Dog eating food

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.

Health Considerations

A pet’s medical condition (including being very young or very old) also can affect the answer; pets with a wide variety of medical conditions ranging from cancer to diabetes can benefit from changes in their feeding schedule. Other medical conditions that could affect meal frequency include being either underweight or overweight/obese.

First, pets who are underweight should be evaluated by their veterinarian to make sure there isn’t a medical cause for this. If your veterinarian agrees that your pet needs to gain weight, then offering food more frequently can make sense, though there usually isn’t a benefit to the pet reaching a “goal weight” more rapidly. Gradual gain is normally sufficient.

Second, overweight or obese pets can also benefit from more frequent feeding. (Again, check in with your veterinarian to find out if your pet needs to shed some weight.) While the critical part of a weight-loss plan is feeding fewer calories, doing this as several smaller daily meals can make a weight-loss plan easier on both the pet and the pet owner.

Smaller, more frequent meals can help the pet feel more satisfied with fewer calories, especially if the meals are paired with activities like finding food, play or exercise like walking or swimming. It can also help keep pet owners motivated to stick with the plan. Nobody likes to see their pet suffer, and a pet who can convince their owner that they’re hungry has convinced the owner that they’re suffering. Enter treats. We’re all human, and many of us would rather fail at weight loss than fail to prevent suffering. For that reason, feeding smaller, more frequent meals in a weight-loss plan might help, because the pet owner who knows that the pet was just fed an hour ago is much less likely to buy the “starving” routine or turn to treats. This strategy can help keep the plan on track.

Body Condition Is Key

How to know where your pet falls? As I mentioned, talk to your veterinarian to determine if your pet is truly healthy and in appropriate body condition. Up to 50 percent of U.S. pets are overweight or obese, and many pet owners seem to have a skewed impression of what a pet’s “normal weight” actually is. I’ve seen pet owners desperate to put weight on a newly adopted “emaciated” pet who is actually in perfect body condition, and obese pets whose owners have no idea that there is a weight problem. I raise this point not to poke fun at the misinformed, but rather to urge pet owners (yes, it could be you) to find out if they, in fact, could benefit from changing things for their pet.

What About Free Feeding?

In all of the above scenarios, I am referring to feeding small, frequent meals of known amounts. However, on the other hand, one could consider free feeding to be the ultimate in small, frequent meals. But unless you have a single pet grazing from a known amount of a dry diet and are measuring the uneaten portion at the end of the day, I generally do not recommend this strategy for several reasons. First, the obvious: It can promote excessive intake and obesity for most pets just as living on a cruise ship and enjoying the nonstop buffet line would for most humans! Second, it sacrifices the ability to know how much the pet eats and third, in multi-pet households, it sacrifices the ability to feed different pets different diets (which may not be in the best interest of one or more pets).

There’s no magic to meal frequency for most pets, though it can absolutely be used as a tool for improved management of a medical condition and to help achieve weight-management goals. If you’re not sure about your pet’s needs, schedule an appointment to discuss the concerns with your veterinarian; he or she can help create a plan to address your pet’s nutritional needs while meeting yours.

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