FEEDING TIPS FOR BIG AND LITTLE DOGS
By Joseph Saling, DVD
From WebMD-Ask the Veterinarian
Do you know what to do about a dog that's a picky eater or one that begs every time you go to the kitchen to fix dinner? Should you be worried because your dog sometimes skips a meal? And how do you know your dog is getting enough to eat? WebMD talked with a veterinarian and a specialist in dog behavior to get answers to these and other questions you may have about feeding your dog.
"Only when feeding puppies," says Melissa Carreker, DVM, owner of Leland Veterinary Clinic in Mableton, Ga. Puppies should eat four times a day.
And speaking of feeding puppies, Wendy Winquist, a certified trainer and dog behavior specialists in Austell, Ga., suggests you start out feeding them by hand. "That way," she says, "the dog identifies you as the food provider."
Winquist, who is an active member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) and owner of Pups in Progress dog training, says that feeding a puppy by hand is also a bonding mechanism. "It's intimate, and it lets you and the puppy get to know each other better." It also helps prevent future development of problems such as food possessiveness and aggression.
The general recommendation for adults of all breeds is that they be fed twice a day. "Of course, as dogs get older," Carreker says, "they may make the decision for us how many times they should be fed. Some dogs don't want to eat twice a day."
Leaving food out for a dog to eat whenever it wants is called free feeding. Most experts recommend against it for several reasons.
"Especially when you start out with a puppy," Carreker says, "we recommend that you feed it on a meal schedule." That means feeding the dog at the same times every day and leaving the food down for only about 20 minutes. Then you should pick up the bowl whether your dog has eaten or not.
A meal schedule, Winquist says, teaches a dog that when you put the food down, it's time to eat. "If you pick your dog's food up before she eats it, you can be pretty sure she'll eat at the next feeding."
Carreker says that a meal schedule also makes housebreaking easier. "When you're training a dog to go to the bathroom outside," she says, "it helps to know when the dog will need to go." Typically, a puppy needs to go 20 to 30 minutes after eating. "If you know when the dog has eaten, you'll know when to take her out," Carreker says. "That makes it easy for her to succeed."
Another problem with free feeding is that it can lead to health problems related to obesity. "Some adult dogs," Carreker says, "can handle their food being out all day. And it might be all right to leave it out if you measure the food and know how much you're giving. Other dogs, though, won't stop eating, and many owners don't measure and even refill the bowl throughout the day. They have no idea how much food their dog is eating."
Portion control is as important for dogs as it is for humans. Measuring makes it easier to know how much your dog is eating, which helps control your dog's weight. "You don't need any special tools," Carreker says. "Just use the same measuring cups you use for cooking."
And how much food should you give your dog? "That depends," Carreker says, "on your dog's size and level of activity." You can ask your vet about how many calories your dog should get each day. You can also use the guide printed on dog food packages. But, Carreker says, you need to do so with caution.
"The guides on packages are average ranges. And most guides are overestimated," Carreker says. "You need to know your dog's activity level and monitor its weight, and make adjustments based on what you see happening."
Both Winquist and Carreker say owners are usually responsible for making their dog a fussy eater. Lots of things can contribute to fussiness, from leaving the dog's food out all day, to overfeeding him treats, or giving him scraps from the table.
"Sometimes," Carreker says, "the dog may not be fussy at all. It may simply just not be hungry. You can pick up his food and watch what happens next time your feed it."
"The thing not to do," Winquist says, "is dote on a fussy dog. Trying to cajole your dog to eat only makes not eating more interesting." The thing to do, she says, is to stick to a feeding schedule. Then if the dog doesn't eat, just pick the food up without making a fuss. "The next time you put food down," Winquist says, "if she's hungry, she'll eat."
An early sign of illness in a dog is often loss of appetite. So some people get concerned if their dog misses a meal, Carreker says. "But if there are no other symptoms of illness -- such as vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy -- there's no particular reason to be concerned about an occasional missed meal."
Dogs can go a long time without eating, Carreker tells WebMD. So a dog might go several feedings in a row without eating. "Of course, if there are other symptoms," she says, "you should contact your dog's vet."
Winquist owns four dogs. She also boards dogs for her clients and may have as many as six or seven dogs in her house at one time. "I never have a problem with one dog eating another dog's food," she says. "It's all about the fact that I'm the one in control of the food."
At feeding time, she puts food in a dog's bowl and then calls the dog by name to come eat. She says because the dogs see her as the one controlling the food, the other dogs know the food belongs to the dog she gave it to and they don't bother the other dog.
"You have to watch," she says, "and pick up the bowl after the dog stops eating. If you leave it sitting out other dogs will naturally check it out."
You can also separate the dogs at feeding time. "Move the bowls farther apart by putting them in different parts of the room or even in other rooms," Carreker says.
"Absolutely," Carreker says. "They make an excellent treat, and they make the dog feel fuller with less calories and no fat." There are certain foods dogs shouldn't have, she says. "For instance, they can't have onions because onions can cause anemia. And grapes and raisins can cause acute kidney failure."
Winquist cautions that you should not give your dog food from your plate at the table or from the counter while you are preparing a meal. "I give my dogs fresh fruits and vegetables all the time. But I don't do it while I'm cooking or while I'm eating. Doing so teaches dogs to beg."
Carreker says food aggression and a dog being possessive of food are behavioral problems that may often be seen in rescue dogs or dogs that are adopted from a shelter. "Sometimes, it's a result of the dog's new environment and being uncertain about what's going to happen. If it is, it may improve once the dog knows it's going to be fed. If it doesn't, I typically refer clients to a dog behaviorist who will come into their home and observe the dog."
Winquist agrees that relieving the dog's anxiety about getting fed will often improve the situation. "If the dog's just possessive but not really showing signs of aggression, you can try feeding it by hand. Like with a puppy, doing so will let the dog associate you with the provision of food."
She cautions that you should never reach into the dog's dish or get in the dog's face until you know for sure how the dog is going to react. "If the dog is showing signs of aggression -- growling, barking, and so forth -- you can try another tactic." One is to put a leash on the dog and walk it away from the food dish, then walk it back and let it eat a few bites before walking away.
Another technique that helps the dog become more comfortable with you around the food is to stand off to the side and toss pieces of food into the dish while the dog is eating. "You're not taking food out of the dish, you're putting it in." If the aggressive behavior doesn't go away, you need the help of a dog behavior professional.
Although they do like occasional treats, dogs, unlike humans, are content to eat the same food every day. So there's no real reason to make changes in a dog's diet to add variety. In fact, doing so may cause digestive upset and diarrhea. Not every dog has these problems, but many do when their food is changed.
There are times, Carreker says, when you do need to change a dog's diet. The two main times are when you go from puppy food to adult food, and then again when you switch from adult food to senior food.
When you do change food, it is best to make the change gradually by mixing the new food with the old. "Then," Carreker says, "over a period of one to two weeks, gradually increase the amount of new and reduce the amount of old until you're just feeding the new food to your dog."