A dog lying with its paws around an empty food dish with a sign beneath the bowl that reads, 'feed me'.

Meal Time Matters: How Often Should You Feed Your Pet?

Some of the most common questions owners have are about feeding their dog or cat: What pet food is best for my pet? How much do I feed? How often should I feed my dog or cat? At what times should I feed my dog or cat? Ask around and you’ll hear plenty of opinions on what is the optimal feeding schedule for your four-legged companion.

So what’s the correct answer when it comes to feeding your pet?

There really isn’t one right answer. It depends on your pet’s nutritional needs, age, medical conditions and lifestyle — as well as your personal preference and schedule. The number of pets being fed and their individual personalities need to be considered, too. Thankfully, despite their instinctive feeding behaviors, dogs and cats are capable of adapting to several types of feeding schedules.

Free choice, scheduled portions, timed meals or a combination

There are three primary ways of offering food to pets: free-choice feeding, time-restricted meal feeding and portion-controlled (or food-restricted) meal feeding. Free-choice feeding and portion-controlled meals are typically used with both dogs and cats, while time-restricted meal feeding is used only with dogs. Of course, a combination of approaches can be used, particularly with cats. For example, if you want to feed both dry kibble and canned food to your cat, you may opt to provide a specific amount of dry food for the cat to nibble on throughout the day and feed measured portions of canned food twice daily.

RELATED POST: Canned vs. Dry Food: Is One Better for Your Cat?

Free-choice feeding involves having more than enough food available to your pet at all times. In other words, your dog or cat chooses when and how much to eat. Historically, dogs are both opportunistic predators and scavengers, so they’ll eat (whatever and) whenever the opportunity arises, which can lead to overfeeding. Cats naturally eat small, frequent meals — anywhere from 10 to 20 over a 24-hour period — so free-choice feeding lets them eat like their wild ancestors.

Although it’s the most convenient way for busy owners with erratic schedules to feed pets, it can lead to the most problems — particularly obesity. Some pets eat when bored, just as we sometimes do, and that can lead to unnecessary weight gain. Then again, if you have a female dog or cat that’s nursing a litter, free-choice feeding is definitely the way to go.

Similar to free-choice feeding, time-restricted meal feeding provides your dog with access to plenty of food, but only allows him or her to eat for a predetermined length of time, one or more times daily. This method is typically more labor intensive while being less effective in controlling the amount of food your pet eats.

With portion-controlled meal feeding, your dog or cat is given meals at set times every day. The food is measured to meet the pet’s daily calorie and nutrient needs, so you control how much your pet eats and when. For most pets, portion-controlled meal feeding is the method of choice. And especially for those dogs who would never stop eating if the decision was left to them (a few Labrador retrievers, goldendoodles and beagles fit that description!), the portion-controlled meal feeding is a logical choice to avoid obesity. The question then becomes “How many times a day do I feed?”

Meals help prevent portly pets, allow appetite monitoring

(At least in theory.)

Many veterinarians recommend portion-controlled meal feeding twice daily for adult dogs and cats, once in the morning and once in the early evening, and more frequently for puppies and kittens, depending on their age. This approach allows you to monitor how much and how well your pet is eating. Appetite loss is one of the first signals of many health problems, and it can be tough to tell if your dog’s or cat’s appetite is off if he or she free-feeds — especially if you think another family member has topped off the food bowl.

Keep in mind the manufacturers’ feeding guidelines on all commercially made pet foods are for the total daily amount of food to be fed. You’ll want to divide that amount into the chosen number of meals.

While many adult pets can be maintained on one meal per day, feeding twice daily is considered healthier and more satisfying. Eating just once a day can cause excess stomach acid and vomiting in some dogs. Two meals a day reduces hunger between meals and reduces food-associated behavior issues, such as begging and stealing food. And for small dogs, such as Yorkies, Chihuahuas and miniature poodles who digest and use food faster than medium and large dogs, you may need to feed three times daily.

Whether you feed once, twice or more each day, try to be as consistent as possible. Feeding the same amount of the same food at the same time every day can help keep your pet’s digestive system regular (and avoid in-home accidents).

If the idea of a regular mealtime really doesn’t work for you and your schedule, consider this suggestion from “America’s veterinarian” and best-selling author Marty Becker, DVM:

“Measure out a day’s worth of your dog’s or cat’s dry food and put it inside a food puzzle. Your pet will have to ‘hunt’ for their food by pushing or otherwise manipulating the toy. That helps them burn calories, stay alert, revive their hunting instincts and ensure they don’t inhale all of their food at once. Your dog or cat will have a more interesting and ‘fulfilling’ day.”

Finally, never hesitate to talk with your veterinarian or a veterinary technician about feeding your pet, whether it’s about how often or how much to feed.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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