The Social Fallout of Meal Time

Ken Tudor, DVM
Published: August 29, 2012
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For today’s Daily Vet, we’re revisiting Dr. Ken Tudor’s column from April on the topic of social eating habits. What is your take: Do you reward your pet with food and give extra treats to show your love?

For many 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 at 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 with 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 as a 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 is 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 overweight pet 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 pet’s normal 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: mikeledray / via Shutterstock