As a raw feeder, you might be aware of only one method for determining how much to feed your dog.
But there’s another.
You can determine food quantity using calories.
The majority of raw feeders determine how much to feed using the “2-3% of their dog’s ideal body weight” guideline. And it seems to work for most people.
But what does the minority have to say?
Some dog owners and raw feeding experts prefer to determine food quantity on a caloric basis. They argue the 2-3% guideline is bogus.
With anything in nutrition, it’s not so black-and-white…
Both options make sense. But if you’re going to feed raw, you should understand the reasoning behind each.
So let’s go over dog food calories together.
First, What Are Calories?
Calories are a unit of energy and this applies for all animals, people included.
Every cell in our body – and your dog’s body — requires energy to function. Calories can sound scientific and complicated. But the basic premise is:
Calories relate to energy consumption (through eating and drinking) and energy usage.
Dogs have caloric needs too. So determining how much to feed using calories is a sensible recommendation.
Quick, Let’s Learn Calorie Terminology
Calories are all the same – units of energy. But they have two different names and symbols based on the unit of measurement.
- Small calorie (symbol: cal) – Measured in grams (aka gram calorie). It’s the heat energy required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one-degree Celsius.
- Large calorie (symbol: Cal) – Measured in kilograms (aka kilogram calorie). It’s the heat energy required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one-degree Celsius.
The large calorie is what we care about for the sake of canine nutrition. It goes by many names (see below). They all refer to the same thing:
- Large Calorie
- Kilogram calorie
- Kilocalories (1 kilocalorie is equal to 1000 small calories)
- Food calories
- Kcals (unit of measurement used in veterinary medicine and what we refer to when talking about dog food calories).
Note: Caloric Terms Are Often Used Incorrectly
If you’re being factual:
- Capital “C” indicates large calories.
- Lowercase “c” indicates small calories.
But few people use them in the correct sense.
Small calories are a tiny unit of energy. The term is commonly found in scientific literature, not discussions on nutrition. Most of the time, the word “calorie,” (regardless if C is capitalized or lower case), refers to kcals in food or exercise.
But don’t get hung up on the terminology. I’m only sharing to avoid confusion.
Let’s move on.
How Many Calories Does A Dog Need?
Surprise. We don’t have clear answers on dog food calories.
It’s mathematically impossible to determine exactly how many kilocalories a dog needs. Even if we take a dog’s age, lifestyle and exercise habits into consideration.
Every dog’s metabolism varies.
These varying rates could alter this number by as much as 20 percent in either direction. Plus, we know little about exercise and calorie expenditure in dogs.
So, any figure you come up with is only an estimate.
The real determining factor is body condition. You start with an estimated number of calories. From there, you track your dog’s weight and body condition. Then, you adjust as needed.
What Affects A Dog’s Caloric Need?
Many factors. The following criteria all play a role in dog food calories.
- Age – Younger and growing dogs need more calories than adults. Senior dogs require less.
- Activity and exercise – Inactive dogs need fewer calories than active dogs. Working dogs will have the highest caloric need.
- Altered/Intact – Reproductive ability affects food intake. Neutered and spayed dogs will have a lower caloric need than intact dogs.
- Breed (or breed makeup) – Highly active breeds use more energy than a lower activity breed of the same size. For example, a Jack Russell Terrier may need more calories compared to a Miniature Poodle.
- Size – Small dogs (under 20 lbs.) may require more calories, per pound, than large dogs (over 50 lbs.).
- Climate – Dogs living in hot climates tend to have lower caloric requirements. And dogs in cold climates have higher caloric needs so they can overcome heat loss. Regardless, a dog’s needs vary throughout the season. They may increase in winter and decrease in summer.
- Metabolism & Health – Certain health conditions may cause a dog to lose weight. This will require them to consume more calories to stay healthy. And just like people, some dogs have fast or slow metabolisms, which play a part in caloric need.
How To Estimate Caloric Need in Dogs
At this point, you’re probably still wondering, “How many calories should my dog eat?” Good question.
Use this simple, three-step formula to calculate your dog’s caloric need:
- Convert your dog’s body weight to kilograms (equation below)
- Calculate your dog’s resting energy requirements (RER)
- Determine your dog’s maintenance energy requirement (MER)
Step 1: Convert Pounds to Kilograms
Calories are in kilograms so it’s no surprise this formula uses kilograms. To get your dog’s weight in kilograms, simply divide your dog’s weight in pounds by 2.2 to convert to kilograms (kg).
