The Bond and Behavioral Aspects of Feeding, Part 2

In the first part of this article, we began discussing the five components that come into play when we feed our pets:

  • 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

Ensuring that our pets receive a quality diet requires that we become informed consumers, and providing them with a quality feeding area involves taking any pet behavioral and physical needs into account. Now we’re going to examine the ways when, how, and why we feed our pets can enhance or undermine the feeding process.

Perfect Mealtime Timing

When we feed our pets often says a lot more about our own schedules that it does about our pets’, with many owners leaving a bowl of dry food for their dogs and cats to nibble free-choice. On the plus side, this enables animals to eat according to their own schedules. Rex, the terrier mix, prefers to nibble multiple times throughout the day except in the summer. Then he does the bulk of his eating in the cooler early morning hours. Compare this to Fluff who does most of her feline nibbling in the dead of night. In both cases, the animals might periodically skip eating altogether, an event that happens routinely in their wild compatriots’ lives.

The fact that people who offer food free-choice get a feeling for how much their pets eat over a period of days rather than at a specific meal can function as either a positive or negative factor. On the plus side, free-choice feeding keeps owners from obsessing about how much their pets eat. If Rex’s owner doesn’t see him eating one evening, she doesn’t worry about it because she has a feel for how much he eats over a 1-2 day period rather than any specific meal. However if Rex’s playmate, Misty, doesn’t eat one of her two daily meals, her owner immediately begins adding table food to Misty’s dog food to get her to eat. If Misty didn’t eat simply because her body had no need of additional nutrients at that time, her owners’ supplements teach her to eat for behavioral/emotional rather than health reasons. And that can lead to obesity and other problems.

On the other hand, owners who feed their pets regularly scheduled meals often gain a much clearer idea of their pets’ feeding habits than those who offer food free-choice. If Misty never, ever missed a meal, her failure to eat tells her owner immediately that something is bothering the dog. Then her owner can begin collecting data to determine what physical, behavioral, or other factors might cause this change. Meanwhile it may take Rex’s owner several days to realize he’s not eating.

Free-choice feeding also may create problems in multiple pet households where physical or behavioral factors cause one pet to consume more than another, or when nutritional needs vary between pets. Under these circumstances, one animal may be obese while a second is rail-thin, or one animal may thrive on a diet that causes another problems. In such cases, feeding the animals at specific times enables owners to regulate and monitor the feeding process.

The How of Feeding

How we feed our pets raises the specter of all those deliberate or subconscious factors that go into feeding rituals. For many people food communicates a message of love and comfort. For an equal number, feeding serves as the one guaranteed source of daily intimate interaction with the animal. Put these two together and we can see how feeding could become a highly symbolic, ritualistic act. Not surprisingly this, too, poses a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that some pets relish these rituals as much as their owners, and a serene mealtime soothes human and animal spirits alike.

The bad news is that some rituals generate such excitement in the animal that these may lead to problems. Misty’s owner gets her so excited about her impending meal that she bolts her food the instant her owner puts it down, then throws it up an hour later. Dogs whose owners joyfully feed them immediately after a equally high-energy home-coming may begin secreting digestive juices in anticipation of mealtime, just like Pavlov’s dog. Digestive secretions can irritate the delicate lining of the digestive tract and, if the owner gets held up in traffic or stops to do some shopping, the dog could experience a prolonged period of discomfort anticipating this feeding ritual.

Other times, owner rituals evolve to the point that they serve as part of the appetite-stimulating process. Mary Beth goes through such an elaborate ritual when she prepares and presents Buffy’s food to him that he refuses to eat unless she does this. When the new baby’s arrival makes that impossible, Mary Beth joins those owners who rue the day they incorporated certain rituals into the feeding process that they, or someone else, couldn’t maintain over time.

Why We Feed

One way to evaluate the overall quality of our approach to pet-feeding involves analyzing each of the previous components in terms of the question: Why are we doing this? Why do we feed our pets what we do: because the diet addresses the animal’s specific nutritional needs or because of its cost or some other strictly human factor? Why do we feed our pets where we do: because it’s convenient for us or because it provides the best environment for our pets? Why do feed our pets when we do: because this complement their schedules and needs or because it suits our own? And finally, why do we incorporate certain rituals and symbolism into the feeding process? Does the dog really prefer pizza to his own food or is he responding to the positive charge we give that pizza? Why do we want Fluff to leap up in the air or turn somersaults when she hears the words, “Dinnertime!”: because this enhances her food consumption and digestion or because it makes us feel good?

By taking the time to consider these mealtime ingredients as they may affect our animals as well as ourselves, we can prevent many food-related problems in our pets.