Deciding how often to feed your cat or dog is very important. Lifestyle, breed, illness, and the number of pets and personalities in a household all play a part in deciding when and how often to feed. There are 3 main ways that our pets are fed: 1) free choice feeding, 2) food restricted feeding (meal feeding), or 3) time restricted meal feeding.
Free choice feeding is a method in which food is always available, so your pet has a choice of when and how much they will eat at a time. The amount of food provided is usually more than what they will normally consume in a day. The advantage of free choice feeding it that is quick and easy. There are cats and dogs that prefer to graze all day long, and some of them regulate how much they eat without becoming obese. However, the main disadvantage of free choice feeding is that some cats and dogs that do not have any restrictions on how many calories they are allowed in a day will become obese. Also, free choice feeding makes it harder to detect illness or lack of appetite in pets, especially when there are multiple pets in the home sharing the same food bowls. Depending on the diet, some food will spoil when left at room temperatures for long periods of time. Moist, moistened dry foods, raw and some home cooked diets have a higher risk of spoilage when left out all day.
Food restricted feeding (or meal feeding) is when a specific amount of food is fed at certain times of the day. The amount of food offered is less than what is left out with free feeding. With time restricted meal feeding, the food is offered to the pet for a certain amount of time (usually 5-15 minutes) at each meal then the food bowl is picked up regardless of the amount of food left.
There are many advantages of meal feeding. Families are able to control the amount of food that the pets are offered, which is very important in weight control. It allows multi-pet households to have different diets for different pets due to illness, food sensitivities or life stage. In multi-pet households, it is best to feed each pet at a separate feeding station, preferably not right next to each other. This reduces competition and food-related aggression and allows owners to easily monitor how much each pet is actually eating.
Smaller amounts fed throughout the day is desirable for younger dogs and kittens (under 6 months), dogs that are required to do heavy work, or pets that are pregnant or lactating which requires a higher calorie intake. The smaller breeds (Chihuahuas, Yorkies, etc.), especially as puppies, require more frequent feeding due to organ development and digestion. Their small size can also make it difficult for them to eat enough to sustain normal blood sugar for long periods of time. Some illnesses, such as inflammatory bowel disease and megacolon, require more frequent and smaller meals to aid in digestion, absorption and use of the nutrients. An added benefit of smaller meals throughout the day is increased calorie use during digestion.
Time restricted meal feeding can be beneficial when transitioning from free feeding to meal feeding for cats and dogs. This style of feeding also works well when one pet gobbles the food and another eats more slowly, since the "gobbler" can't clean the other pet's unfinished portion. Cats who are accustomed to having food available at all times may overeat if you put their entire food allowance for the day out at one time. We recommend measuring the food in the morning and giving small amounts of the premeasured food throughout the day. This style of feeding better matches the way cats eat in the wild, eating frequent meals of small prey.
For most pets, we recommend that you measure the food out and meal feed at least twice a day. This helps you to ensure that a fresh source of food is offered, to detect early signs of illness, and to provide portion control for healthy weight maintenance. If you are unsure how much food to feed your pet, talk to your pet's veterinarian here at Animal Hospital of North Asheville during your next visit and feel free to come in anytime for a free measuring cup for your pet's food.