Understanding Your Dog's Energy Needs & How That Factors into Your Dog's Food
Step 5 of 13 in the Dogly Home Cooking Channel
with Savannah Welna of FeedThyDog, Nutrition Advocate

Why is energy density important for meeting your dog's nutrient needs?

Why is it important to consider nutrient density even when you feed your dog raw diets like PMR or BARF?

Why might a dog gain weight when the overall weight of his/her food doesn't change?

What is the best way to feed dogs for their individual energy needs?

So many questions, so let's jump into energy - all these questions, answers, and more, including how to calculate your dog's energy requirements.

Why understanding energy matters

Dogs need energy for their biological functions. Just to exist requires energy.

In thinking about what that means, I sometimes compare it a messy room...You have to use energy to clean up a room to return it to its proper order. Just getting to the cleaned-up state requires energy. Our bodies are the same, whether we're talking about ourselves or our dogs - existing and maintaining our basic existence in good health requires a certain amount of energy.

We must meet our dogs' energy needs.

Pro tip: the difference between a calorie and a kcal

Dog owners often ask about the confusion between a calorie and a kcal as they plan their dog's food. What's the difference? The simple answer is that a kcal equals 1,000 calories (upper case Calorie is the same as a kcal). Literally, kcal stands for kilocalorie, kilo meaning 1,000; kcals make it easier to express calorie count in simpler numbers on packages, in formulations, etc. Technically, a calorie is a unit of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 °C.

How much dog food does your dog need & what types: how much fat, protein, carbohydrate?

How much dog food with how much energy your dog needs is an important factor in planning your dog's diet. You'll want to take into account your dog's healthy weight, your dog's life stage, health status, and activity level. All of these elements play a part in determining your individual dog's energy and nutrient needs - and the kinds of foods you'll choose to ensure you meet them - whether you feed your dog a raw diet, cooked dog food, or a combination of the two.

How to calculate your dog's daily diet kcal requirement for energy maintenance

Here's how to figure out a working number for your dog's current energy maintenance requirements in kcals:

#1. Measure your dog's weight in kg.

#2. Weight X .75 = your dog's metabolic weight.

#3. Metabolic weight X __ = kcal "guess."

For the blank multiplier in #3, most dogs should usually fall in the 70-130 range. As you think about the right number for your dog, it's helpful to keep in mind which types of dogs fall where in (or outside) the range.

Individual dogs, individual energy needs

Young dogs who are super active can be as high as 230. Older, senior dogs can be close to 70, while many adult dogs would be more in the mid-range. Smaller dogs can be lower, while a larger size or a dog's breed/mix (like a Boxer who is active) would put a dog on the higher end of the range.

When we say "active or super active," it's a bit different from our human concept. We're essentially talking about the mileage your dog covers and/or how much vigorous play your dog engages in, or if your dog is a "working type dog" getting plenty of physical and mental exercise. As you think about what accurately describes your dog, the more activity the higher the number.

You will also want to take into account any special health condition as well as eating history (usually not a big eater, or your dog's digestive system has trouble digesting or being sensitive to certain foods, etc.)

Pro tip: size up your dog's "body condition"

Body composition is important to include in your ultimate calculations - mostly, body composition means whether your dog is over/under weight or just right. The dog version of BMI (Body Mass Index) in humans is called BCS (Body Condition Score) and it's a way to look at body fat and keep an eye on your dog for maintaining an ideal, healthy weight.

How to read your dog's body condition

Looking at your dog from above, if you notice your pup looks rather oval-shaped and you can't see any sign of an indentation or "waist" above the rear, it's likely your dog is carrying extra fat. If your dog has a defined waist toward the rear and a straight build down the sides, then your pup is probably at a healthy weight.

If you can see the ribs and spine quite obviously, your dog is likely underweight. The answer will tell you how you need to adjust your dog's food - how much and which foods - to get and keep your dog at his/her ideal, healthiest weight, one of the biggest contributors to your dog's wellness and longevity.

Adjusting foods to optimize your dog's energy & weight

Once you've figured your dog's target kcals per day to either maintain or increase/decrease energy and weight, you can adjust the volume or type of foods you're giving your dog to manage the kcals and still deliver necessary nutrients and meet nutritional requirements. That's an important part of what we'll be doing as we get into recipe formulation and planning your dog's diet - and will make a lot more sense once we're actually formulating.

