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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

A Meal is Not Just a Meal

For Americans, meals are as much a social function as a time to replenish the body's energy. Breakfast with a service organization, coffee and snacks with a friend, a business lunch, a colleague recognition dinner and a post soccer burger in the car are more significant for their social interactions than nutrition.

In fact, prudent food and quantity selection are generally put aside. There is no question that the social aspects of eating contribute to the weight problem of Americans. This is also true for our pets. Pets get more baby talk, praise and attention at meals than any other time. Because pets spend the largest percentage of their lifespan interacting with their owners at meals, the social aspect of mealtime is contributing to the expanding pet body.

Social Facilitation

Early experiments in dogs and cats given free access to food found that they consumed only enough to meet their energy needs. These were laboratory animals and interaction with humans was limited. Link food with attention, praise, or reward for other social behaviors and eating takes on a new meaning. Pets no longer eat to satisfy metabolic needs, they eat to satisfy social needs. Such social facilitation in the presence of excessive quantities of food encourages overeating.

Finicky eaters especially benefit from the social nature of meals. Not only are they offered multiple taste choices but are lavished with verbal reinforcement to encourage finishing the entire feast. Unfortunately, the finicky behavior is rewarded and guaranteed to continue.

Owner preoccupation with a missed meal also acts as a facilitator. Worried pet parents often will offer rich human treats to pets that have passed on breakfast. These foods are calorie rich and tasty, and actually act as rewards to encourage more missed meal behavior.

Owner guilt for long working days or busy social lives also tends to amplify the social nature of pet meals. Owners become easily trained when pets demonstrate favorable "loving behavior" associated with meals or food rewards. These positive pet responses to food give owners comfort that they have adequately compensated for any absence.

Dominance and subordination interactions between animals in multi-pet households are definite social facilitators. These relationships often result in aggressive eating behavior. Aggressive eaters are often rewarded with food to keep them from disturbing other pets’ meals. Aggressive eaters are also rewarded because their early finish evokes sympathy from the owners, who assume that "he feels bad” while others eat in front of him, or that “she is still hungry."

The result of these social interactions at meals is the tendency for owners to overfeed and for pets to overeat. It is probably the biggest reason for the pet overweight problem because few pets can open the refrigerator, open the plastic dry food container or operate a can opener.

What is the Answer?

I know this will sound terrible, but make meals less social. Minimize or eliminate verbal or food rewards during meal preparation and feeding. Associate attention and praise with play, petting or brushing time, away from the feeding area. Use more petting, patting and baby talk as rewards. If food is necessary to train new behaviors, try raw vegetables or berries and not the normal pet food.

We own pets for companionship and for the quality time we spend with them. Consider the family vacation. Family vacations are about spending quality time together. Stops at gas stations are merely to re-fuel the vehicle to continue the trip. Nobody takes pictures of the gas stations they saw. Treat pet meals like gas stations; they are merely re-fueling stops. It is the other times with your pet that are important.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: I Believe It’s My Turn by Charli White / via Flickr

Comments  17

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  • Fascinating!
    04/05/2012 11:33am

    Fascinating stuff! It makes perfect sense when you put it this way.

    I guess I'm somewhat guilty, but for good reason I think. If I have a seriously sick kitty, I will do everything in my power to keep them eating. It never dawned on me that they might be continuing to eat for the social aspect, but it's quite possible.

    This is definitely information to tuck away for the next sick kitty.

  • Another perspective...
    04/05/2012 01:32pm

    Many Certified Animal Behaviorists and Veterinary Behaviorists have a somewhat different perspective. For example, both Dr. Patricia McConnell and Dr. Sophia Yin actually recommend that dog owners measure out the day's dry kibble, put it in a plastic container, and use it throughout the day as reinforcement for desired behavior, in other words, "catch your dog doing something good" (useful, cute, polite, whatever), "mark" it with a click or verbal marker, and then reinforce with a piece or two of kibble. At the next scheduled feeding time, if there is anything left in the bag, give the dog the rest as a "jackpot" for a particularly good response, and containerize the next feeding to use the same way. Dr. Yin (a very good Certified Veterinary Behaviorist) has written that you should throw away the feed bowl! Studies have shown most captive animals prefer to work for food rather than receive it "free". It is a wasted opportunity to give a dog non-contingent food when it is so easy to use the food that comprises the meal as an opportunity for reinforcement.

    So, yes, feeding is certainly a socially mediated behavior system, and this can be used to great advantage.

    Granted, some dog owners are unwilling to spend the time to do this, but they can at least take a few minutes before feeding to work with the dog on a few behaviors before "jackpottiing" with the rest.

    As for picky eaters, Sue Ailsby has an excellent article on teaching a dog to eat. You are right that so many owners unintentionally reinforce picky behavior and there is a simple method to deal with this. I'll post the URL if anyone is interested.

  • 04/06/2012 06:45pm

    I love the idea of throwing away the food bowl, and at the very least, giving them their food from a Buster Cube, or similar toy.

    Going on to do training with their food is also great.

    Does Patricia McConnell talk about using food dispensing toys when there are multiple pets, and there may be competition among them for the food? I have three large dogs, and it's not practical to isolate them to different parts of the house so they can roll the Buster Cube around.

    Two of mine are Shepherds, and they probably would not eat at all if they were isolated in another area of the house, due to feeling anxious about that.

    I already have to confine my cat away from the one dog who does get a Buster Cube, as the cat will eat all the kibble coming out, plus be food-aggressive toward the dog!

