Dog eating from food bowl

While many pet owners believe that good nutrition for their pet is all about diet, the topic is actually much broader than that. As a veterinary nutritionist, I know that optimal nutrition comprises complex interactions between the animal that eats the diet, the diet itself, how the diet is fed and the surroundings in which the diet is eaten. All these elements combined affect a pet’s relationship with his food.

Eating is an essential, evolutionarily conserved drive — meaning that, over time, animals that had a strong enough drive to eat were generally the ones that did not become food themselves for other animals. So, it is no surprise that animals will work for food and find eating to be a pleasurable — and rewarding — experience. Throughout evolution, food was a limited resource, so the drive to eat is stronger than the drive to stop eating. Additionally, eating may soothe anxious pets; their food comforts them and reduces their concern over potential loss of food sources.

Confinement Is Unnatural

Many pets in our practice are confined to someone’s home, so they are completely dependent on the mercy of their owners for all their physiological and behavioral needs, including food and water, elimination and the mental and physical stimulation needed to thrive. In this way, they are somewhat akin to zoo animals and may benefit from some of the enrichment efforts used in zoos. Domesticity (captivity) seems to affect pet cats even more than it does dogs. For example, while some owners may describe their cats as finicky or picky eaters, their cats may actually be feeling threatened by their environment and prefer familiar (i.e., comfort) foods. Viewed from this perspective, finicky eating may be more a sign of a larger problem (poor welfare), rather than an issue with diet. 

Early life experiences also affect pets’ relationships with food. For example, research in multiple species has shown that the offspring of mothers that do not receive enough food during pregnancy can be predisposed to obesity later in life. In some mothers, this association seems to result from signals transmitted to the fetus when she has experienced food restriction during pregnancy. Studies also suggest that, after the experience, effective environmental enrichment for the offspring may help reduce the risk of obesity and other health problems later in life.

Environment Can Affect Eating Behavior

Pets choose the foods they eat largely based on smell, taste and mouth feel. Pets, particularly confined ones, are also greatly affected by their surroundings. What this means from a nutritional perspective is that it is helpful to offer new foods as a choice at meal time. New foods should be in a separate container next to the usual food and offered on a day when the owner can observe what happens. If the pet refuses the new food, it may be for a variety of reasons, including anything from distaste to an impoverished environment that lacks enrichment.

In fact, some of the current enthusiasm for unconventional foods such as ancestral, homemade and raw diets seems more related to factors other than nutritional content. People often seem to turn to such diets in an effort to tempt what they believe is a finicky eater, but in reality, the diet may not be the problem — although it may become a problem if not properly formulated.

Feed to Match the Need

How pets are fed also influences their health and well-being. Healthy cats and dogs can be fed from once a day to continuously, depending on the preferences of the owner and the pet. Cats in the wild seem to be opportunistic feeders, catching small prey whenever they can, whereas dogs seem more comfortable with less frequent meals. If your confined pet is meal fed, consistent feeding times are generally beneficial; however, the amount fed need not be the same at each meal. For example, feeding a larger meal later in the day to cats with a habit of waking their owners up to be fed early in the morning may be tried, with a smaller morning meal fed before the owner leaves for the day. Smaller meals in the morning may also result in fewer house-training accidents by crated dogs. For cats fed from a bowl as opposed to a food puzzle, locating the bowl in a safe, quiet place away from machinery or appliances that could come on unexpectedly and scare the cat, or away from areas where the cat could be startled or feel trapped by other animals (including humans) may also help the cat feel safe and less vulnerable while eating.

Food Puzzles Make Eating Fun

Food puzzles are the most interesting recent development for feeding pets. These devices offer the opportunity for both physical and mental stimulation — enrichment — for confined pets. Many examples of these are available, as an Internet search for ‘cat (or dog) food puzzles’ will show. A variety of puzzles can be purchased or made for pets, and both dry and canned (by freezing it in the feeder) food can be fed using them. Animals have an intrinsic drive to eat, so food puzzles can be a powerful form of environmental enrichment for confined pets.

I recommend that food puzzles be introduced to pets at mealtime. Place a portion of the usual meal in the feeder, which is placed next to the pet’s typical food source. Owners can choose to make or purchase a puzzle they like from a local pet store or website, and introduce it at mealtime on a day when they can stay around to observe the pet’s reaction to the puzzle. For owners concerned the puzzle might result in food particles being left around the house, or that the pet might lose the puzzle, it can be confined to a single room with an uncarpeted floor (like the kitchen or bathroom), or placed in a bathtub or large sweater box (for cats) to restrict a pet’s ability to move it around the home. Be sure to observe your pet to make sure he is actually able to retrieve his meal from the puzzle consistently. If you have more than one pet, you’ll need to make sure that each is getting the right amount of food.

Most pets seen in urban and suburban surroundings are captive animals. In a sufficiently enriched environment, they can adapt to a wide range of diets and feeding schedules. Feeding can and should be viewed as an enrichment opportunity for your pet, regardless of whether a bowl or puzzle is used, providing an environment in which your pet can thrive. By looking at feeding and nutrition this way, many of the concerns owners attribute to diet may just recede into the background — where they belong!

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