Give me an example

We can adjust ingredients somewhat slightly to change the energy density by manipulating the relative amount of fat/protein/carbohydrate.

For example, chicken & beef two ways (obviously there would be other ingredients in the meal as well):

  • Option 1: chicken wings with skin, ground beef
  • Option 2: chicken breast/ no skin, beef/top round roast

In both cases, you're giving high quality ingredients and nutrients in chicken and beef. The difference is the energy density. What changes the equation is the fat.

Option 1 has a lot more fat. Option 2 is more dense in energy so your dog is getting more energy for the amount of food. Fat plays an important role in your dog's' nutrition, but it delivers significantly more kcals per gram, using up your dog's target allotment disproportionately, meaning you have to feed a larger volume of food to be sure your dog gets needed nutrients as well.

Pro tip: the big difference - kcals per gram in fat vs protein & carbs

Knowing how each macronutrient stacks up in kcals per gram of food is a key tool in being able to manipulate your dog's diet to make sure you're giving your dog complete and balanced homemade dog food for a healthy weight and energy.

Kcals per gram for macronutrients providing energy in your dog's meal

  • Fat - 9 kcals/gram
  • Protein- 4 kcals/gram
  • Carbohydrates - 4 kcals/gram

You can see why knowing where the energy is coming from is important to be able to achieve the right balance and weight for your dog. It gives you the ability to manipulate components for what's right for your individual dog.

You may decide to shift the proportion of fat vs the other macronutrients. For example, you may want to reduce the fat, allowing your dog's system to more easily use carbs for energy, sparing protein for other jobs like building muscle. We'll work through these specifics as we start formulating later and learn in detail about macronutrients here in the next guide.

How much food is best for your dog?

If we decrease the energy density (with more fatty foods, for example), we have to increase the nutrient density and that means including additional foods. Since fat disproportionately takes up space in your kcal allotment, you have to add more volume to deliver your dog's nutrient needs.

Not a good idea if your dog doesn't need to gain weight. And for most dogs, there's a volume level that simply sits better with them; they're able to digest it and feel happy and at their best after a meal.

A smaller amount is often right for older dogs, or smaller dogs, or maybe it's simply just what happens to suit your pup. No one knows your dog better than you - you probably have a very clear idea of the best food volume for your dog.

(Side note on target kcals: "Dog foods" are everything your dog eats - that includes treats and raw meaty bones. Good to remember, everything dogs eat counts!)

At some point, you'll feed too much energy or too little... when you know where it's coming from, you can adjust.

That's the benefit of using energy nutrition guidelines. (And why it makes so much sense to go beyond commercial dog food to create homemade meals for your dog.)

Now with a foundation in energy requirements for your dog, you can see why combining a focus on both ingredients and nutrients is super important!

And you're ready to put your energy foundation to work to come up with an energy profile for your pup - and surface any questions that might pop up in the process...

Try this

  1. Calculate how much energy your dog is currently using (with equation above) and how that results in what you see in your pup's current body composition.
  2. Based on your dog's current body composition and whether you want to maintain or increase/decrease weight or impact another health goal, calculate your dog's possibly revised energy (kcals) target.

If you'd like to watch me take you through all this information and the calculations, you can see the accompanying video below.

Next up in the Home Cooking Channel on Dogly

Now that you understand energy requirements for your dog's food, let's learn about macronutrients in your dog's diet in the next step-by-step guide here.

Or hop over to the Home Cooking Channel if you'd like to ask a question in the Community discussion and start any of the other step-by-step guides in Home Cooking Basics or Recipes.

If you ever need more personalized nutrition guidance, please reach out!

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Savannah Welna of FeedThyDog

Nutrition Advocate
Dogly loves Savannah because she provides nutrition advice based on the dog in front of you and your lifestyle.

Savannah guides you

Raw Feeding - Basic Nutrition - Fresh Feeding - Home Cooking - Whole Foods - Supplementation

Savannah is certified

CN & ACN - Certified Canine Fitness - & Certified Advanced Canine Nutrition