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essential nutrition advice for your pet.

Why Free-Feeding is the Wrong Choice for Most Dogs

Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

Why Free-Feeding is the Wrong Choice for Most Dogs

February 17, 2012 / (6) comments

Do you leave food out for your dog 24/7? If so, you might be doing him a disservice.

There are basically only three ways (or some combination thereof) to feed pets:

  1. Free Choice — food is available at all times and the individual picks when and how much their pet eats
  2. Time Limited — owners put out food but take it away after a set amount of time
  3. Amount Limited — owners offer a pre-determined amount of food and the pet can pick when to eat it

Free choice feeding is definitely the easiest option for owners — just fill up the bowl and top it off whenever you notice it getting low. Unfortunately, "easy for owners" and "good for pets" are frequently at odds with one another. Dogs that are free fed are at a high risk for becoming overweight. Who among us hasn’t snacked when we’re bored, even if we’re not all that hungry? Dogs will do the same thing. My owner’s been gone for awhile and the house is pretty dull without her … I know, I’ll see what’s in the bowl!

Even if your dog isn’t overweight, you should still reconsider free choice feeding. A loss of appetite is one of the first signs of many illnesses. Sure, you’ll eventually notice when your dog has stopped eating entirely (or maybe not if you think someone else in the house is topping off the bowl), but by that point the disease may have progressed past a critical point. I can’t overemphasize how important early diagnosis is to successful treatment.

Finally, leaving food out all the time is not very sanitary. Your dog won’t be the only critter that learns where to find its meal. You’re inviting insects, rodents, bacteria, and who knows what else (I’ve heard many a story of raccoons figuring out the doggie door) into your home when food is readily available.

In my experience, a combination of amount limited and time limited feeding is best for pets. Determine the amount of food that your dog needs to maintain an ideal body condition and offer only that much per day. If your dog hasn’t finished the meal in 15 to 20 minutes, pick up the food, discard the remainder, and do not offer more until the next regularly scheduled meal.

Using this method, you’ll become very familiar with your dog’s eating habits and quickly notice even the smallest variation away from what is normal. For example, a dog with dental disease and oral pain may still finish its meal but could take longer to do so. This is also a good way to feed finicky animals; sometimes pets just need to get a little hungry before they’ll decide to dig into the nutritious meal that you are offering.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: ncn18 / via Shutterstock

Comments  6

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  • Free Fed
    02/17/2012 11:54pm

    I have a Toy and Miniature Poodle, both are free fed. These dogs hardly eat, they pick occasionally throughout the day. The only way I can get them to eat a bunch of food is if I feed them just soft- which isn't happening.
    My Miniature is a 3 on the scale of 5 and my toy is leaning on the lighter side of things. I am glad they are not pigs and I can free feed them without any concern of them becoming overweight.
    Boy are they picky though. Took me bags and bags of food to find one they both enjoy.
    I understand the sanitary issues of keeping food out, which is why I only fill the bowl a small amount and on a good day I find myself refilling it a time or two.
    I do agree though, that other options such as time limited are probably the best way to approach feeding.

  • 03/29/2012 06:37pm

    I can't say that I agree with this. I've always free fed my dogs and my foster dogs and my parents have free fed all their dogs. None of our dogs have been underweight or overweight and it's very easy to keep track of how much they eat. And other dogs that I know who are free fed are ideal weights as well.

    Preventing other animals and pests from getting to your dog's food is pretty much common sense and hasn't been a problem when common sense has been applied. (No offense to anyone.) Bacteria is everywhere. Leaving a bowl of dry kibble out that will be finished in a day or two isn't going to cause a biological hazard and I find it hard to imagine that the kibble in the storage container or bag is free from bacteria either, especially in a dark environment.

