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How to determine your dog's daily calorie needs

How to determine your dog's daily calorie needs

Determining your dog's daily calorie needs is a crucial step in ensuring their overall health and well-being. Just like humans, dogs require a balanced diet tailored to their individual characteristics and activity levels. Whether you have a playful and energetic pup or a more sedentary companion, understanding their calorie requirements will help you provide them with the right amount of food to maintain a healthy weight and promote optimal physical condition. By taking into consideration factors such as age, breed, weight, activity level, and any underlying health conditions, you can create a customized feeding plan that supports your furry friend's specific needs. 

There’s always a lot of talk about calories. Are they good or are they bad? Where do they come from? In this guide, we'll explore the key elements involved in determining your dog's daily calorie needs, empowering you to make informed decisions about their diet and fostering their overall wellness. Let’s take a look at calories and the best way to balance them in your dog's diet.

Close Up Photo Of Woman Hands Holding Bowl Of Granules For Her Dog High angle view of an anonymous woman feeding puppy with a bowl with pet food at home. dog eating stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

Why it’s important to balance your dog’s daily calorie intake

Balancing your dog's daily calorie intake is a vital aspect of maintaining their overall health and ensuring their well-being. Just as with humans, an imbalanced diet can lead to a range of health issues that affect your furry companion's quality of life. One of the primary reasons for caloric balance is weight management. Providing your dog with the appropriate amount of calories prevents them from becoming overweight or underweight, which can contribute to various health problems such as joint stress, heart disease, and diabetes. Additionally, a well-balanced calorie intake supports your dog's energy levels, enabling them to engage in daily activities without excessive fatigue or lethargy. Nutritional balance is equally critical – the right amount of calories ensures they receive the necessary nutrients for optimal growth, immune function, and organ health. Ultimately, maintaining a balanced calorie intake isn't just about physical health; it's about promoting longevity, enhancing their quality of life, and nurturing a strong and happy bond between you and your beloved canine companion.

What are calories?

Calories are a unit of measurement used to quantify the energy content of food. In the context of nutrition, calories represent the amount of energy that the body can derive from consuming a particular food or beverage. When animals, including dogs, consume food, their bodies break down the nutrients through processes like digestion and metabolism, releasing energy that is essential for various bodily functions. This energy fuels activities ranging from basic physiological processes like breathing and circulation to more active pursuits such as walking, playing, and running. For dogs, maintaining the right balance of calories is crucial to supporting their growth, maintaining a healthy weight, and ensuring optimal bodily functions. It's important to note that the calorie needs of dogs can vary widely based on factors such as their size, age, breed, activity level, and overall health status.

Calories are a measurement of how much energy is in food and is usually portrayed as kcal/kg on pet food labels. Animals need calories for energy to support basic cellular, body functions. As with all things, there needs to be balance. Too many calories may contribute to weight gain and obesity, while too few calories can cause animals to become tired and lethargic.

Dog catching a biscuit. French bulldog trying to catch a dog biscuit thrown to her by her owner. Close-up portrait, photographed against a pale pink background, horizontal format with some copy space. dog eating stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

Where do calories come from?

Calories in food come from any nutrient that provides a source of energy. This energy comes from the macronutrients present in the foods and treats that dogs consume. There are three primary macronutrients that provide calories:


Carbohydrates are one of the main sources of calories in a dog's diet. They include sugars, starches, and dietary fibers found in ingredients like grains (e.g., rice, oats, wheat), vegetables, and fruits. While dogs don't require carbohydrates to the same extent as humans, they can still derive energy from them.


Proteins are essential for dogs as they provide the building blocks for various bodily functions, including muscle growth and repair. Proteins are made up of amino acids, and when broken down during digestion, they can provide energy. Sources of protein in a dog's diet include meats (e.g., chicken, beef, fish), eggs, and some plant-based proteins.

Fats and lipids

Fats are a concentrated source of energy for dogs and are crucial for maintaining healthy skin, coat, and organ function. They also play a role in absorbing certain vitamins. Fats can be found in animal-based sources like fatty cuts of meat, fish oil, and plant-based sources such as oils (e.g., olive oil, coconut oil).

Not all nutrients and/or food provide the same amount of calories

Each gram of carbohydrates and proteins provides approximately 4 calories, while each gram of fat provides around 9 calories. Understanding the composition of these macronutrients in the foods you provide to your dog is essential in determining their calorie intake and overall nutritional balance. 

Different nutrient sources can also carry different caloric densities. For example, even though chicken and beef are both protein ingredients, beef has a much higher fat content than chicken and therefore will have a higher caloric density. It's important to tailor your dog's diet to their specific needs, factoring in their age, activity level, and any health considerations, to ensure they're getting the right amount of calories from a variety of sources.

Puppy Feeding Time Doberman puppy eating lunch from a dog bowl at his home in the North East of England while playing in a garden. dog eating stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

How are calories calculated in pet food?

There are 2 ways caloric density (or metabolizable energy) can be determined. The first method is through a laboratory analysis and the second is by using a calculation which takes into account the nutrient content of the diet. 

