Considering a Small Dog? Don't Fall for These Myths

small dog diet

Story at-a-glance -

  • Pet food manufacturers use differences in dog breeds, sizes and ages to expand their product offerings
  • An example is dog food designed for small breeds; healthy small dogs don’t need “small dog” formulas — they need nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate fresh food diets just like larger dogs
  • Additional tips for feeding your small dog include calculating how many daily calories he needs, feeding portion-controlled meals and ensuring he gets daily exercise for weight control and to maintain muscle tone
  • There are many other myths associated with small dogs, for example, some people believe all small dogs are easier to care for than larger dogs, which isn’t always the case
  • Other myths: All small breeds are yappy, need to be babied and get all the exercise they need running around the house

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

According to a journal article I came across recently that discussed the latest pet trends to come out of the 2018 Global Pet Expo held in March, small dog ownership is increasing, especially among city dwellers. From the article:

“Millennials, in particular, are driving this trend, living lifestyles that delay family life and the once-dreamed-of ‘white picket fence’ and sticking to bustling cityscapes in apartments or condos. Said apartments or condos do not necessarily lend themselves to owning large dogs, but millennials want pets anyway — hence the rise in small dog ownership.”1

The reason a pet food industry journal is discussing this trend is to make sure processed pet food manufacturers know there’s money to be made catering to the small dog market. The article mentions some of the small dog formulas already on store shelves, with names like “Little Bites,” the “Mighty Mini” line and “petite entrees.”

Small Dogs Don’t Need ‘Small Dog Diets’

If you have a small breed dog or are considering adopting one, rest assured there’s no need to feed him a special type of diet because he’s small. Pet food companies use differences in dog breeds, sizes, ages and so forth to expand their product lines. These diets are marketed as “customized” for small dogs, large breeds, old dogs, overweight dogs, etc.

But a quick comparison of the first 10 ingredients in a small dog kibble versus a large dog kibble shows there’s almost no difference between them:

Yorkshire Terrier Adult Dry Dog Food2 German Adult Dry Dog Food3

Brewers rice

Brewers rice

Brown rice

Chicken by-product meal

Chicken byproduct meal

Brown rice

Chicken fat

Oat groats

Wheat gluten

Chicken fat

Corn gluten meal

Pork meal


Natural flavors

Natural flavors

Powdered cellulose

Powdered cellulose

Wheat gluten

Dried plain beet pulp

Dried plain beet pulp

These formulas have so many problems I don’t know where to start. Let’s just leave it that they’re loaded with allergenic grains and cheap fillers, and the full ingredient lists read like a chemistry experiment. Regardless of the size of your dog, I recommend you stay away from formulas like these.

When It Comes to Your Dog’s Diet, Size Doesn’t Matter

In a perfect world, all pet food manufacturers would concern themselves with making products designed to optimize the nutritional offerings for the species they serve. It would be great if they would put their vast resources toward getting the basics right, rather than finding ways to tweak existing poor-quality formulas to expand their product lines.

Dry pet food with little or no high-quality animal protein and minimal moisture, but plenty of grains, carbs, starches, allergenic ingredients, non-nutritional fillers, additives and preservatives, is not species-appropriate nutrition for any dog, regardless of breed. Strange as it may seem when comparing a Great Dane to a Maltese, dogs of every size and breed are pretty much identical when it comes to their genetic heritage. They are all canine, specifically Canis lupus familiaris.

Humans have chosen to breed certain types of dogs down to sizes so small their organs often don't function normally. But this isn't a genetic flaw as much as it is a result of deliberately breeding already small dogs down to “tiny” or “teacup” size, in order to wind up with a canine the size of a rodent.

Since nature didn't design dogs to be that small, health problems are to be expected. Certainly size, energy output and health problems are a consideration when determining any animal's nutritional requirements, but a dog is still a dog — a carnivorous canine.

Those of you that have been readers for years know how I feel about this topic: unless breeders complete every possible genetic test for both parents and intentionally breed for “reparative conformation” (so the next litter may carry fewer genetic predispositions) they shouldn’t be breeding, and smaller isn’t better.

That being said, there are some small dogs that are born with poorly functioning livers or kidneys that must be on customized diets their whole lives: this is a result of bad breeding, not an evolutionary adaptation from being small.

6 Tips for Feeding Your Small Dog

It’s very easy to overfeed and under-exercise any dog, and especially a small one, so it’s important to start out on the right foot and stay there. Currently, AAFCO doesn’t link feeding instructions on dog food packaging to a dog’s energy requirements, so according to the bag or can, a super active 10-pound dog and a super lazy 10-pound dog should eat the same amount. Common sense says this can’t be true.

  1. Ignore any pet food marketing ploy aimed at making you believe healthy small dogs need special diets
  2. Calculate how much food your dog needs each day.
  3. Feed a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate, fresh food diet to your little one. Regardless of her size, your dog needs the right nutrition for her species, which means food that is high in animal protein and moisture, with low or no grain content.
  4. Practice portion control — typically a morning and evening meal, carefully measured. A high-protein, low-carb diet with the right amount of calories, controlled through the portions you feed, will help your small dog remain at a healthy weight. And don't forget to factor in any calories from treats.
  5. Regularly exercise your dog. Daily exercise, including at least 20 minutes of consistent aerobic activity, will help your pet burn fat and increase muscle tone.
  6. Evaluate your dog monthly. If she is losing weight, adjust calories. If she is gaining weight, adjust calories.

The key to keeping your small dog healthy can't be found in the latest bag or can of “specially formulated” biologically inappropriate pet food. Help your little guy or girl stay at a healthy weight and nutritionally fit with a high animal-protein, moisture-rich diet fed in controlled portions, and augmented with plenty of physical activity.

5 Additional Small Dog Myths Debunked

1. Small dogs are easier to care for than big dogs

Not necessarily! While it’s easier to pick up a small dog and cart him around, and pet food bills for a small dog won’t break the bank, the little guys often come with their own set of baggage. For example, many small longhaired dogs have significant grooming requirements. In addition, their teeth typically need vigilant home care (brushing) due to crowding and congenital enamel defects. And some little dogs also seem to be more difficult to housetrain than bigger breeds.

2. Small dogs get all the exercise they need running around the house

Not true! Even if your small dog isn’t athletic or even particularly energetic, she still needs regular physical exercise to maintain her muscles and joints. Running back and forth from the living room to the kitchen in search of snacks or a toy doesn’t count. Exercise is not only necessary to maintain your dog physically, but also mentally and emotionally. Like larger breeds, small dogs need to burn off energy to prevent boredom and behavior problems.

3. Small dogs are yappy

Some are; some aren’t. For example, Chihuahuas tend to be barkers, but Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Italian Greyhounds are generally known to be quiet. It’s also important to remember that often the owners of small dogs create or exacerbate barking behavior by inadvertently reinforcing it.

4. Small dogs are lap dogs

Again, some are and some aren’t. And often, lap-sitting behavior is situational. For example, a small shivery dog might sit in your lap just until he warms up. A little fellow with a protective or territorial personality will quickly land in your lap if another pet (or human) approaches you.

5. Small dogs need babying

They really don’t, but their owners tend to think they do. They don’t necessarily need to be fussed over, but they do need protecting. Small dogs, especially really tiny breeds, are more vulnerable in many situations than bigger dogs. Your 5-pound teacup Poodle is easy prey for a coyote wandering the neighborhood. She’s also more likely to be stepped on in your kitchen than a larger dog.