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How should I adjust how I feed my dog in cold weather?


With Christmas just around the corner, the shops are filling with tasty treats to tempt even the healthiest eaters. As the temperature drops, we turn our back on salads and BBQs in favour of hearty portions of cottage pie, casseroles and roast dinners. The dark evenings can leave us prone to snacking on sweet treats. Not to mention indulging in and taking inspiration from a certain television baking show! But how about our dogs? Should we adjust what we feed them during the colder months?

Reasons to increase their food intake

For most people, this desire to increase calorie intake in cold weather is purely comfort. But for some dogs, they may have a need to do so. 

Many working dogs will be at their busiest over autumn and winter, particularly gun dogs or hunting dogs. Because of the nature of their day-to-day duties, they are likely to need extra calories at this time of year. Working dogs, and others such as farm dogs, that live in outdoor kennels will also benefit from an increased calorie intake in order to cope with the colder and wetter conditions. 

However, it is important to provide these extra calories in an appropriate way, such as with specific energy-dense foods, higher in protein and fat; and not necessarily just by increasing the amount of food they eat. It also doesn’t mean increasing the amount of snack food they are allowed. Or allowing them to eat human food as, although these do contain more calories, they are not going to be as nutritionally beneficial to the dog. 

Reasons to decrease their food intake

For your average pet dog, the likelihood is that the amount of exercise they do in winter will be less than what they do in summer; mainly due to owner behaviours! With darker mornings and evenings, people may struggle to fit in a walk before or after work. And if the weather is miserable at the weekends, a nice long summer hike becomes a quick lap around the local field. Less exercise means less energy requirement so potentially their calorie intake could be decreased. The easiest way to do this is to cut out or reduce any snacks; or decrease the amount of food they have at mealtimes by around 5-10%. 

How to know what they need

Although a lot of people ask what their dog’s ideal weight should be, it is a lot better to look at and track their body condition score, or BCS. The BCS is a guide to ensure the dog is carrying just the right amount of fat for their size. Typically, there are three areas that we look at to gauge an animal’s BCS

  • the covering over the ribs. The ribs should be able to be felt with light pressure. And should be neither protruding nor buried in a thick layer of fat.
  • the waist as viewed from above. When looking at the dog from above, they should have a waist where the abdomen narrows behind the ribs. If the abdominal wall from the ribcage to the pelvis is a straight line, or even curved outwards, then the BCS is likely to be too high
  • the ‘tuck’ of the abdomen from the ribs to the pelvis as viewed from the side. In most dogs, this line should be gently sloping upwards from the sternum to the pelvis. A greyhound would be an extreme example of this ‘tuck’. 

Body condition score is usually graded out of either 5 or 9, with around a 3/5 or a 5/9 being the ideal. The majority of dogs will fluctuate with their weight slightly over the course of a year, but their BCS should stay fairly consistent if they remain within a suitable weight bracket. 

Conclusion

Obesity is a big problem in our pet population, and it’s uncommon to tell an owner to increase the amount of food they feed their dog. For those dogs that need the extra energy during the colder months, it’s vital they get the right nutrition. 

However, for the majority of pet dogs in the UK, keeping their diet the same all year round is unlikely to cause any problems. It all comes down to a balance between calories ingested and energy expended, and whichever way the see-saw tips dictates whether the dog will lose or gain weight. As always, if you’re in any doubt about what to feed your dog, always speak to your vet first. 

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