Determining calories through laboratory analysis

Calories in commercial pet food are typically calculated using laboratory analysis methods that determine the amounts of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) present in the food. These values are then used to estimate the total caloric content of the food. The process involves several steps:

Chemical Analysis

Pet food manufacturers conduct chemical analyses of the food's ingredients to determine the amounts of macronutrients present. This involves breaking down the food's components to measure the levels of protein, fat, carbohydrates, moisture, and sometimes fiber and ash.

Energy Content of Nutrients

Each macronutrient contributes a specific amount of calories per gram. Proteins and carbohydrates provide about 4 calories per gram, while fats provide about 9 calories per gram. Fiber and ash contribute minimal calories and are subtracted from the total to determine the net metabolizable energy.

Calculating Total Calories

After determining the content of each macronutrient, the calories from each source are calculated by multiplying the grams of that nutrient by its respective calorie value per gram. These individual calorie values are then summed up to calculate the total caloric content of the food.

Adjustments for Digestibility

Some ingredients in pet food may not be completely digestible by the pet's digestive system. Therefore, adjustments are made to account for the digestibility of certain nutrients, which can affect the actual energy that the pet derives from the food.

It's important to note that pet food labels usually provide the caloric content either on a "as-fed" basis (meaning the food as it is in the package) or a "dry matter" basis (removing the moisture content to provide a more accurate comparison). This information helps pet owners determine the appropriate portion sizes for their pets based on their individual energy needs.

Calculating calories at home

Since the primary caloric contributors are protein, fat and carbohydrates, these nutrients are used to calculate the caloric density of the diet. Carbohydrates are not measured directly, but can be estimated by calculating the “nitrogen-free extract” in the diet. This is done by subtracting all other nutrients by 100%:

Nitrogen-Free Extract = 100 – (crude protein + crude fat + crude fiber + moisture + ash)

Next, total caloric density is calculated by multiplying each nutrient by it’s modified Atwater value. Protein and carbohydrate are assigned a value of 3.5. Fat is much more calorie dense, and has a value of 8.5. The following is the caloric calculation that is used for the whole diet:

=((3.5Xcrude protein %)+(8.5Xcrude fat %)+(3.5Xnitrogen-free extract%))X10

How many calories should my dog be eating per day?

Caloric requirements greatly vary from dog to dog. The most influential factors are size, age, activity level and body condition. First, a dog’s resting energy requirements (RER) must be determined. The following is the calculation for RER:

RER=70(Body weight in kg)^0.75

From here, corrections are made based on different factors like activity level, age and body condition to determine the maintenance energy requirements (MER). Below is a list of MER corrections factors:

  • Neutered adult =1.6 x RER
  • Intact adult =1.8 x RER
  • Inactive/obese prone =1.2-1.4 x RER
  • Weight loss =1.0 x RER for ideal weight
  • Weight gain =1.2-1.8 x RER for ideal weight
  • Active, working dogs =2.0-5.0 x RER
  • Puppy 0-4 months =3.0 x RER
  • Puppy 4 months to adult = 2.0 x RER
  • Lactation =2-6 x RER
  • Gestation =1.6-2.0 x RER

How much food to feed your dog based on the calories in their food

Once you know the calorie requirements of your dog, take a look and see how much calories are in your dog's food. Calorie content can be located on the guaranteed analysis table on your pet food label or info card.

From here, you will need to calculate how much food your dog needs in grams, based on your dog’s MER and the calorie content of their diet. This is done by dividing your dog’s MER by the dry matter calories in their food and multiplying by 1000 (g/day=(MER/calories)*1000).

To make it easier for our customers, we've created a custom Kabo calculator that can be used to determine exactly how much food you should feed your dog based on their daily calorie requirements. Just click here to try it out!

Hungry brown dog with empty bowl waiting for feeding Hungry brown dog with empty bowl waiting for feeding, looking at camera, top view dog eating stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

How do I balance calories with treats?

Treats should make up no more than 10% of your dog’s caloric intake per day. Using the calculations outlined above and the calories listed on the guaranteed analysis of your dog's food and determine what 10% daily calories would be from the treats.

When dogs are receiving too many calories per day, it is often because they are over feeding with treats and do not account for those extra calories. Unfortunately, this can result in dogs becoming overweight and unhealthy.

Cute Terrier Dog Eating Treat On The Sofa Cute little terrier dog on the sofa eating a treat dog eating stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

In conclusion, understanding and determining your dog's daily calorie needs is a fundamental aspect of responsible pet ownership. Just as each dog has a unique personality, they also have distinct nutritional requirements based on their individual characteristics. By considering factors such as age, breed, weight, activity level, and health status, you can accurately calculate the appropriate amount of calories your furry friend needs to thrive. Providing your dog with the right balance of nutrients and energy not only supports their physical well-being but also contributes to their overall vitality, longevity, and quality of life. Regular consultation with a veterinarian, who can provide professional guidance tailored to your dog's specific needs, ensures that your beloved companion receives the optimal nutrition they deserve. With the knowledge gained from this process, you can make informed decisions about their diet and establish a strong foundation for a happy and healthy life together.

Dalmatian eating out of a red bowl in the kitchen
Dalmatian eating out of a red bowl in the kitchen

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February 20, 2024
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