While I was working on the post, A Word On Protein, I stumbled upon an interesting discrepancy in calorie recommendations, caloric content of food choices, and what seems to work for most individuals. This made me scratch my head, and I decided to go to one of my online raw feeding communities for some real-life info from people who have feed both raw and kibble in recent times, or feed both raw and kibble. I got just one response (I’m learning lots of words cause people to ignore posts even if you pair it with a cute meme), and following is what I extrapolated from the information she gave me. The dog in this sample is an active young-adult Belgian Malinois male who is not neutered, with an ideal weight of 62 pounds. His name is Coal.
This is the pertinent info I received to start the number crunching: “He was getting 2 cups of Taste of the Wild and 2 cups of Hills w/d a day and was actually a tad heavy. On raw I had him up to 2lbs a day and he was not maintaining weight. I put him averaging 1.75lb with about a cup of mid-high end kibble (Solid Gold, Pinnacle, Wellness) and he was great. Raw was varied but about 50/50 red/white meat and 5-10% fish.”
I wanted to use this info to figure out two things, and then compare those. The first was the recommended caloric intake for a dog of his description. This is the first area where I noticed a large discrepancy, and it makes sense. Dogs vary so greatly in size, energy level, lifestyle, body type, etc. that it’s almost impossible to nail down an accurate formula for predicting how many calories need to be consumed by an individual for both energy needs and weight maintenance. It’s really useful to try, however, for both dog food manufacturers and pet owners. Feeding trials have been performed, energy expenditures have been evaluated, and both practical and theoretical numbers have been crunched by many parties. I used the following websites and charts/formulas to get caloric recommendations for Coal.
(1) WSAVA Calorie Needs for an Average Healthy Adult Dog in Ideal Body Condition
This is a simple chart, and for a 62 pound dog, it recommends 1020 kcal/day.
(2) The dog food calculator from The Dog Food Advisor. This one lets you refine recommendations based activity level. For Coal I selected “active”. The recommendation is 1529 kcal/day.
(3) The online Merck Veterinary Manual has a page devoted to nutrient requirements, and provides formulas for figuring out caloric intake. I used the linear formula for figuring out resting energy requirement (RER), and then the multiplier for “healthy adult intact dog”. This resulted in a recommendation of 1638 kcal/day.
* See bottom of page for more feeding recommendation figures from pet food manufacturers.
The first thing you notice is the difference between 1020 and 1638. That’s more than a 60% increase!!! That’s a lot. It gets even more interesting, though.
I needed to figure out how many calories per day Coal was getting when he was eating the combo of Hills w/d kibble and Taste Of The Wild kibble (TOTW). I used the information from the respective manufacturer websites to establish that the w/d contains 240 kcal/cup. I then took an average of nine of the TOTW dry formulas to get a figure of 357 kcal/cup. This means that Coal was eating about 1200 kcal/day of these foods. That’s just a bit higher than the WSAVA chart figure. Now, remember that Coal was a “tad heavy” eating this combination.
Then, I needed to figure out how many calories per day Coal was eating when he was switched to raw. Usually when feeding raw most people do not use calories or “cups” of food to gauge how much to feed. They use percentages of the dog’s body-weight combined with observation of weight, activity, and condition to tweak until their dog looks and feels good. 2%-3% is usually recommended as a good starting point for medium and large breed dogs, and I’d say based on experience both first- and second-hand that most average-to-active dogs fall within this percentage as a functional working formula for weight maintenance and energy needs. The difference in measurements can make comparing raw and kibble difficult. (There’s also the issue of using “dry matter” figures when talking about processed foods, and weights and ‘as fed’ figures when talking about raw. This is an issue when talking nutrient density expressed in percentages. Calories are not subject to the problem of “dry matter” vs. “as fed”.)
The items that are used to feed raw-fed dogs also vary in calorie density by quite a lot. Lean protein has fewer calories by weight than fattier cuts, and protein and fat content varies quite a bit from food animal to food animal, and cut to cut. (See “A Word On Protein, part 1” for more on this, plus some charts.) To come up with an average calorie content that might reflect the ‘average’ raw diet — if there is such a thing — I used the calorie content for chicken breast, beef sirloin, domestic rabbit, wild salmon, and venison from www.nutritiondata.self.com as well as an average of all ‘complete’ formulas intended for adults from commercially prepared raw food manufacturers, Nature’s Variety Instinct, Darwin’s, and Primal. I came up with an average of about 45 kcal per ounce. (There are 16 ounces to the pound, so by extension the averaged pound of raw diet is about 720 kcal.)