- 20lb dog / 2.2 = 9.09 kg
- 100lb dog / 2.2 = 45.45 kg
Step 2: Calculate Resting Energy Requirements (RER)
RER is the energy required to perform essential body functions. This includes activities like beating the heart, breathing, and digesting food.
Calculate by multiplying your dog’s body weight (in kilograms), raised to the ¾ power, by 70.
Note: Remember PEMDAS. Calculate the exponent first (your dog’s weight in kg raised to the ¾ power) then multiply by 70.
For example, a 20 lb. dog:
- 70 (9.09)^0.75 = 366.80 calories per day
For example, a 100 lb. dog:
- 70 (45.45)^0.75 = 1225 calories per day
Don’t like math? Me either, use this exponent calculator.
This is what your dog needs to sustain life. Now, let’s talk activity, exercise and lifestyle.
Step 3: Determine Maintenance Energy Requirements (MER)
Next we multiply your dog’s RER by other factors to estimate your dog’s total daily energy needs.
MER = appropriate multiplier x RER
Common MER multiples listed below:
- Growth (less than 4 months old) – 3
- Growth (more than 4 months old but under a year) – 2
- Inactive/Obese Prone – 1.2
- Average dog (neutered or spayed) – 1.6
- Average dog (intact) – 1.8
- Weight Loss – 1
- Weight Gain – 1.7
- Light Work – 2
- Moderate Work – 3
- Heavy Work – 5
For example, a 20 lb. neutered male would have the following estimated caloric need:
- 80 RER x 1.6 = 586.88 calories per day
For example, a 100 lb. intact male would have the following estimated caloric need:
- 1225 calories RER x 1.8 = 2205 calories per day
Try Our FREE Canine Caloric Need Calculator
If you’d rather skip the math (I don’t blame you), use this handy dog food calorie calculator that does all the work for you.
Calculate Your Dog's Caloric NEED
It’s easy! Simply enter your dog’s weight below. Select one of the options in the drop down that best describes your dog. Then, click calculate. The results will be listed below.
Remember, This is a Ball Park Figure
Understand you dog’s individual needs could vary by as much as 20% from the calculated value. So get used to seeing different recommendations.
And remember, most dogs will fall within the inactive and average categories.
Is there a calorie average you can use?
Yes, but they also vary.
Most professional’s estimate a dog needs 30 calories per day, per pound of body weight, on average. But others urge you to start calculations as low as 15 calories per day, per pound of body weight.
But remember, feeding guidelines aren’t linear. Small dogs eat more for their body weight than larger dogs do.
A more accurate average would be the following ranges based on size:
- Large dogs: 17-25 calories per day, per pound.
- Average sized dogs: 20-30 calories per day, per pound.
- Small dogs: 25-40 calories per day, per pound.
I recommend giving your dog a 20% caloric leeway in either direction.
And consider this only a starting point. These values will change with time and circumstances. You’ll adjust up or down as needed to maintain proper body condition.
Now that we know how to do it, let’s get into the whys.
The Beef: Calories vs. the 2-3% Guideline
The raw dog food industry has a bad rap with the rest of the pet food industry. Shocking… I know. But this time, it has nothing to do with the food being raw.
This beef is about how you determine feeding quantity.
Sadly, raw dog food companies are not taken seriously. Why? They often promote the 2-3% guideline for determining how much to feed.
In response, pet food industry opponents claim raw feeders:
- Haven’t studied nutrition
- Shouldn’t be creating recipes
- Know squat about energy requirements in dogs
Steve Brown, an expert dog food formulator and the founder of the original raw dog food brand, Steve’s Real Food says:
“If we want the respect of the professionals, we must do it the right way.”
So let’s at least try to understand their side.
The basics of nutrition lie in energy requirements.
So you’d assume this were taken into consideration in determining how much food to feed your dog?
The 2-3% guideline is a generalization that does not take energy into the equation. For this reason, some experts argue the 2-3% recommendation is inaccurate.
Let’s look at the shortcomings of the 2-3% guideline:
- Food quantity
- Energy density
- Nutritional analysis
1) The Caloric Approach Provide a More Accurate Gauge of Food Quantity
Steve Brown and I reviewed two sample raw diets on a video call.
One was lean and one was high in fat.
