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How Big is Your Pet's Food Bowl?

Pet Food

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recently published study indicates that just as human dieters are encouraged to use smaller plates and utensils to help with weight loss, large food bowls and random food scoops are contributing to the growing pet obesity epidemic.
  • In the study, the amount of food fed to dogs was significantly less when owners used a small scoop and a small food bowl. Portions went up when large bowls and/or large scoops were used.
  • Many pet owners buy pet food bowls much larger than the meals they should hold, and when the correct portion of food looks miniscule compared to the size of the bowl, they add more food to the bowl. Pet owners also tend not to use kitchen measuring cups to portion out their dog’s or cat’s meals. This also leads to overfeeding.
  • If you want to get a handle on how much you’re feeding your dog or cat, you can use our formula to figure out how many calories your pet should be eating each day. Then determine the number of calories in the food you’re feeding, serve portion-controlled meals (usually a morning and evening meal), and don’t forget to factor in treats.

By Dr. Becker

If you've ever tried to lose weight, you know that the size of the plates, bowls and utensils you use has a significant impact on how much food you serve yourself and consume. This is a known psychological phenomenon related to optical and size-contrast illusions. It has led to advice to dieters to replace dinner plates with saucers and use smaller utensils.

So it comes as no surprise that, according to a study published in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition1, the size of a pet's food bowl and the gadgets used to scoop food are very likely contributing to the pet obesity epidemic.

Study Yields Predictable Results

In the study, conducted by researchers at the University of Tennessee's College of Veterinary Medicine, 54 dogs and their owners participated in a four-treatment trial that included kibbled dog food and the following serving combinations:

  • Small bowl and small scoop
  • Small bowl and large scoop
  • Large bowl and small scoop
  • Large bowl and large scoop

The dog owners used each of these four combinations during each of four trials.

As you might guess, the food portions offered to the dogs using the small bowl with the small scoop were significantly less than all other bowl and scoop combinations. The small/small combination averaged about 151 grams vs. 172, 173 and 185 grams for the other combinations. The small bowl/large scoop and the large bowl/small scoop amounts were almost the same (172 grams vs. 173 grams). Use of the large bowl with the large scoop resulted in a 185 gram serving.

These results are consistent with results in human trials. According to study authors, the results emphasize the need for pet owners to use standard measuring cups and for people with overweight pets to use smaller bowls and serving scoops.

Lose the Gigantic Food Bowl and Find those Kitchen Measuring Cups

Unfortunately, there is a general tendency among many pet owners to buy oversized food bowls for their dog or cat. Since the correct amount of food looks like too little food when it's placed in a gargantuan bowl, many pet owners add more food to improve the "optics" of the meal. It sounds ridiculous, I know. But it happens … a lot!

If you've purchased a too-large food bowl for your pet, consider using that bowl for fresh water instead – especially if you have a dog. Interestingly, in many homes with pets, the food bowl dwarfs the water bowl, even though water is one of the most important nutrients in the diet of both cats and dogs.

So there's the jumbo food bowl problem, and also a scooping device problem. Both these problems sabotage efforts to feed portion-controlled pet meals.

When it comes to a scooping device for your pet's food, please don't use a random plastic scoop from the back of your kitchen gadget drawer. Don't use a coffee mug, or an empty yogurt cup. Your pet will get more food than she needs.

PLEASE use a kitchen measuring cup to portion out your dog's or cat's food. You can buy a set of inexpensive plastic measuring cups for just a few bucks.

This is especially important for pet owners who feed dry food diets, because most kibble formulas are high in calories. It's also extremely important for people with cats and small dogs. It's incredibly easy to make a small pet overweight with a few extra pieces of kibble at mealtime or a few daily treats.

How to Count Calories for Your Pet

Let's say your dog is 50 pounds. Now let's calculate how many calories she needs to stay at her current weight using this formula:

Daily calories (canine) = Body Weight (kg) x 30 + 70

In order to use this calculation, first we have to convert her weight from pounds to kilograms.

One kilogram = 2.2 pounds, so divide her weight in pounds by 2.2. 50/2.2 = 22.7. Your dog's weight in kilograms is 22.7.

Now our formula looks like this: Daily calories = 22.7 x 30 + 70

And finally, it looks like this: Daily calories = 751

If your dog eats about 750 calories a day, she'll stay at her current weight. In order for her to lose weight, she must eat fewer calories.

Let's say you and your vet agree your dog should be 45 pounds at her ideal weight. All you need to do is apply the above formula using 45 instead of 50: 45 pounds in kilograms is 45/2.2 = 20.4; 20.4 x 30 + 70 = 682 daily calories.

The formula for kitties has a slight variation to account for the ultra-sedentary lifestyle of most housecats:

Daily calories (feline) = Body Weight (kg) x 30 + 70 x 0.8

Next you must determine how many calories are in the food you're feeding and the treats you provide, and adjust the amount downward as necessary. If you feed prepared pet food, don't follow the label guidelines for how much to feed. Find out how many calories are in a can or cup – this will vary by brand and flavor. You may need to find the product website or call the toll-free number on the label to get the information you need.

If you feed raw or cook your pet's food at home, the recipes you use to build the meals should contain calorie information.

You must determine how many calories your dog or cat needs each day to achieve her ideal weight and feed it in portions – usually half in a morning meal and the remainder in her evening meal. And again, don't forget to factor treats into the equation.