“On raw I had him up to 2lbs a day and he was not maintaining weight.” Two pounds of food per day by the above figure is about 1440 kcal/day. It’s also about 3.25% of Coal’s body-weight. That is a 20% increase in calories from the Hill’s w/d and TOTW combo, but he was not maintaining a good weight. Of course this is not a controlled study where we can consider the calorie factor in isolation, but 20% is a significant number, and also the beginning of a pattern.
Coal was shifted from the all-raw diet to the raw-with-kibble combo that his person observed to keep him at a nice weight and with a good amount of energy. This was “1.75lb with about a cup of mid-high end kibble”. The kibbles mentioned were Wellness, Solid Gold, and Pinnacle. Again, I took an average of ALL the adult and all-life-stages formulas from these manufacturers (that’s a lot of formulas!) and came up with an average kcal/cup of 400. (OK, it was 401. Discredit me if you will, I’m using 400.) 1.75 pounds of raw is about 1260 kcal (and 2.75% of his body weight). Add the cup of kibble at 400 kcal, and you have a total of 1660 kcal/day.
Now, if you go back to the caloric recommendations from the three sources mentioned before, that’s darned close to the Merck Manual figure, which, remember, is based on assessed physiological needs, and not necessarily based on a particular feeding trial or assumptions about the source of food. I have to say that this was a surprise to me, and a neat one, too. By extension, Coal would probably need closer to 3.75% of his body-weight in only raw food, perhaps more given the trend we’ve observed. That would be about 2-and-a-third pounds of food per day. Maybe more like 2.5 pounds (4%). Since Coal is a real dog and not a theory or experiment we won’t be actually putting this to any sort of further test.
Besides the fact that calorie calculators and charts are all over the place, what is to be learned from this? I think the different values of raw vs. kibble and the fact that ‘a calorie is not a calorie’ is illustrated by how Coal handles the calorie loads. On a combo that included a grain-based kibble (Hill’s w/d) Coal maintained a body weight that was even a “tad high” on 1200 kcal/day. On a diet with fewer carbs — and these carbs not being highly processed or with much, if any at all, coming from grains — he couldn’t maintain a healthy weight even though he was likely consuming almost 250 kcal/day or 20% more actual calories! While it may seem like a good thing that a smaller amount of kibble is capable of keeping a dog at a certain weight and that it might be “better” than fresh food, I’ll point out that less food at a higher caloric density means less “room” to get in the right protein, fat, vitamin, and mineral contents, as well as other important functional food contributions like fiber and micronutrients. There is little room for error in a product that does vary from batch-to-batch when you’re fulfilling a caloric need so seemingly efficiently. Keep in mind this isn’t just one meal out of a month with many others to make up for any shortcomings or excesses and balance it out over time, but one product that is fed day in and day out, presumably for years — or a dog’s lifetime! (This is a topic that is discussed in “A Word On Protein, part 2” more thoroughly.) A highly concentrated food will require more of an effort on the part of the digestive system, especially for an animal who is ‘designed’ not to pick at small amounts of food over a day, but to get his fill after a hunt. This isn’t really a relevant figure, but just for the sake of visualization, on their web page Hill’s gives both gram and cup figures, from which we can establish that a cup of their w/d formula is 2.8 ounces, which is a weight measure correlating to our raw food figures. When it comes to “as fed” amounts (think what’s actually going into his belly at a time), Coal was not eating even 3/4 of a pound of kibble in a day, but on his raw/kibble combo he was getting almost two pounds of food total. Ultimately that’s a LOT of water he was getting in his food through the raw, increasing mass and weight, and all-in-all leading to a nice full stomach that could signal to the rest of his body, “I’m FULL. I’m satisfied. I’m hydrated. Let’s digest this stuff!”.
The next step in this analysis would be to figure out where the calories in our sample foods are coming from (i.e., carbs, fat, protein) and how nutrient density and caloric intake play off each other. That will have to wait for another time, however.
My thanks to Christine for providing me with the example to work from!
* Here are some more calorie intake suggestions based on company recommendations for their brands of food used in the preceding example. Additionally, there are a couple provided by pre-made raw-food manufacturers. The TOTW, Wellness, and Pinnacle recommendation figures are averaged.
Hill’s w/d Dry Food : 1140-1320
Instinct Raw calculator: 1335
Primal (raw food) calculator: 1240
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