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Think Twice About Letting Your Dog Free-Feed

Author: Dr. Beth Turner

Published: March 3, 2023

Updated: July 5, 2024

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dog bowl overflowing with kibble

The main purpose of food is to ‘feed’ the body. But more people view it as a way to feed the soul.

Food is such an integral part of how people, regardless of their culture, show love. It is a major component of celebrations, socialization, and providing comfort.

People have such a strong emotional attachment to how food makes them feel that they want their pets to feel and experience the same love and comfort too.

There is no doubt dogs like food. But love and comfort don’t come from just the food itself, but rather from the interaction with their human family. A study was performed by a group of researchers from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, to answer the age-old question, what is more important to dogs, food or social interaction with people? While the study was not ideal, for several reasons, they concluded that dogs, when given a choice between food and interaction, struggled making a choice. They wanted the food but equally wanted affection.

What does this tell me? We can show our pets love with praise and affection instead of food. If we can break the idea that we need to provide endless amounts of food to our pets to make them feel loved, we will have an easier time viewing food as a way to nourish their bodies and care for their health.

I bring this all up because I think our association between love and food is one of the primary reasons (though we don’t often want to admit it) why we like to free-feed our dogs.

Free-Feeding — the Good, the Bad, AND the Ugly

Everyone, I believe, is entitled to their own opinion. BUT, I also believe that it is important to listen to the opinions of others to determine if there is something new to learn or a better way to do something. I think it is especially important to listen to certified dog behavior consultants, veterinary behaviorists, and veterinarians when it applies to the care of your dog. Many pet professionals agree that scheduled meals are better than free-feeding.

I (kind of) free-fed one of my dogs years ago. You can read about it below, but first, let's dive into the good, the bad, and the ugly of free-feeding.

dogs not eating

The Good (?)

Many dog owners like free-feeding for very understandable reasons:

  • Convenience and doesn't require a specific schedule
  • Ease
  • Less time spent eating at one time, having to wait for your dog to finish eating
  • Lessens the chance of hypoglycemia (low glucose sugar levels)
  • Prevent whining and begging for food during the day
  • Meets a human's emotional need to "love" their dog by providing food at all times

In reality, when you look at the list, most of these reasons are why it is better for us people and not really for our dogs. To me, being a pet parent is doing what is best for our pet’s health.

The Bad

Downsides of free-feeding that many dog owners may not realize include:

Tricky to manage calories: You can’t properly manage your dog’s nutritional intake as well when you don't portion control their feeding.

If there is more than one pet in your home, even if the food is gone, it is hard to know who ate what.

Can cause stress: For dogs who resource guard their food or bowl, having constant access to food can increase their stress and the stress of other people or pets in the home. A free-fed dog with constant access to the bowl may feel that they must be 'on guard' at all times.

Can cause overeating: Just like us, you never know when your dog will stop being a "grazer" (i.e., stop eating when they're full) and begin overeating (boredom is a cause for some), which can lead to weight gain. Dogs are natural foragers, meaning they eat food as they find it (or when humans throw them some scraps) — having an unending amount of kibble available is often hard to pass up for most dogs.

Can increase "picky" eating: Many dog owners and dog trainers have anecdotally reported that free-fed dogs are actually more finicky eaters. So the idea of free-feeding to increase total food consumption can backfire.

Makes training more difficult: Free-feeding often makes dogs less food-motivated, which can make training more difficult because treats lose value when a dog is not hungry.

Makes potty training more difficult: Free-feeding can make house training a lot more difficult if you have a puppy or a newly adopted dog.

Potty training a puppy can be one of the more, shall we say, "trying" aspects of having a new puppy. One of the things that can help it go much more smoothly is to feed scheduled meals rather than free-feed.

You see, puppies typically have this urge and need to urinate and/or defecate about 10–15 minutes after they eat (sometimes sooner!). This is because of what's called the gastrocolic reflex, which basically means that the arrival of food within the stomach sends a neural signal to the large intestine to "make room" so that this new food can be processed and moved along.

Adult dogs have this reflex, too (and so do we). Fortunately, they (and we) also have better conscious control over the second part of the process — the actual "going" part. (Imagine how much more unpleasant going out to restaurants would be if we were all like puppies!)

Attracts critters: Food that's left out can attract unwanted critters, such as ants, rodents, flies, and other pests. Not only can these critters be a nuisance, but some of them can even carry diseases that can affect your pets and even you and the other human members of your home.

Spoilage and contamination: Food that's left out for too long is susceptible to spoilage and bacterial contamination.

While the time to contamination and spoilage can vary, especially between dry and canned foods, all food is susceptible, and there's no great way of knowing exactly how much time it can take. This is partly due to the fact that some foods are better preserved than others and that the same exact food can spoil more or less quickly depending on the environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, etc.).

Costs more: In the long run, you will spend more money on food (and gas) because of the amount of food that gets wasted being thrown away, whether due to being spoiled or turning stale. If your dog eats more than they should, you'll go through more. Plus, think of the wasted time of having to go get or order more food.

The Ugly

Resource guarding: If multiple pets are in the home and have free access to food, it can result in aggressive behavior, especially if any of the pets have a history of resource guarding. If a dog is being bullied out of their food, it may not be recognized until there is a noticeable change in weight. Additionally, the longer this type of unwanted behavior continues, the harder it is to address.

