Cold Weather Diets:

Should Your Dog Consume More Calories?

A hiker with a golden retriever dog on top of a mountain during winter watching a beautiful landscape.

Days are getting shorter and there’s a chill in the air; winter is on the way. In the wild, dropping temperatures mean that animals must shiver to keep warm, which results in burning extra calories. It may also be more difficult to find food during the winter due to shorter days and snow-covered ground. Their bodies balance the reduced food intake and extra spent energy with reduced activity levels, a slowed metabolism, and hibernation.

Does that mean our dogs should be taking on extra calories in an attempt to gain weight to prepare for the winter months? The short answer is: probably not.

Though our dogs live alongside humans, their brains still get the same message when the seasons change: eat more, conserve energy, stay alive. This happens because of a hormonal change called the “thrifty gene”. The change automatically kicks in when the days get shorter; it is what got their ancestors through harsh winter months, but does your sidekick get anything out of the same cycle of eating, sleep, repeat?

It is usually just the opposite. A dog that spends the majority of its time indoors doesn’t actually benefit from an increased caloric intake. When a dog’s metabolism is reduced as it is during the winter, without also getting adequate exercise or altering the calories they are taking in, they would be burning fewer calories; this can contribute to unnecessary, and potentially unhealthy, weight gain. It may be easy to put on winter weight, but when summer comes around again it is much more difficult to lose weight than to gain it.

What’s Best For YOUR Dog?

Do you spend your winter in an armchair by the fire, reading with your dog curled up beside you? Or are you active in the colder months, bringing your dog along on hunting, hiking, or snowshoeing treks?

If you have a more active lifestyle, or if your dog spends the majority of its time outdoors, an increase in calories at mealtime may be beneficial; otherwise, it is most likely unnecessary to increase portions or caloric intake. In fact, you may need to decrease your dog’s calories for the winter months. How do you know what is best for your dog?

Visit Your Veterinarian

An annual physical exam at your veterinarian’s office should always include a weight check. Dogs all have different requirements in regards to weight; the ideal weight for one labrador retriever may not be the ideal weight for another. That’s why veterinarians use a Body Condition Score, or BCS, in order to determine whether or not a dog is at its ideal weight.

Some signs that your dog is at an ideal weight include:

  • A defined waist: when looking from above, your dog’s waist should be thinner than the ribs and pelvis
  • An abdominal tuck: when viewing your dog from the side there should be an upward tuck behind the ribs
  • Ribs that are not seen, but can be felt through the skin: when feeling for your dog’s ribs, there should be no excess fat covering the ribs
  • Alternatively, the ribs should not protrude too much as this may indicate that your dog is underweight.

Your veterinarian can make recommendations based on your dog’s BCS.

An evaluation depends on both a visual look-over from above and to the side of the dog, in addition to feeling the body and ribs to determine the dog’s condition. The BCS looks at the body shape, size, and breed of the dog being evaluated and places it on a scale of 1 (emaciated) to 9 (very obese). A dog with the ideal BCS would land near the middle, at a 4 or 5.

How To Avoid Weight Gain

Though it is colder and darker, staying active is important — for both you and your pet. Trying to get outside daily for some exercise, on or off leash, not only helps keep your dog fit, but also strengthens the bond that you have with your dog.

If you can’t get outside to exercise, consider a few daily rounds of fetch or tug inside. Keeping your dog active can help keep the extra weight off, but exercise isn’t the only consideration. You should also be aware of what your dog is eating.

If you follow these tips, you may be able to prevent overfeeding:

  • Check the side of the food bag for portion guidelines, but know that the label is not “one size fits all” and quite often recommends a much larger portion than is healthy
  • Ask your veterinarian about the appropriate portions and calorie intake for your dog; they will make recommendations based on your dog’s activity level, breed, age, and more
  • Use a measuring cup to fill the food dish rather than “eyeballing” your dog’s portions
  • If you’re not measuring the food at each feeding you may be inadvertently contributing to extra weight gain. A large number of pet owners overfeed their dogs without even realizing it.
  • Remember that treats also count toward your dog’s daily calorie intake! It may be helpful to set aside a specific amount of treats for the day and stick to the limit.
  • Consider switching out dog biscuits and other treats for healthy, dog-friendly options like green beans, sweet potato slices, apple slices, or other fruits and vegetables (but be sure to avoid foods that may make your dog sick)
  • Avoid giving these treats while you’re prepping your meals or eating your dinner, calories can add up quickly that way.
  • Provide a few smaller meals throughout the day, rather than a couple of large meals
  • Slow your dog down and allow them to get more satisfaction out of their meal by using a slow feeder bowl

What If Your Dog is Already Overweight?

If your dog is already overweight, the first step should be to consult with your veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical concerns. Your veterinarian can then recommend an appropriate diet, which may potentially include switching to a low-calorie, high-protein food, or even a prescription diet, to aid in weight loss. Low-calorie foods and dieting don’t necessarily equal weight loss; you will likely need to (gradually) increase your dog’s activity level as well.

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