If you looked at a bag or can of dog food even just a couple of years ago, chances were reasonably high that you would not see how many calories it contained. There was only something called the Guaranteed Analysis, which is hard to interpret. But at least 40 percent of pet dogs are believed to be overweight in the United States, making excess weight one of the biggest health problems faced by dogs and their owners; thus, many found the missing calorie counts frustrating. Now, because of new rules, they are appearing with more regularity.
But do they really help? After all, many people do not even know how many calories they require themselves, let alone their dogs.
For perspective on the matter and concrete guidelines for good feeding practices, we sat down with Deborah Linder, DVM, DACVN, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and Head of the Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals.
Your Dog: Why is it that some dog food labels now list calories and others don’t? Hasn’t it become a law?
Dr. Linder: There’s no federal law for the labeling of pet foods. What happens is that the American Association of American Feed Control Officials [AAFCO] puts out guidelines; these are not legally binding. Then it’s up to each state to decide whether or not to adopt the guidelines as part of state law. The majority of states do say that the law is whatever AAFCO recommends. But it’s tricky, and it doesn’t all happen at once. Even AAFCO recommends that states take some time in adopting the new guidelines.
Your Dog: What do you mean?
Dr. Linder: AAFCO made the decision to recommend that dog food companies list calories on their labels back in 2013. That recommendation then went into their next yearly edition — the 2014 guidelines. But AAFCO suggested at that time that states not enforce any new law they make for three years. It takes a little while for industry to catch up, and they wanted to give companies ample time to change their labels on existing dog foods. For new dog foods that haven’t hit the market yet, AAFCO recommends enforcement after 18 months since it’s not a matter of changing labels but starting from scratch the right way. Because AAFCO put out the new guidelines only two years ago, that gives companies with dog foods already on the market another year to comply with the new laws in various states.
Your Dog: But this is further complicated by the fact that not all states will adopt the guidelines as law, right?
Dr. Linder: It’s not really complicated in practice, although your question is a reasonable one. While it’s state to state in terms of enacting a new law, it’s pretty safe to say that all the companies — certainly all the larger companies — are going to list calories, if they don’t already. Most companies want to sell their food in more than one state. They don’t want to risk running afoul of the law depending on where the food is available.
A number of the larger companies were listing calories voluntarily even before AAFCO came out with the new recommendations.
Your Dog: Okay, but here’s the thing. Can listing calories really help stem the tide of obesity in dogs? After all, calories have been listed on foods for people for more than 20 years, and the U.S. as a whole has only gotten heavier.
Dr. Linder:I have been a huge proponent of getting calories on the label — it took years to go from the first discussion to the final implementation in the AAFCO guidelines — and I think it’s just amazing to have it on there. It’s very helpful in that it’s very black and white. People automatically understand it and can make comparisons.
It’s true that listing the calories will not necessarily help people keep their dogs trimmer. But it’s one more tool, one more piece of information to help people decide what is best for their pet. Now, if you have a dog who needs to eat less for ideal body condition, you can simply look on the shelves for a food that’s lower in calories as opposed to calling the companies and trying to get calorie counts that way, which most people never did. Looking at calorie counts should not be the only way that people compare foods, but it’s a big help.
I want to add here that no one should be put off or confused by the term ‘kcal,’ or kilocalories, on pet food labels. It’s exactly what we think of as ‘calories,’ and it will be listed in two ways: as calories per cup or other household measure, and as calories per kilogram of food. A kilogram of food is 2.2 pounds.
Your Dog: But how can people figure out how many calories their dog is supposed to get in a day? Or is it just a matter of finding a food with fewer calories and switching?
Dr. Linder: You can certainly just switch. In my clinical experience, if you want your dog to lose weight or he is an easy keeper who doesn’t require many calories to maintain his weight, look for a food that has 300 calories per cup or less. There are no studies behind this, but I have found with my overweight patients that it’s a reasonable rule of thumb.
But there are also formulas that can help you determine the number of calories your particular dog requires.
Your Dog: What are they?
Dr. Linder: For dogs who weigh between 5 and 55 pounds, it’s fairly simple:
a dog’s energy requirements
without any physical activity added in
= 30 x his ideal body weight
(in kilograms) + 70
To learn your dog’s ideal body weight, which may be different from his current weight, speak with your veterinarian. If you get the ideal weight in pounds, change it to kilograms by dividing the number by 2.2.
So let’s say your dog’s ideal body weight is 44 pounds. That comes to 20 kilograms, so you multiply by 30 to get 600 and then add 70 for a daily total of 670 calories. It’s not exact, of course. Active dogs are definitely going to need somewhat more, while couch potatoes may need less. But it at least gives a ballpark.
Your Dog: What about dogs who weigh more than 55 pounds or fewer than 5?
Dr. Linder: Then the equation gets more complicated. Better to have a scientific calculator than a piece of paper and a pencil. But you can also find calculators online. The formula for large or very, very small dogs is as follows:
Resting energy requirements
(no calories added for physical activity)
= (ideal body weight in kilograms to
the 0.75th power) x 70.
To take the math out of it entirely, here is a chart. You look for your pet’s ideal body weight (not necessarily the weight he is currently at), and the calorie requirement is right there. It adds in some calories to account for physical activity and the quicker rate of metabolism [calorie burning] in some dogs. That’s why the calorie requirement for a 44-pound dog is listed as 790 on the chart rather than the 690 calculated by way of the formula, but it’s still a good starting point.
Your Dog: Wow, that’s really helpful.
Dr. Linder: Yes, that’s part of the reason I’m so pleased about calories being listed on pet food labels. Before, if a pet was overweight or not losing weight when he should have been, the recommendation was generally to feed less than what the package advised. But that came with a built-in problem. Pet foods are formulated to meet a dog’s nutrient needs assuming you’re feeding the amount the company advises on the label. If you start feeding less, your dog may not be consuming a diet with all the nutrients he needs. Now you can switch to a food with fewer calories but not worry that the dog will be missing out on essential vitamins and minerals. Lower-calorie foods contain more nutrients per calorie. That’s why they are still allowed to say they provide “complete and balanced” nutrition on the label.
Your Dog: Is there anything else people need to know?
Dr. Linder: Yes, the website of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association is an amazing resource for pet owners, with information on such things as how to decide whether nutrition information you find on the Internet is valuable, feeding guidelines for hospitalized pets, and my favorite: “Selecting the best pet food for your pet.” There’s even a short video that walks people through how to check to see if their pet is at ideal body condition or too heavy. The url is www.wsava.org.