Missed symptoms of illnesses or injuries: If your dog has a change in their eating or chewing habits — an early indicator of illness or injury — you may not be aware of it immediately. A change in appetite can indicate a wide variety of problems. Here's just a partial list:
  • Dental disease
  • Arthritis
  • Hormonal (endocrine) conditions, such as Cushing's Disease, Addison's Disease, diabetes, and others
  • Metabolic conditions, such as kidney failure or liver disease
  • Certain cancers (including oral tumors)
  • And many other conditions
Change in appetite: An increase in appetite, which may be missed when free-feeding, can indicate medical issues, such as Cushing's, gastrointestinal issues, cancer, diabetes, and central nervous system issues.

Obesity: Free-feeding can lead to obesity, as most dogs don't often have an "off switch."

Food bloat or GDV risks: Overeating can result in food bloat or gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV), a disease that is predisposed in some dogs. Despite treatment attempts, approximately 10–23% of dogs don’t survive with GDV.

Makes giving medications difficult: It is often recommended that medications be given at a set interval of time on a full stomach of food. This isn’t necessarily possible when dogs free-feed. The result is potential gastrointestinal upset (i.e., vomiting and/or diarrhea).

There are also medications that must be given on an empty stomach. If your dog always has access to their food, you won’t know when their stomach is empty, and it'll be far more difficult to time their medication dosages to ensure that they are getting the most benefit from those medications.

It can also be harder to medicate dogs that are not hungry. ‘Dry’ pilling is no fun for your dog or you. Plus, there is always the risk your dog may choke, or the pill gets stuck if they don’t eat and drink after their medication.

Managing diabetes: Free-feeding makes it a lot more difficult to manage diabetic dogs since they must receive insulin prior to a meal. A meal is critical because they are at risk of hypoglycemia if they receive insulin and don’t eat. If they eat too much during the day, which is unaccounted for, that will cause blood sugar fluctuations that can complicate their diabetic control.

Diabetes is best managed if you can split your dog's 24-hour day into two identical 12-hour periods. This is because most diabetic pets need their insulin injections twice daily, and they need to have it with food.

Prescription diets: Some medical conditions benefit from specific, tailor-made, or prescription diets. These conditions include food hypersensitivities (a.k.a. food allergies), inflammatory bowel disease, kidney (renal) disease, diabetes, liver disease, and many others. In multi-pet households, it's far more difficult to feed specific diets to specific pets when there's always a full bowl of pet food lying around.

Having access to non-prescription foods can result in extra expenses since symptoms of the illness can worsen. And it is too expensive to leave prescription food out for everyone and not recommended.

Cats: Cats shouldn't eat dog food and vice versa.

two king charles dog waiting for their food

How to Transition to Feeding on a Schedule

While free-feeding may seem more convenient and desirable, it can be the opposite for many pets and households. Switching from free-feeding to scheduled meals is as easy as determining how much food your pet(s) should eat each day and then dividing that amount up into two (or three, depending on your pet's age) portions to be fed throughout the day.

To determine how much of a particular food is appropriate for each of your pets to eat daily, read our article, How Much and How Often Should You Feed Your Dog.

Provide Enrichment

Your dog will survive the day without free access to food, especially if you provide them with environmental enrichment and mental stimulation. Many pets are getting less direct play and interaction time with their people, making mealtimes the perfect opportunity to meet enrichment needs.

Because we're all so busy, dogs often get fewer and shorter walks and playtime. This can lead to a whole bunch of problems, not just medical but also behavioral. Interactive toys and feeders can be a great way to help provide your dog with a little extra mental stimulation and environmental enrichment, regardless of how much physical exercise and one-on-one time they're getting. Our certified dog trainer lists her favorite interactive and puzzle feeders here.

Story Time

I want to go on the record as "just" a pet owner (not a veterinarian) that of all the many, many, many dogs I have owned or fostered; I have only ‘sorta’ free-fed one dog.

Rex was unlike any dog I have ever had (all my other dogs would scarf their food down and willingly eat non-stop if allowed!). He was happy, healthy, and playful — but skinny. Food wasn’t his thing.

If you notice, I said ‘sorta’ earlier. I did have specific ‘meal times’ of highly enticing food so I could see if he had an appetite, watch how he ate, how he acted, and I monitored his bathroom habits. But since he wasn’t one to eat a lot at mealtime, he left food most of the time (which generally was wasted since he didn’t eat much of it).

The fact I had ‘meal times’ and I knew what his eating habits were, I was able to determine when his appetite and some other things changed. Those changes allowed me to realize sooner than later that he had cancer.

By detecting his cancer early, through observing changes in his eating habits, I was able to intervene with appropriate dietary changes and medical intervention so that he didn’t have to suffer by a delay in detection.

Rex, one of the sweetest dogs in the world, lived until he was 18 years old.

You know your dog best. But if making a little change in how you feed them can possibly benefit their health and extend their life, isn’t it worth it?

And one last note: dogs are"contra-freeloading," meaning that they actually PREFER to work for their food even when food is freely available — it's how they're wired as foragers and hunters. If you have a finicky eater or a dog who is not motivated by food, this webinar by Kathy Sdao is great.

Happy (meal) feeding everyone!

About the author

Profile picture for Dr. Beth Turner

Dr. Beth Turner

Beth Turner is a veterinarian with over 20 years of experience. She graduated from North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine and following graduation, she began her career as an associate veterinarian and worked closely with the local shelter.

In 2007 she accomplished her dream of practice ownership, designing and building her own clinic. Another meaningful role, while running her clinic, was serving as her county's shelter veterinarian. This gave her the opportunity to help improve the lives of many animals in her community as well as work with the rescue she loved. She sold her practice in 2019 to move across the country.