Next, we reviewed the caloric requirements for a small dog. Afterwards, we found the calories in each of those meals. Here’s what nutritional analysis showed:
- The small dog had to eat between 4-10% of the lean diet to meet caloric needs.
- But on the high fat diet, the small dog needed to eat only 5-6.5%
This goes to show percentages are not set in stone. They vary based on the fat in the diet. Why?
Raw diets are energy dense (or, high calorie) foods.
Let me explain…
Raw diets have a lot of fat compared to kibble – even the leanest of diets do. And fat has more than twice the calories per gram as protein and carbohydrates. So the more fat in the diet, the more calories it contains.
How much we feed depends on the fat in each meal.
Providing 2-3% of all foods, while easier, is not the best way to determine feeding quantity.
Mary Straus, a well-known canine nutrition writer and columnist has the same concern:
“…the 2-3% rule of feeding, which is overly simplistic and does not take into account the fact (not opinion) that small dogs eat more for their weight than large dogs do. 2-3% might be acceptable for a 50-pound dog, but would likely be too little for a small dog and too much for a large dog. A lot also depends on the composition of the diet — you feed less of high-fat diets because the fat adds so many calories, so a 50-pound dog might eat 1.5% of its weight of a high-fat diet yet the same dog would need more than 3% if fed a low-fat diet.”
2) Formulating Meals On a Caloric Basis Allows You to Correct for Energy Density
Dog owners need to feed less of higher-fat diets (by weight) to provide the same number of calories.
But here’s the kicker:
Because you’re feeding less (to compensate for the high fat in the diet), your dog will get less of all the other nutrients in the diet. Unless those nutrients have been increased.
In the industry, this is called correcting for energy density.
3) Analyzing Raw Diets on a Caloric Basis Ensures They’re Compete & Balanced.
Raw dog food needs to be nutritionally analyzed in a certain way to ensure accuracy.
The proper way to analyze raw foods –remember, energy dense foods– is to formulate on a caloric basis. Raw food is formulated based on 1000 calories, or 1000 kcals.
But a common way to analyze dog food (and to compare between wet and dry options) is to use dry matter basis (DM). This means the moisture is removed. DM analysis works fine for high-carbohydrate, lower-fat dog foods with moderate calories. But it does not work well for raw dog food.
If raw diets are analyzed using DM, they are not corrected for energy density. What ends up happening is that the food appears to meet AAFCO guidelines. When in reality, a caloric analysis shows they fall way short.
See it discussed in further detail by Dr. Karen Becker, Steve Brown and Mary Strauss here.
Now, let’s look at opinions from those in favor of the other method.
Why The 2-3% Guideline?
Many raw feeding experts prefer the 2-3% guideline. It’s not that they disagree with the logic presented above. But it boils down to what’s practical for the average dog owner.
The following reasons are why the 2-3% guideline is still recommended:
- Balance over time
- It’s an average
- It’s easy to adjust
- Calorie calculations are intimidating
- Estimating calories in ingredients is difficult
1) With the 2-3% Guideline We’re Aiming for Balance Over Time, Not in Every Bowl
Eating naturally or as nature intended is supposed to be a simple concept.
Think about it. What do we hear?
We’re told the same principles time and time again. Eat real food, eat the rainbow, and eat a variety. We’re not told to calculate nutrients to ensure every meal we consume is complete and balanced.
That’s because this type of lifestyle can be inconvenient and complicated. In nature, balance occurs over time.
Most of us do not calculate complete and balanced meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. So why do this with dogs if it’s not something we do for our families or ourselves? Nature doesn’t count calories or calculate nutrients with a spreadsheet. And it’s not the only way for you to provide a healthy diet for your dog.
2) The 2-3% Guideline is a Dependable Average
Sure, the 2-3% guideline is not always accurate. However, this range appears to be a dependable average for most dogs, which is why it’s recommended.
David Agius, a dog food formulator and accredited canine nutritionist, had this to say about the 2-3% guideline:
“I formulate diets using calories and I can tell you that they always come in at 2-4% of the dog’s body weight… No matter how ‘sciencey’ you make the food – some dogs are going to put on weight at maintenance calories; some are going to lose weight… It’s about observing your dog and adjusting. Pick an amount and feed it.”
3) The 2-3% Guideline is Easy to Adjust
Remember, this approach is only a starting point.
You’ll need to adjust based on body condition anyway. Use the 2-3% guideline to determine where to begin. And from there, observe your dog and adjust the amount of food as needed.
