either underweight or overweight is at much greater risk of a wide variety of ailments.

Usually, the question includes some information on the dog’s breed, age, gender and current weight. In the best of cases, it might even include some mention of the dog’s activity level, how much the dog is currently being fed, size (usually as height at the withers), and some pictures of the dog.

Unfortunately, even then, as asked, it’s also typically impossible to answer objectively in any manner that is actually useful to the individual dog owner.

Every dog is different. Even assuming that there are no underlying medical conditions that contribute to weight loss or obesity, a few of the things that are going to influence how much food a dog needs are:

  • The dog’s metabolism. Like humans, some dogs burn through more energy than others even given the exact same living conditions and activity levels, and this needs to be accounted for.
  • The qualities of the dog’s coat. Especially in the winter, whether or not the dog has a coat adapted for cold weather can make a huge difference in energy requirement, translating to a similar difference in dietary requirements.
  • The dog’s activity level. Unfortunately, a general label like “couch potato at home” or “very active” doesn’t help much at all, because different people have different ideas of what various activity levels mean. A sled dog enthusiast who regularly enters into competitions is going to have a rather different idea of what it means for a dog to be “moderately active”, compared to someone who spends a few hours each weekend walking in a forest.
  • The exact kind of food that the dog is being fed, or that one is considering feeding. This needs to go beyond specifying the manufacturer and, at an absolute minimum, specify the exact variety, because different foods have very different compositions and thus different energy content for the same volume, let alone weight.
  • The dog’s living conditions. A dog who spends a lot of time outdoors in extreme winter weather is going to have rather different needs compared to one who spends most of its time in a heated house, even if everything else about their lives is identical (which it usually won’t be).

And that’s just to begin with.

Consequently, such questions tend to get a huge range of answers, not uncommonly a difference of a factor 2-3 or even more than that even for dogs of the same breed and similar weight.

That doesn’t help anyone, least of which the owner who just wants to make sure they are keeping their dog at a healthy weight!

At best, a person can look at the pictures and try to determine if the dog looks like it is overweight, underweight, or at an appropriate weight and, from there, suggest to either decrease, increase, or maintain its food intake, respectively, or to make the opposite adjustment to the dog’s activity level. But this, too, is fraught with issues; for example, a thick coat can easily obscure the dog’s condition, particularly in a situation where one can’t actually physically feel the dog.

Instead, learn how to tell whether the dog is at an appropriate weight. This varies slightly between breeds because of different body types, but it’s not that difficult, and the general principles transfer well between breeds. Certainly do consider asking for a second opinion from your veterinarian, the dog’s breeder, or even just a local person who is knowledgeable about dogs; or even to show you how. If their opinion about your dog’s weight differs from yours, ask them to explain what they base theirs on. It’s not about the number displayed on the scale; it’s about how the dog is carrying that weight.

Once you know what your particular dog is supposed to look and feel like when it is at an appropriate weight, you can adjust the amount of food and/or the dog’s activity level continuously in order to maintain that appropriate weight; and you won’t need to rely on strangers on the Internet to do it.

Trust me. Long term, if it could, your dog would thank you for it.