  • Fussy Eaters
    04/05/2012 02:35pm

    Here is Sue Ailsby's excellent article on Teaching Your Dog To Eat (Fussy Eaters):


  • ....and how timely!
    04/05/2012 07:25pm

    Here is Trish McConnel's blog post on "Dont Waste Calories", about using your dog's dinner for behavior modification and a recent book that deals with these issues:


  • Picky Eaters
    04/05/2012 08:17pm

    Very interesting. I certainly have thought of this for my own eating habits, but hadn't for the animals'.

    It was actually my picky eater that taught me to make meal time uneventful. At first I coddled and cajoled him to get food into him ... he was soooo skinny as a young dog.

    Finally, I got so sick of it, and just put the food down, set a timer for 15 minutes, and walked away ... refused to even look at him during that time, althought he stood staring at me, wondering why I'd given him this "stuff" and how did I expect him to eat it.

    That was when it all turned around. To this day, I put the food bowls down, set a timer, and walk away. Works great.

  • There is an Easy Weigh!
    04/06/2012 02:12pm

    Another answer is to monitor your pet's weight. It is now very easy to do with this affordable, easy to use, in-home pet scale. It is high time to protect all of our family members and now it is simple to do! http://www.petfitnation.com .

  • Scale?
    04/06/2012 03:04pm

    Judy, this looks interesting, but my Irish Wolfhounds range in weight from 145-205. The scale looks a bit small for them, couldn't find on the website what the capacity is.

    Would be interesting to have a scale under one's dining room chair!

  • 04/06/2012 03:12pm

    This scale has a weight capacity of 325 lbs. for our larger furry friends :) !!

  • Multiple dogs
    04/06/2012 09:22pm

    Yes, 3dogs1cat, Trish does talk about the multiple animal/resource guarding issue.

    One handy device I do not (yet) have is called a "Manners Minder". It is on Sophia Yin's website. It dispenses kibble when you press a remote, so can be used to teach/reinforce a "go to place" behavior. Great for when you want to reinforce at a distance. Are your dogs crate trained? Or could you use an X pen to divide the room and work with them individually? Or you could containerize the food and dole it out (at least some of it) as reinforcements and give the rest as jackpots in crates, xpens, or a conditioned "go to place" reinforcer.

  • Dr. Tudor?
    04/07/2012 12:41am

    Hello! Generally with a blog, one would expect some sort of response...

  • Hmmmm
    04/07/2012 12:55am

    Perhaps this is not an appropriate forum for discussion...I see no further purpose since there has been no further input re the initial blogger.

  • blog
    04/07/2012 02:22pm

    Hi Houndhill,

    I know - what's up with that......? I'm new here so cannot say whether this is the way this forum is always conducted. It would be nice to have some kind of discussion as I agree with Dr. Tudor's twist on the pet obesity problem. Personally, I believe that change takes time and I believe that we are on the right path to better nutrition and feeding habits. Now, if we can only get the food manufacturers to switch to 'plain english' on their labels, maybe pet parents will have some kind of clue as to what they are feeding their furry kids and how often. It cannot become a 'lifestyle' change if pet parents don't really understand the basics. I know the daily calorie intake requirement for my cats, but I would venture to say that most pet parents have no idea. I am excited about my product as I am trying to make it easy for pet parents to keep track of their pet's weight. I am hopeful that if it is automatically 'in your face' every time you feed your pet, that it will make it hard to ignore. I don't know - we'll see.... I just know that my beloved felines are not going to suffer from unnecessary illness and invasive treatment "just because" they are overweight. Nice to meet you, Judy

  • 04/08/2012 08:37pm

    My research focus is on the dynamics of weight loss and weight management. I have no opinions about the behavioral construct that requires dogs to perform for their daily allotment of food. It is certainly an alternate solution for some dog owners. Until my research can verify that such a feeding model does or could result in significant calorie expenditure compared to conventional methods or is more efficacious with weight management, I simply have no reason to comment.

  • Interesting
    04/09/2012 12:05am

    Thanks Judy for your response. You are kinder than I.

    And thanks Dr. Tudor for your response. I understand your reluctance to consider that this model might possibly result in weight reduction. Why do you think it could it not? Do your recommendations have greater support in terms of data for weight loss or desirable behavior than those that the animal behaviorists suggest? I would be interested in what published studies you may be aware of. Waiting for research results is certainly admirable, but perhaps unlikey in this instance.

    I first discovered the Pet MD blogs when I met Dr. Khuly from "Fully Vetted" at a conference, and was impressed with her and her writing ability. Since then, I have discovered these Pet MD blogs are quite variable in quality.

    It is a great sign that you are open to considering other points of view that might differ from your own. That is how we grow and learn, right?

    I will certainly be eager to hear of the results of your own research. I understand that you
    may feel no reason to comment until that time.

  • No bowls! Fatties?????
    04/09/2012 12:45am

    This is of course anecdotal, has not been published that I am aware of, but those I know who follow the behaviorists' recommendations in giving the daily allotment of food contingently re behavior, have dogs of ideal/lean body weight. Whether this is because those who adopt this plan are more aware of proper body weight in their dogs, or the dogs are more active, or the owners more in tune, I don't know....but even the owners who know to use the daily food more contingently at least for the first few bites, seem to have healthier body weight, hungrier dogs.

    Interesting....sure wish someone would do a study on this...Hills people, are you listening?

  • A Broader Perspective
    04/09/2012 01:22am

    Isn't it interesting that the various areas within veterinary medicine seem to have so little communication? ie behavioral medicine vs "nutritional" or "weight loss" specialists? How eating/feeding behavior may be understood in evolutionary and social learning theory terms is quite complex.

    Should not surprise us, various medical specialty groups sometimes have little communication.

    Well it is a start, anyway, to even begin to consider social aspects of eating/feeding, even if the conclusions reached are wildly different than animal behaviorists might reach.

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