The Bond and Behavioral Aspects of Feeding, Part 1

An old truism states that nothing is nutritional if the animal won’t eat it. Unfortunately many times we forget that feeding our pets consists of five separate components that determine how much benefit our pets derive from what they eat:

  • What we feed our pets
  • Where we feed our pets
  • When we feed our pets
  • How we feed our pets
  • Why we feed our pets

Let’s exploring each one of these individually and see what it can teach us about quality pet mealtimes.

The Ideal Diet

The most we can say about the ideal diet is that it’s exactly that: an ideal. The more researchers learn about the nutritional needs of dogs, cats, and other animals, the more they realize they still need to know. Meanwhile the processes of domestication, development of more purebreds with limited gene pools, and the introduction of new breeds from exotic locations daily adds more variables that complicate the quest for that ideal. Diets considered “totally balanced” ten years ago no longer earn that designation today; ten or even five years from now, the same may hold true for today’s nutritional offerings.

So what’s a concerned owner to do? As with so many aspects of pet ownership, becoming an informed consumer underlies the selection of the ideal diet for your pet. Although clever advertising and promotional strategies may attract you, don’t let these serve as the sole reason you choose a particular product. Make sure it meets your pet’s nutritional and any special (behavioral, medical, age, etc.) needs, too. If you’re not sure, check with your veterinarian. Also, many pet food manufacturers list toll- free customer service numbers and web site addresses you can contact for further information about their particular products.

And don’t forget about that prime ingredient of any good diet: fresh water. Our pets need fresh, clean water every bit as much as we do. Because of this, make it a habit to change your pet’s water every time you feed your animal-and don’t forget to wash the water bowl when you clean your pet’s food dish daily.

Pet Dining Areas

When most of us think of the ideal environment in which to eat our ideal meals, visions of serene surroundings invariably come to mind. Not surprisingly, many animals don’t feel comfortable eating and drinking unless they feel reasonably safe and secure in their feeding areas too. Presumably this connection between security and eating becomes established when newborn mammals gravitate toward their own guaranteed milk supply furnished by a warm, protective, and caring animal mom. The smallest of the litter might not get the fullest or most accessible breast, but that comfy food source is his or hers alone.

Compare that pastoral scene with what Patsy, the Grover’s, cat experiences. The Grovers put Patsy’s food and water dishes in the corner of their busy kitchen next to the counter.

“We keep them there so we don’t accidentally kick them and because we keep her food in the corner cupboard under the counter there,” Ms. Grover gives an explanation familiar to many pet owners.

However, eating in that area poses several problems for Patsy. First, a lot of activity takes place on the counter above her head. This occurs because the Glovers typically feed their pet when they prepare their own meals. One of the Glover children puts food into Patsy’s bowel, then turns her attention to making a pizza. Compared to the dry food in her bowl, the scents and texture of those pizza fixings offer Patsy a much more tantalizing mealtime option and she pesters her owners for treats. They succumb to the feline begging and drop bits of cheese and pepperoni to Patsy who gobbles it up instead of eating her own food. In this case, something as seemingly unrelated as the placement of the animal’s food bowl results in an overweight cat on an unbalanced diet.

Certain feeding locations also may serve as a source of stress for some animals. The position of Dante’s food bowls tucked against the kitchen wall forces the timid dog to eat and drink with his back to the room. Because feeding in this position makes him feel vulnerable, he won’t eat or drink if visitors or any other perceived threats occupy the kitchen. Other animals who find themselves in this position may move their food to other, more secure areas, carting chunks of canned food under the couch or the  owner’s bed to eat in private. Cats may flick both dry food and water out of their bowls so they can eat and drink facing the room instead of with their backs to it. (Some cats will also do this if their whiskers touch the sides of the bowl when they put their heads in the bowl to eat or drink.) Both cats and dogs may cover their food with paper, articles of their owners’ clothing, or other objects carrying the owner’s scent to protect it. This behavior harkens back to one in wild dogs and cats called caching whereby they hide food until optimum eating conditions occur.

Pause here a moment and think about where you feed your pet. Did you select the location because it offers a safe haven in which your pet can eat and drink comfortably? How does your pet act while eating? Does he gobble down the food while keeping one eye on all other activities in the area? Is she constantly looking over her shoulder? If you have more than one pet, do the animals interfere with each other during mealtimes? What about people: do they deliberately or inadvertently distract the dog or cat when the animals are trying to eat or drink?

If your evaluation reveals any weak spots, consider making some changes. Timid animals and those in multiple pet households often feel more comfortable eating in their own private space, such as a crate or carrier. Even something as simple as an upside down box with a pet-sized opening cut in one side can serve as a private dining room to ensure a calmer mealtime ambiance.

If space doesn’t allow for such changes, sometimes changing the time we feed our pets can improve the quality of their mealtimes. In fact, changing feeding times can produce other benefits, too, and we’ll discuss these and the other elements of quality pet mealtimes in detail in the next commentary.

(Continue to part II…)