Written by Bonnie Markoff, DVM, ABVP

Many clients at Animal Care Clinic ask about how to feed their pets – free choice or meals. Veterinarians disagree to some extent as which is better, and there are medical benefits to both systems.Many owners find it convenient to leave food out all the time for their animals, especially cats. Others prefer to put a set amount of food down for a few minutes and let the pets eat what they want, and then put the food away. At Animal Care Clinic we have found that pets who are given free choice to food are more often overweight, and that it can be extremely difficult to get a pet to lose weight without using meal feeding as a strategy.

We strongly recommend that you start all puppies and kittens on meals from the very beginning. This can help greatly with potty training. Animals 7-16 weeks of age should get at least 3 meals a day. Once they reach 4 months of age you can cut back to two meals daily and continue this throughout adulthood. By starting meals when pets are young you can prevent obesity. Feeding your pets to their proper lean body weight can add 2 years to their lives!

But what do you do if you want to make a habituated free choice feeder accept meals? Every animal will respond to this differently. Dogs who know how to manipulate their owners (that would be most dogs!) will follow you around, whine a little and then flash those big, brown eyes and make you feel really guilty. Do not cave in! Most pets are not “always hungry” – they are “always bored.” When you are watching TV and feel like getting a snack, is it because you are hungry or because you like to have a snack while you watch TV? Very few Americans (pets or people) get truly hungry before meals. So…..in most cases, you can just start feeding meals: set down the food bowl, wait 30 minutes and then pick it up. Don’t put it down again until dinnertime.

Cats and some dogs present a bigger challenge. Cats deprived of food at night have been known to jump into the owner’s bed and attack! Some pets pester us so badly that we just can’t relax or function in our homes without appeasing the pet’s demands. In these cases we have to be more subtle. Start picking up the food in the middle of the day – just for an hour or two. Your pets probably won’t even notice. Each week add 30 minutes to the time the food is unavailable. If you will be out of the house, pick up the food for the entire time (your pets can’t retaliate when you are not home.) Try picking up the food just as you go to bed and set it back down when you wake up. By gradually extending the times that the food is unavailable, you will eventually get to the point where food is available for only 30 minutes, twice a day. My dogs & cat eat their meals in less than 5 minutes.

It is also important to have a separate bowl for each pet. We must prevent the gluttons from eating food out of the bowls of their friends. Supervised meals can help with this. Sometimes we must separate pets into different rooms during mealtime.

By feeding meals and using a separate bowl for each pet, you will be ready to conquer almost all nutritional problems. Weight loss is much easier for animals on this regimen. It is much easier to change diets for pets who eat meals. It is also easier to hide medications in the food of pets who eat meals because they tend to eat faster. (Now, eating too fast is an entirely separate subject!)

For more nutritional tips call us at 545-8212.