    Giving a bowl of food and taking it away if it's not finished by a certain amount of time promotes compulsive eating since the dogs become opportunistic and because they go hungry between meals. A bowl of kibble out so the dog can graze throughout the day as needed lowers the value of the kibble and doesn't induce them to feel that they need to eat it right now, whether they're hungry or not, before it disappears. It also doesn't induce guarding behavior since, like said, the value of the kibble is lowered and it's always there for them. A dog that doesn't feel the need to gulp down food while they have it is at lower risk for stealing things that they shouldn't be eating.

    Food motivated dogs are still food motivated because treats aren't free fed and still retain their value.

    Also, free fed dogs aren't harder to potty train if you pay attention to what they're doing and when they're doing it, which you should be doing anyways with any dog you're potty training, and time potty breaks accordingly.

    There will always been exceptions to this rule, some dogs will never learn to free feed and some dogs have medical problems that cause them to over eat.

  • 04/06/2012 02:50am

    I tried timed feeding with my dog he stoped eating almost altogether and he lost four in a half pounds when he was already skinny our vet even asked us if we were feeding him you could see his ribs easily from across the room so we went back to free feeding and he is still skinny but you can't see his bones from four or five feet away now and he is healthy now he never really ever ate that much like a three fourths of a cup a day ( we measured how much he ate of his food for three months ) and he is a lab chow mix so he should be eating more than that and there is always a lot of food in his bowl (2 1/2 - 3 1/2 cups)

  • 05/17/2012 01:38am

    One of my foster dogs was underweight but reached ideal weight when she was allowed to free feed.

  • Fan of Free Feeding
    02/22/2013 12:11am

    I can't say that I agree with the article in the least. Over the past 30 years, we have owned 5 dogs of different breeds and all of them were free fed using a food dispenser that could hold 25 lbs of dry kibble with a swinging door. None of them were overweight or underweight. None showed food aggression towards each other. Our mixed breed dog lived to be 20 years old with this feeding method. Our 12 year old keeshond currently weighs a perfect 45 lbs, and our golden retriever, a breed notorious for obesity, is a solid trim muscular 75 lbs with 24" whithers. I truly believe in the wisdom of a dog's own physiology to regulate his food intake better than I can do or better than the recommendations on a bag of dog food. My dogs can sit in the proximity of a bowl of kibble and ignore it because they aren't hungry, they don't endure feast or faminine conditions during the day, they don't have swings of hunger and gorging. They don't have anxiety that there will be no food when they want it. And mostly, they don't overeat. Also, I do not agree that keeping food in a dispenser with a closing door is unsanitary. I've never noticed tainted food. I do not agree that measuring out food daily is a way for me to discover if my dog is not feeling well. There are other obvious cues for a dog owner to note. As for the title of the article that free feeding is the wrong choice for most dogs...I couldn't disagree more.

  • Free Fed
    12/08/2015 05:24pm

    I have to say I strongly disagree. In my life I have free fed all of my dogs/my family's dogs. That's 11 total dogs (big family, at one point all of the kids had a dog AND my dad had a hunting dog). None of our dogs have ever had a weight problem. They just grab a nibble any time they start to get hungry. All of our dogs have lived exceptionally long and healthy lives, one was roughly 23 when we finally had to put her down.

    We also have never had a problem with food guarding or aggression about food, as a toddler I would reach into the food bowl as the dogs were eating and take some of it for myself. Even now with my Mastiff mix I can reach into his mouth and take food that he's in the middle of eat (which comes in handy because he will eat literally anything).

    Its also extremely effective because dogs don't use the same amount of calories every day. No one does. Some days our hunting dog would go through two bowls of food. But she had also spent the morning hiking through swamps and retrieving heavy geese. Some days she would just find a sunny spot in the yard and nap all day. Because we just kept the food bowl full, she could monitor how much she needed to consume.

    As someone else mentioned, free-feeding does not work for all dogs. Some dogs don't know how to stop feeding, for medical or psychological reasons, and at that point it is up to the owner to monitor their consumption. But I firmly believe that, where possible, free-feeding is the best choice.