At our practice a good 90% or our clients still feed their pets commercial pet food. While we can make a strong argument that home fixed meals are much better for both dogs and cats, we also understand the reality of life – that most people have neither the time nor the money to feed regular, prepared meals for their pets. (As an aside, our staple products – No Itchy Dogs and No Painful Dogs, work so well specifically because they help your dog digest commercially processed foods, as well as adding in the missing nutrients your pet needs.)
However, people tend to exacerbate the problems they face from using commercially processed foods by then going and feeding their pets incorrectly. The number one thing we see people do wrong when it comes to feeding is to overfeed. And the number one way to overfeed your pet is to free choice feed.
What Is Free Choice Feeding?
Also known as grazing, free choice feeding is when the pet owner leaves food available in the food bowl 24/7. It gives your dog or cat access to go eat as much as she wants, whenever she wants. Essentially, it’s no different than simply cutting the top off of a bag of food and putting the whole bag on the floor.
And much like grazing, it will make your pet look like a cow. I have no hard numbers to substantiate this, but from casual observation I can guarantee that at least 80% of animals that are free choice fed – and that’s dogs and cats alike – will be significantly overweight by the age of 5. By significantly I mean at least 20%.
So your sweet little Shih Tsu that should weigh 15 pounds and is now 19 pounds? That doesn’t sound like much, but that extra 4 pounds means your pet is 27% overweight.
And the problem doesn’t stop there. Animals that are free choice fed almost always suffer from what I call weight creep. That means that at their annual physical their weight creeps up a little each year. And the number I tend to see is about 5%. So our cute little 19 pound Shih Tzu from above? Next year she’s likely to be 20#. And the next year? 21.5 pounds. And the next year 23#.
And before you know it, you have a 10 year old dog that’s about 70% overweight. And most owners never notice it because the weight comes on insidiously, and not all at once. It’s very hard to notice when you see your pet every day. And then before you know it, you have a 10 year old dog that’s used to eating whatever she wants, whenever she wants, and getting the weight off is a real challenge.
How to Avoid Obesity in Your Dog or Cat
If you’re one of the many, many people who still feed their pet dry commercial food, we recommend discrete feedings twice a day. What we mean by discrete is that the food goes down at exactly the same time twice each day, and stays down for a specific length of time.
Our general guidelines for dry food feeding is to give ¼ cup of dry food for every 10 pounds of body weight, twice daily. (So a 10 pound poodle gets ¼ cup twice a day, while a 60 pound golden retriever gets 1.5 cups twice a day. This is a VERY rough guide, and you should adjust it up or down based on your pet and the food you feed. Your vet can help you with this. But feeding discretely and measuring the food is the first step to accomplishing calorie control.) Put the food down at the scheduled time and then just walk away. Don’t watch your dog or cat eat, and definitely do NOT try to coax her if she won’t eat. Just feed and walk away. Then come back 30 minutes later and take the food up.
If your pet doesn’t eat her food in the morning, she gets exactly the same amount in the evening at the given time, and for exactly 30 minutes. No more. If your pet is used to grazing it may take her a few days to register the signal that “I’d better eat when the food’s down or I’m not going to get to eat.” But trust us, they always get the signal. And once they do you’ll be well on your way to controlling your pet and her eating habits instead of allowing her to control you. And her health will improve dramatically as you’ll finally be able to start controlling her weight.