Diets for Small Dogs

Ideally, diets for dogs who weigh 20 pounds or less are calorically dense, high in digestible protein, and contain added L-carnitine and vitamins C and E.


Small breed dogs are those who weigh 20 pounds or less. While the Association of American Feed Control Officials – the organization that develops the nutritional standards that define “complete and balanced” diets for dogs – does not have any nutrient recommendations specifically for small breed dogs, there may be some merit to feeding your little dog a diet specifically formulated for small breeds.

Small Dog Nutrition

To begin with, small dogs have slight, relatively weak jaws. That’s why small-dog-specific foods are made with smaller, lower-density kibbles that are easier for your pet to chew.

Small dogs have a higher mass-specific basal metabolic rate (BMR) compared to their large dog counterparts. This means that, per pound of body weight, small dogs burn more calories while at rest. In fact, a study found that Papillons have a mass-specific BMR that is more than 50% higher than that of Great Danes.1 Small dogs also show a trend of having a higher percentage of lean body mass than large dogs.2

Because of this, small dogs require diets that are calorically dense and high in digestible protein to help meet their increased energy requirements and maintain their lean muscle mass. The addition of L-carnitine to the diet also helps with lean body mass maintenance and helps to burn fat more efficiently.

One of the many health advantages that small dogs possess (relative to large dogs) is their long average lifespan. Their metabolism, combined with their age, can lead to high oxidative stress, which can have negative impacts on their immune health. Inclusion of antioxidants (such as vitamins E and C) in the diet can help alleviate some of this oxidative stress, reducing inflammation and boosting immunity.

With age also comes joint degradation, so providing chondroprotective agents (such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin) can help keep our little canine companions bouncing through their senior years.

Pet food labels are required by law to be truthful. So look for small-breed-specific formulas that include claims on the packaging asserting these small-dog needs have been met by the formulation, such as: L-carnitine to support healthy weight, high in protein to support lean muscle mass, added antioxidants for immune support, etc. You can also look at the ingredients list for added L-carnitine and vitamin E.

Most important

Above all, keeping our small companions at an appropriate weight and body condition is vital for their health and overall well-being. Obese dogs, regardless of size, experience higher rates of cancer, osteoarthritis, and shorter average lifespans, so it is important to follow proper feeding guidelines and the advice of your veterinarian.


  1. Speakman JR, Van Acker A, Harper EJ. “Age-Related Changes in the Metabolism and Body Composition of Three Dog Breeds and Their Relationship to Life Expectancy,” Aging Cell, 2003; 2:265-275.
  2. Middleton RP. “Small Dog Metabolism and Other Unique Characteristics.” Purina Institute, 2017; 41-44.

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Mary Cope, PhD, earned her Doctorate in Animal Nutrition from the University of Georgia in 2021 and has her Professional Animal Scientist (PAS) certification with a specialization in companion animals. Dr. Cope works as a companion animal nutritionist for a pet food consulting firm. Dr. Cope competes in a variety of AKC dog sports with her rescue dog and smooth Collie, including agility, Fast CAT, and herding.