Ronny Lejeune of Perfectly Rawsome shares the same sentiment:
“If said dog is not getting the correct amount of food, you will know. This depicts itself in physical attributes that can be measured, i.e. weight loss (not enough total food), dry/flaky skin (not enough fat), muscle wasting (not enough protein), etc.”
Thomas Sandberg of Long Living Pets agrees:
“For me it’s about observing your pet. If he gets too thin add more food, too chubby feed less. It’s also about averages. The individual metabolism and level of exercise play into this too. This is not one for all. My Danes weigh about the same, 140 lbs. One gets 3lbs and the other get 2.4 lbs on an average. These amounts keep them both lean and fit.”
The good news is it’s easy to correct and fine-tune your dog’s diet.
4) Calorie Calculations Scare Dog Owners Away from Raw Feeding
Raw feeding should simple, accessible, and non-threatening for the average dog owner.
Because let’s face it, the average dog owner is busy. They work; they have a household to manage and a family to care for. Not everyone has the time to become proficient in canine nutrition.
And that’s okay.
That does not make you a bad dog owner. That makes you a normal human being living in the 21st century.
It’s for this reason; the 2-3% rule is suggested.
Raw feeding enthusiasts want you to succeed. Sometimes that means simplifying.
Because the truth is:
The pet food industry, and yes even raw feeding experts, scare dog owners away from raw feeding. They make it too complicated, calculated and scientific.
Dr. Peter Dobias, DVM agrees:
“Recently, one of my readers, asked me on Facebook what her dog’s RER – resting energy requirement was. Then I thought: “I never count my RER and keep myself in good shape.
Nature never intended dogs to calculate their RER.” I recalled the boring course in nutrition at the veterinary college where we used to calculate RER for cows while, in reality, all we needed to do was to let them onto the pasture and allow them to graze.
In my opinion, RER is mainly used by processed pet food companies whose so-called scientific methods are meant to distract us while they sell us nutritionally inappropriate, processed food junk.”
Getting dog owners to a level of confidence where they’re ready to switch to raw is hard. Adding calorie calculations on top on makes things more confusing and stressful.
Thomas Sandberg echoes the concern:
“They will give up before they even start!” Exactly my experience and if they read some of the “the experts” books on raw feeding many become scared to death of making a mistake. Raw feeding in my experience can be made very simple. The key is to make the first couple of weeks simple and when they actually see the pet is still alive they automatically become more sophisticated and open to learning more.”
The bottom line:
If you can feed yourself (and your family) without complex calculations, you can feed your dogs.
5) Estimating Calories in Ingredients is Difficult for Homemade Raw Feeders
This point is key, so pay attention.
Estimating your dog’s caloric needs is not hard. We just learned how to do that. What’s difficult is estimating the calories in the meals you create if you feed a homemade raw diet.
Everyone can figure out his or her dog’s caloric need. But figuring out the calories in dog food is another ball game.
Where do you even find this information?
Essentially, you need to look up the calories in every ingredient in your dog’s bowl and add them together. I won’t sugar coat it. This can be tedious, frustrating and time-consuming.
But there’s another problem:
It’s likely you’ll have a hard time locating calories and nutrient content for the odd stuff like:
- Green tripe
- Chicken feet
- Duck heads
Thomas Sandberg agrees:
“2-3% is used for simplicity. Most that feed raw would have a very hard time figuring out the calories of each ingredient. Those that feed PMR would have little to no chance to know what that is exactly.”
Finding calorie information is easier with commercially prepared raw dog food. You simply get in touch with the manufacturer and ask. Unfortunately, those that feed a homemade raw diet are at more of a disadvantage.
If you can’t find the calorie information for the ingredients you’re feeding, this method won’t be an option.
Which Method You Should Use?
Only you can answer this question, it’s your choice. But here are a few things to consider:
When to Use Calories
Determine food quantity using calories when you want to be precise and exact with your dog’s diet. This is the true way to optimize your dog’s diet.
Consider these 4 scenarios:
- Your dog has a health condition
- You have a working or sporting dog
- You feed complete-and-balanced prepackaged raw dog food
- You want to be as precise as possible
Dogs with Health Conditions:
If your dog has a health condition and you want to ensure accuracy – consider calories.
