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Are smaller, frequent meals really healthier for my pet?
I often joke that as a nutritionist, I’m incapable of answering simple questions like this one. Let me explain: In my opinion, a good answer to a nutrition question requires consideration of multiple factors related to the individual pet, the particular diet being fed and the pet owner. So, my answer to this seemingly simple question is: “It depends.” There are many questions that need to be asked in order to understand the pet’s needs and health status, the pet owner’s goals and the pet’s current diet.
As a result, when a pet owner asks me, “Are smaller, frequent meals really healthier for my pet?” I feel I first need to follow up with several of my own questions. My typical response would be, “Can you tell me about your pet, what he or she eats and why do you ask?” The last question is very important, because a pet’s individual situation can greatly influence how I respond. To demonstrate, first let’s take a look a couple of different scenarios.
Here's pet owner #1:
“My pet is a healthy adult mixed-breed dog. My vet says his weight is perfect. He eats dry food made by a major manufacturer and his appetite is excellent. He occasionally gets treats at day care, where he goes while I work, but usually he doesn’t eat a full meal from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. I’m worried that since I prefer to eat lunch, he would too.”
And here’s pet owner #2:
“I’m worried about my newly adopted 8-week-old Yorkshire Terrier puppy. She has bouts of playfulness followed by quiet behavior. My vet says she is healthy but thin. I feed her a canned puppy diet my vet recommended but she needs coaxing to eat. I work from home, so I can feed her often, if necessary.”
My answer to each of these pet owners will be dramatically different based on the details provided.
Where pet owner #1 is concerned, I’m perfectly happy to see him continue with twice-daily feeding. Many pets (and humans) adapt well to this feeding schedule, and it’s appropriate for healthy adult dogs and cats. So if it’s working for the pet and family, and there is no medical reason otherwise, my answer in this case is that there isn’t a need to change.
However, I want to emphasize that my response here applies to truly healthy adults, meaning not the pet who hasn’t been to the veterinarian in years. By healthy, I also mean dogs and cats in appropriate body condition (see below).
Pet owner #2, however, is in for some more work. Very young puppies, especially the Toy breeds, need to eat very frequently (as often as every few hours) to keep from becoming hypoglycemic (which means they have low blood sugar levels). Often, these dogs require extra attention and coaxing to get them to eat. My answer in this case would be absolutely: more frequent meals are a good idea.
As you can see from these two hypothetical scenarios, there are lots of factors that can come into play when answering nutritional questions. Let’s take a look at some more.
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