Feeding Times and Frequency for Your Dog

By Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

Nutrition, Pet Services

I have just added a dog to my household and I’ve heard conflicting ideas about feeding -- once a day, twice a day, just keep the bowl filled. I’m confused!

how_oftenFeeding dogs doesn’t have to be mysterious. By recognizing a few key concepts and attributes of dogs we can create a very reasonable feeding plan for them.

1. Dogs are creatures of habit.

We can use this fact to our advantage by creating a regular feeding schedule and sticking to it.

A regular feeding schedule helps with housetraining puppies, as well as adult dogs who have been rescued and have not been taught good household manners. Puppies generally need to relieve themselves within 10 to 15 minutes of eating a meal. By linking a “potty stop” with a meal we not only allow ourselves to predict when the pup needs a trip outside, we allow the puppy to learn to associate the urges to urinate and defecate with being in the appropriate location. This is a very important step in the housetraining process.

Feeding an adult dog at regular times provides the security and predictability of a routine. Meals become a cornerstone event of the day around which other activities are added. A feeding routine helps a dog cope when there are changes in the household -- a child moves away to college, a new baby arrives, a vacation during which a house-sitter is in charge.

“A feeding routine helps a dog cope when there are changes in the household.”

A feeding routine makes a necessary food change easier. When a dog is used to eating at the same times each day, her body becomes conditioned to expect food at those times. Hunger can be a great motivator!  If the stage is set for increased hunger followed by meals at regular times, then transitioning to a new food will often be seamless and straightforward.

2. Dogs have a simple stomach anatomy, just like humans.

Because dogs have a simple stomach structure (like humans), once the stomach is filled with food, it will empty within a few hours as food moves into the small intestine. After 8 to 10 hours, an empty stomach begins to send signals to the brain stimulating a hunger response. For this reason, at least two meals per day are best for our canine friends. Imagine if you only got to eat breakfast each day, and that was it!  Regular, routine feeding times allow your dog’s body to be prepared for the food it will receive.

3. A break in eating habits can be a warning sign of illness.

When dogs eat on a regular schedule, that habit becomes strong. It is easy to see at a glance if all the food from a meal is consumed. If food is left, whether all or part of a meal, that is an important signal that something is wrong and it is time to schedule a veterinary appointment.

I was told that puppies should eat all they want 3 or 4 times per day. Is that true?

Feeding a puppy all it can eat at one time is called “ad libitum” or “free choice” feeding. This is not recommended as it can create juvenile obesity, binge eaters, as well as set the stage for some orthopedic problems and diabetes. Dogs are acknowledged to have a genetically determined “set point” for their adult size. Slower, controlled growth in puppies optimizes body condition in adulthood.

How many meals should my dog eat each day?

The number of meals a dog eats per day depends completely on the family schedule. Dogs should eat at least two meals each day, about 12 hours apart. But a breakfast, lunch, and dinner schedule is an equally great option. If more than 12 hours elapses between meals, the stomach can become hyper-acidic causing nausea.

My dog doesn’t finish her meal all at once. I think she prefers to “graze.”  What should I do?

Some dogs really can regulate their food intake fairly well. It is still a good idea to create the expectation of meal times. This will facilitate adding another pet at some point in the future. For the “grazers,” simply measure out the entire day’s portion of food in the morning and offer the bowl several times throughout the day. Choose regular times in order to create the routine we know is helpful. The important thing is to use a measured portion for the day.

“The important thing is to use a measured portion for the day.”

Another consideration is the use of “food toys.”  There are too many options to list them here, but there are rolling food toys that just drop out a kibble of food intermittently as well as stationary food toys that require the dog to work for the food. Food toys are almost as entertaining for the humans as they are for the dog!

Your veterinarian remains the best source of nutritional guidance for your particular dog, answering important questions like what to feed, how much to feed, and how frequently to feed. Feeding time can be an important bonding time. Creating routine and regular feeding times builds fun into everyday activities.

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