A couple of weeks ago, I spoke about how to quickly and easily body condition score your own dog or cat. One of the most important reasons why it’s so helpful is that it allows you to easily monitor their weight without a scale. Last week, Matt spoke about how bad the pet obesity crisis is, and we know that prevention is always better than trying to find a cure. That’s why, being able to detect weight gain early on in your pet and being able to act on it is so important. The idea of adjusting food intake based on changes in body weight is not revolutionary. We do this all the time ourselves. When we notice a few more kilos in the mirror, we know we need to cut back on our calories and start exercising a bit more. If we were to notice we’re getting a little bit skinny, we know we can afford to eat a little bit more. It’s these steady, periodic, microadjustments that make a big difference over a lifetime and it’s the best way to keep your body weight relatively constant. It’s the same for pets; you can help to prevent obesity from developing by adjusting how much you feed based on your pet’s body condition score.
To work out how much to feed you need to know two things: your pet’s body weight and their body condition score. If you don’t know their weight, you can pop down to your local vet clinic to get your pet’s weight checked. A lot of pet stores nowadays also have scales that you can use. If you want to weigh your pet at home, you can use a baby scale for cats and small dogs or a human bathroom scale for medium-sized dogs. If you have a wiggly pet that won’t stay still on the scale or the bathroom scale is too small, you can weigh yourself while holding your pet and then subtract your own weight. This is trickier with larger and giant breed dogs though, unless you’re very strong!
Once you know your pet’s weight and their body condition score, you’re good to go. There are many equations that can be used to calculate energy requirements, but truthfully, no matter which equation is used, we often need to adjust the amounts fed to fit the individual pet anyways. So, what I recommend is to use the feeding guides that are provided on your dog’s or cat’s food bag and consider that as a starting point.
Some feeding guides have the amount to feed based on the current body weight of your pet and their body condition (often described as thin/underweight, normal/ideal, or heavy/overweight). These are great because we should be adjusting the amount to feed according to body condition. Some feeding guides give only one ration per body weight. So, in these cases, you can use a rule of thumb of feeding 10% less than what is stated on the bag if your pet is overweight and 10% more if your pet is underweight.
So, now you know how much to start feeding. Really diligent pet parents use a kitchen scale and weigh out to the grams the amount to feed everyday – and these guys deserve a gold star! You can also get digital scoops that can weigh the food, which are pretty neat. For most people though (including myself), we just use a normal scoop or cup and eyeball it. It’s not ideal, we know that, but it’s the most practical. For this method though, what I recommend for you to do is to “cut the cup.” Cut the cup you are using to ensure that you don’t overfeed your pet.
To do this, first weigh out the amount of food you need to feed. The amount on the feeding guides is the amount per day, which can be split into several meals if you want. Most dogs are fed twice a day, so you can divide the grams of food from the feeding guide by two. Then, using a paper or plastic cup that you will use as a scoop, add the amount of food per meal, level it and mark on the inside of the cup the level where the food reaches. Then cut your cup to that level to prevent yourself from going over. You can then use your cup as a scoop to measure out the right amount, always keeping to the level amount.
Once you start feeding this amount, make sure to body condition score your dog or cat every week. Do this every Sunday, or something like that so that it’s easier to remember. If you see that your pet is starting to gain weight (maybe those ribs are getting harder to feel, or that hourglass shape is not so evident), then you know you need to cut back. Reduce the amount you’re feeding by 10% and make a new cup for yourself so that you don’t forget. If you find that your pet is starting to look underweight, then you can increase the amount you’re feeding by 10%. Make yourself a new cup, or even do a slightly more heaping amount with your current cup to see if that is a sufficient increase in food. For the vast majority of pets, the risk of overfeeding is way higher than the risk of underfeeding. Keep adjusting in 10% increments every week as needed until you find the right amount that keeps your pet at their ideal weight.
Once you’ve found the right amount to keep your pet at their ideal body condition and weight, you’ll find that you don’t need to change it very often. If your pet starts exercising more, or if the weather gets significantly colder or hotter, you may find that you need to adjust how much you’re feeding. Again, it’s all about the constant microadjustments up and down, 10% at a time, to keep on top of things. It’s not too hard and doing everything we can to reduce the risk of obesity is worth it.