Think Twice About Letting Your Dog or Cat Free-Feed

Author: Dr. Jason Nicholas

Published: September 11, 2016

Updated: August 2, 2022

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close up of beagle eating overfilled food bowl

Grazing...Good or Bad?

Many dog and cat owners find it convenient to keep their pet’s food bowl filled and accessible so their little friend can eat whenever they want.

Unfortunately, while this may be convenient (in the short term), it's actually a bad practice that deprives people of important opportunities to mentally stimulate their pets, monitor their health and comfort, and can even lead to the development of some significant, costly, and quite inconvenient medical or behavioral conditions.

So while "free feeding" may seem like a good way to feed pets in today's hectic lifestyles, doing so can actually cost you more time (and money) than the preferable alternative of meal feeding. Read on to see why.

The Dangers and Missed Opportunities of Free-Feeding Cats and Dogs

  • Obesity: Many cats and dogs don't have an "off switch" when it comes to eating, and will happily overeat if given the chance. Furthermore, much like many of us humans (myself included, unfortunately) are known to do, our pets can turn to food when bored.

    These are just some of the reasons why pet overweight and obesity rates across the U.S. (and in many other parts of the world) are skyrocketing – 58% of cats and 54% of dogs, according to one study. Is your pet one of them? Here's info and advice to help you recognize if they are, and to help you help them if so.

  • Obesity-related diseases: Carrying around excess weight doesn't just make it more difficult for an affected cat or dog to breath, walk, or groom themself, it also increases a pet's chance of suffering from a variety of other chronic diseases and conditions.

    For dogs the list of obesity-related conditions includes diabetes, heart disease, pancreatitis, chronic skin infections, recurrent anal gland impactions, and a host of others.

    For cats, common obesity-related conditions include diabetes, urinary obstruction, heart disease, high blood pressure, constipation, and many others. What's more, in cats Cat-outside-litter-box.jpgcarrying around excessive weight, it can be more difficult and painful for them to get into and out of their litter boxes... so guess where they're more likely to urinate and/or defecate?

  • Missed signs of a problem: A change in appetite is often one of the first signs of a problem in cats and dogs, whether it be an increase in what your pet is eating, or a decrease. If you're free feeding your pet(s), you're far less likely to pick up on this important sign at an early stage, if at all. A change in appetite can indicate a wide variety of problems. Here's just a partial list:
    • Resorptive tooth lesions and other painful dental conditions
    • Arthritis
    • Hormonal (endocrine) conditions, such as hyperthyroidism, Cushing's Disease, Addisons's Disease, diabetes, and others
    • Metabolic conditions, such as kidney failure or liver disease
    • Certain cancers
    • And a host of other conditions

      These are signs that you don't want to miss! And ones that your pet is really counting on you to pick up and act upon early. Just by simply meal feeding your pets, you'll greatly increase your chances of doing so.

  • More difficulty medicating pets: Some medications for pets are best given with food, while others are best given on an empty stomach. If your pets always have access to their food, it'll be far more difficult to time their medication dosages to ensure that they are getting the most benefit from those medications. And then there's diabetes, which is best managed if you can split your pet'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.

    To best regulate their insulin needs and thus their blood sugar, those meals and insulin injections should be spaced as close to 12 hours apart as is possible. And there (typically) shouldn't be the opportunity to graze throughout the day, as this will cause unaccounted for blood sugar fluctuations that can complicate their diabetic control.

  • Feeding pet-specific diets: There are some medical conditions in pets that 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 a host of 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 laying around.

    Starting your pets off on meal feeding early on in life, or switching them to a meal feeding schedule now, can help avoid this feeding conundrum should the need for pet-specific feeding ever arise in the future (which it often does).

  • Environmental enrichment & mental stimulation: With today's hectic lifestyles many pets are getting less direct play and interaction time with their people.

    Dogs are often getting fewer and shorter walks, and cats are getting less cuddle and play time. This can lead to a whole bunch of problems, not just medical, but also behavioral. Interactive and puzzle feeders can be a great way to help provide your cats and dogs with a little extra mental stimulation and environmental enrichment, regardless of how much physical exercise and one-on-one time they're getting.

    There are lots of great interactive and puzzle feeders available for cats and dogs, here are a couple that we love: the "Wobbler" by Kong (available for both Kong for dogs and Kong for cats) and the "Green Feeder" (dogs) and "Catch Feeder" (cats) by Northmate. (Feel free to let us know in the comments below if there are any interactive feeders or puzzle toys you use and love!)  

  • Potty training difficulties: 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 meal feed, 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 gastro-colic 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 cats and 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. (Imagine how much more unpleasant going out to restaurants would be if we were all like puppies!)

  • Spoilage and "critters": Keeping your pet’s food out can actually be quite unsanitary and unhealthy. Regardless of the brand of food you're feeding your pet(s), 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, in part, 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.).

    Along with the risk of spoilage, free-fed food can attract unwanted critters, such as ants, rodents, flies, and other pesties. 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.

While free feeding may seem more convenient and desirable, it can actually be the exact opposite for many pets and many households. Switching from free feeding to meal feeding 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 per day, you can start with the manufacturer's recommendations on the bag or can of food you're feeding. But watch your pet's weight and body condition and adjust the amount you're feeding based on that. You can also chat with your veterinarian to get a better initial sense, based on your specific pets, their current weight, and any medical conditions they may have.

Two important notes about feeding pets... (1) for dogs who are at increased risk of GDV/Bloat, feeding multiple smaller meals throughout the day is far better than feeding one large meal per day (you can learn more about this devestating condition, including which dogs are at increased risk, in our Is My Dog at Risk for Canine Bloat, Torsion, and GDV? article), and (2) a "cup" is an actual unit of measurement, not just any empty container you happen to use to scoop food (learn how best to measure your pet's food to avoid some of the most common mistakes pet owners make in our How Much and How Often to Feed Your Dog article).

Read more about the difference between GDV and Food Bloat — and what to do if  your dog has eaten too much.

Happy (meal) feeding everyone!

About the author

Profile picture for Dr. Jason Nicholas

Dr. Jason Nicholas

Dr. Nicholas graduated with honors from The Royal Veterinary College in London, England and completed his Internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Nicholas spent many years as an emergency and general practice veterinarian obsessed with keeping pets safe and healthy. He is the author of Preventive Vet’s 101 Essential Tips book series.

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