There are basically only three ways (or some combination thereof) to feed pets:
- Free Choice — food is available at all times and the individual picks when and how much their pet eats
- Time Limited — owners put out food but take it away after a set amount of time
- 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