The caloric approach allows you to be more precise with:
- Food quantity
- Ensuring complete and balanced nutrition
Most formulators use calories to create diets for dogs with health conditions. It’s commonly used when creating ketogenic diets for dogs with cancer. Thomas Sandberg uses calories in this scenario as well:
“I use it for ketogenic diets when I have problems getting dogs into ketosis.”
Working & Sporting Dogs:
If you have either a working or sporting dog, you may be a candidate for the caloric approach.
That’s because with these animals, performance is of the utmost importance. The caloric approach will allow you determine a more accurate quantity of food to be fed. And it can assist in fine-tuning your dog’s nutrition.
This is key for sporting dogs look to gain an edge over the competition. But also, working dogs where handlers are looking to increase capacity.
Premade Raw Dog Food Feeders:
You can use either approach. But consider calories for a more accurate gauge of food requirements.
Calorie information should be available for brands that offer complete and balanced meals. This is because the company had to have their product analyzed. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to call their product “complete and balanced.”
Look on the back of the package for calorie information. It will be presented in kcals. If it’s not listed, contact the raw food manufacturer. Ask for a nutritional analysis of their product based on calories.
Raw Feeders that Want Precision:
Maybe you don’t fall in any of the categories above. But if you still want to be as precise as possible with your dog’s nutrition – calories are the way to go.
Give it a shot.
What’s the worst that can happen? You struggle and go back to the 2-3% guideline?
You have nothing to lose by trying the caloric approach, and only knowledge to gain. Learning more about nutrition and experimenting with your dog’s diet is a good thing, so kudos!
When to Use the 2-3% Guideline
You may need to determine food quantity using the 2-3% percent guideline in these scenarios:
- You feed a homemade raw diet
- You feed a mix of a homemade and premade raw dog food.
- The caloric approach isn’t sustainable for you
Homemade Raw Diet Feeders:
If you feed a homemade raw diet, you’re welcome to use calories to determine how much to feed. But it might not be possible.
Finding the calorie content for all of the individual ingredients in your dog’s diet may prove to be a challenge. This is especially true for items that are not sold for human consumption. This includes most goodies in an ancestral diet. Like whole heads, poultry feet, green tripe, and other miscellaneous organs and glands.
As you can imagine, this can become frustrating and discouraging.
But don’t beat yourself up or lose sleep over it. If you can’t locate reliable nutritional data on the ingredients in your dog’s raw diet, this option is dead in the water.
You’re still making a good choice. You understand what’s wrong with processed pet food and are choosing to feed a fresh food diet instead. Despite what others may say, this is step in the right direction.
Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for where you are in your raw journey.
50/50 Raw Feeders:
If you feed a mix of premade raw and homemade raw, the caloric approach might prove problematic for you too.
Finding calorie counts should be easy. That is, if it’s a brand that offers complete-and-balanced raw dog food. But if you’re feeding a grind or supplemental prepackaged raw dog food product, it could go either way.
The manufacturer might not have run a nutritional analysis on the product.
You can always reach out to ask. If you can get that information – great! But depending on the other ingredients you add at home, you may have trouble filling in the gaps in the rest of the diet.
Will The Caloric Approach Be Sustainable?
If you know the caloric approach won’t be sustainable for you – skip it.
- Do you find it confusing, frustrating, or irritating?
- Are you thinking, there’s no way this will work for you?
- Do you have a hard time buying the idea that you must count calories and calculate nutrients for your dog? Especially, when it’s not something you do for yourself or your family.
Then, use another option.
The largest barrier to entry for dog owners who want to feed raw is convenience. That’s why the 2-3% guideline exists… To simplify, so raw feeding can become more accessible to everyone.
Whatever Method You Use: Feed Responsibly
Keep in mind, either method will still require you to observe your dog and adjust food for body condition.
While there may be strong opinions about which method is the “correct” one for determining how much to feed your dog, it’s your job as a dog owner to be responsible. Only you can monitor your dog and adjust food volume as needed and it’s up to you to provide a balanced diet.
Wrapping It Up
We learned the 2-3% guideline is not the only option for determining how much raw food to feed your dog.
You can also determine food quantity on a caloric basis.For the most part, this is what the professionals use and it’s strongly recommended by vets and dog food formulators.
There are logical reasons to use the caloric approach, but it’s not easy or is it feasible for every dog owner. You’ll need to make a judgment call on what the best option is for you.
Remember, the best approach for determining food quantity is the one you actually use with your dog.
Leave a comment below and tell me what option you prefer and why.