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You may be thinking.. how hard is it?   You fill the bowl up and the dog eats it and then you refill it?  That is often what clients do and it can lead to some big health issues.  Malnutrition, obesity, bone and joint problems, bloat/twisted stomachs, pancreatic inflammation and even behavioural problems can be caused by inappropriate diet and feeding.  The number of obese pets is huge and obesity may reduce your dog’s life span by two years or more!  I hope you will open your mind to some thoughts that may be new to you.

  • You need to have your dog on a healthy, balanced diet with a moderate protein level.  Ask your veterinarian for recommendations on the proper food for your individual pet and his/her individual health needs.
  • You need to know how much to feed.  This is a common question but it is not one I can answer on a website.  Your veterinarian or a technician will assess your dog’s body condition score, exercise and energy level and make a starting recommendation.  Then, we have to weigh the dog on an accurate scale and reassess the body condition score on a regular basis so that further recommendations for an increase or decrease in food can be made.
  • Now you have to decide how many times a day you will feed your dog.  I feed my dogs two times a day.  Some dogs will get an acid build-up if only fed once/day.  If that is the case the dog will vomit occasionally and switching to two three feedings a day will cure them!  If your pet has a lot of gas, smaller more frequent meals will help with that too or a food change might be suggested!  Once you’ve decided how many meals a day, divide the recommended amount into the appropriate feedings.  For example if the total allotment is one cup/day and you were doing three feedings/day, you would feed 1/3 cup per feeding of course.
  • Buy a measuring cup.  One yogurt container or margarine container is not a cup!!  Oops, was I yelling. You really need to know how much you are feeding. Now if you want to put a cup of food into a margarine container and make a mark on the margarine container I guess I could live with that… hee, hee!
  • Now, there are some options on how to actually feed!
    • If your pet has behavioural issues or is overweight, make your dog work for every kibble of dry food or every spoonful of wet food.  They can retrieve, do a sit or down, you can make them do a sit/stay and put some food on plate down a long haul way and send them to it.  Be creative and you can make feeding fun.  Note, in your large dogs you don’t want to do really high energy exercise that might make them prone to a twisted or bloated tummy.   If you don’t have time for this, even doing it a few times/week is helpful for the mental health, bonding and weight loss issues.  This is discussed more in the ‘Leadership Training’ article.
    • If you can’t do the above, then put the bowl down and have the dog sit before giving it to him/her.  Then allow the dog 10 – 15 minutes to eat, and then pick the bowl up.  No food until the next meal. 
    • If your dog is a very fast eater then consider buying a food bowl with a grooved bottom to slow the pet down.  Your dog will have less gas after they eat if they slow and they will be occupied for longer possibly making them feel fuller sooner than if they gooble!  Another option is a toy that dispenses kibbles when played with. 
    • If you have more than one dog they should be separated or at least fed out of different bowls.

These methods will help with dogs that are picky eaters and will make sure that if your schedule changes or you travel, you will be able to get your pet to eat when you want them to eat.  It will also help you know if your pet is not feeling well a lot sooner than if the bowl is always out and more than one person is feeding the dog. 

  • To treat or not to treat.  If you are feeding a high calorie treat and feeding several a day you may spoil your dog’s appetite for his/her regular food as well as end up with an obese and malnourished dog.  Most people think only thin pets are malnourished but this is not the case!  Many obese pets are not receiving balanced nutrition.  So you need to know how many treats a day are being fed, what the calorie content is and consider the calorie content of the food.  Then you know by the dog’s body condition score whether you are overfeeding. Treats shouldn’t be more than 10% of the diet.  I like to think about it this way.  If you had a child, you wouldn’t feed it 10 candy bars/day so why would you feed your pet the equivalent.  A milk bone is like a little doggy candy bar.  I hear you saying but he/she loves them…  I understand this!  I like to feed my dogs treats too.  Here are some tips for feeding treats that I use:
    • Buy the smallest size of the dog’s favourite treat and break it into bits and feed a piece instead of a whole cookie. Then instead of a couple candy bars they get small, but more frequent treats throughout the day that add up to one, not 10, candy bars. 
    • Consider feeding small pieces of vegetables such as raw washed carrots, peas, cauliflower or broccoli.  My small dog loves them, my big dog equates them to spinach.  I feel very good about these kinds of treats.  Still, don’t overdo it.
    • I also have a treat bowl by the front door as a reward for coming in from the yard when called.  In this bowl I have some of the Hill’s T/D dental diet.   They are quite large but less calories than many treats.  I like this as they are totally nutritionally balanced so I’m not ruining their diet.  If they get a lot, I can simply reduce their meal to account for the extra calories.
    • Now, if you are training dogs, you can use training treats but once they understand a task, you can switch to small kibble of a different brand than the regular diet as an occasional reward. 

Remember though, if you overdo any of this you are adding significantly to your pet’s calorie count.  If the pet get’s overweight, you may have to cut back everything!  Remember as well that some human foods are poisonous or dangerous to your dog.   Don’t feed bones, fatty foods, gravies, grapes, raisons, nuts, onions, garlic or chocolate to your dog. Some berries with seeds can be an issue too.  Check with your veterinarian of course.

  • Remember to account for the activity level of the pet.  Canadian winters are long and if I had a nickel for every time I heard “my pet gained weight over the winter as we don’t exercise as much”… I’d be spending my winters in Hawaii!  Maybe I should start collecting!!  So, at times when your pet is not getting as much exercise, reduce the food by about 10%.  Consider this every day when you feed.   When they have big exercise days, you might be able to splurge with a few extra treats but only if your dog isn’t overweight. 
  • What about the picky dog?   Occasionally these dogs have health problems or separation anxiety issues that are affecting their appetite.  Have them checked by your veterinarian.  Most of the time, they have simply learned to hold out for the really good stuff.  Dogs learn to get what they want and can be quite persistent.  I have had clients amazed that their dog ate in the clinic as at home they will only eat steak or hamburger.  Dogs seem to know intuitively that this is not the steak house, it is the health hut!  I’ve also seen dogs like this with illnesses that I attribute to improper diet.  Discuss this issue with your veterinarian.  So what to do?  Here are some suggestions:
    • The timed feedings and working for the meal can be quite helpful. If they don’t eat a meal or won’t work for their kibble then they simply don’t get fed and you try again later.  Most dogs, unlike cats, can tolerate fasting for several days (do check with your veterinarian first).  I have heard of dogs not eating for up to 7 days.  
    • Increased exercise before meals can also help.  

You need to love your pet enough to say no sometimes!  If you feel you can’t do this at home and your veterinarian is sure it is not a health issue, you could consider having your pet hospitalized to get them on a proper diet.   Clinic staff love pets too and don’t want to see your pet sick so they will persist! Once they have eaten well for a couple days in clinic, they can go home.  At home you will have to think of some strategies to keep your dog on track!  Ideas:

    • Give TLC instead of food when they beg.
    • Play a game instead of giving food when they beg.
    • Give a massage instead of food when they beg.
    • Go for a walk instead of giving food when they beg.
    • Confine them in another area of the home when you are eating so you don’t feel guilty.
    • If all else fails, leaves the house instead of giving in.

Remember, love does not equal food.  Your dog will not love you less for feeding it properly!  If you have to, say this 10 times a day every morning and repeat when tempted to feed improperly.  If you know you are feeding your pet improperly or excessively, you could even consider counseling to explore why you feel this need and help you figure this out!   

I hope these tips are helpful and useful to you. 

 Dr. Liana Mawer

Thanks for loving your pet enough to educate yourself!  Wishing you and your pet lots of happy meals together! 

Note,  I do not mean the McDonalds happy meal though.