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Should You Leave Food Out for Dogs All Day? Free-Feeding Versus Scheduled Meals

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

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Free-Feeding Puppies and Dogs

The practice of leaving food out for puppies and dogs is known as "free-feeding." In other words, dogs are left to graze on their readily available food that is technically left out all day.

Dogs, therefore, have access to their food bowl all day and get to eat whenever they want. It's sort of like having access all day to an all-you-can-eat buffet (but with only one type of food served) that is always readily available.

This may seem like a feast in the initial days, but then things start getting rather boring after some time. Indeed, free-feeding is often one of the most blamed feeding methods for dogs out there. It has a bad rap.

To better understand why, it's helpful to learn more about this practice and how it impacts dogs.

Two Free-Feeding Methods For Dogs

There are two ways owners may free-feed their dogs: uncontrolled free-feeding and controlled free-feeding. Let's take a look at both and what they entail.

Uncontrolled Free-Feeding

This method entails leaving a bowl of unmeasured food out or an automatic feeder and letting the dog decided how much to eat. With this method, the dog's bowl is never left empty. Dog owners will add more food anytime the portion starts to look low.

Controlled Free-Feeding

In controlled free-feeding, as the word suggests, there is more control over the amount of food given. Owners therefore will be measuring out the daily ratio (often suggested on the back of the bag of food based on the dog's weight) and placing it all at once out in the bowl for the dog to eat throughout the day.

A Subject of Hot Debate

As with many things "dog," you may find people who are favorable to free-feeding dogs and people who completely frown upon this practice.

With subjects of controversy such as free-feeding, it's important to see different views, both from dog owners and veterinarians. Only by seeing both views, it is possible to shed some light on this practice and make an informed decision.

So let's take a look first at all the reasons for free-feeding dogs. In other words, why do proponents go this route and what advantages are there? Here are several pros of free-feeding puppies and dogs.

Knowing the pros and cons of free feeding vs scheduled feeding in dogs is important

Knowing the pros and cons of free feeding vs scheduled feeding in dogs is important

6 Reasons Why Dog Owners Prefer Free-Feeding Dogs

As mentioned, there are several advantages of free-feeding dogs, which is why several dog owners adhere to this practice. Following are several pros of free-feeding dogs reported often by proponents.

A Matter of Convenience

Dogs owners find it convenient to fill up the dog's bowl or automatic feeder and leave for work in the morning without worrying about coming home to a hungry dog who must be fed. This way, dogs never have to miss a meal if their owner is running late.

Increased Nutritional Demands

Young puppies are very active and grow fast, so tend to get hungrier and need to be fed more frequently (even up to 3 to 4 times), therefore, they can't go as long between meals as older puppies and adult dogs.

Leaving water and food out in measured rations, (controlled free-feeding) during the first weeks, therefore, solves the problem, especially for dog owners who work.

Pregnant or nursing dogs may also benefit from controlled free-feeding considering that they have increased nutritional demands.

This may benefit them as long as they don't overeat. If overeating is a problem, then they may benefit from multiple scheduled feedings.

Keeping Dogs Lean

Many dog owners feel that the secret behind their lean dogs is the fact they are free-fed. Because food is always readily available, their dogs don't tend to gorge themselves so they don't tend to overeat.

This of course applies to dogs who have sufficient self-control and don't turn into hogs at the sight of food, but here's the thing: many dog owners notice that, when they start free-feeding, their dogs may tend to gain a few extra pounds initially, but then start to slim down once they get used to the idea that food is always available.

Ideally though, for those who want to go the free-feeding route, it's a good idea to start from when the dog is a puppy. Starting to free-feed a dog who was previously fed scheduled meals may turn dangerous, especially in dogs predisposed to the potentially life-threatening condition known as bloat.

Less Digestive Issues

An advantage of free-feeding dogs reported by proponents is that because the food is available all the time, dogs don't eat too quickly which can lead to digestive issues, and in predisposed dogs, even potentially life-threatening bloat.

Reduced Food Aggression

Free-feeding proponents also feel that leaving food out reduces a dog's predisposition for food aggression. They believe that, putting the food bowl down and taking it away after the dog is done eating would cause dogs to eat fast and potentially predispose them to food aggression.

For Dogs Who Need Tranquility

Some dogs are fearful by nature and will eat only when they feel comfortable or safe. Such dogs may therefore benefit by having their meal out all day so they can eat at their own pace and time.

Dogs who are fearful may prefer to eat when they feel safe.

Dogs who are fearful may prefer to eat when they feel safe.

7 Reasons Why Dog Owners Prefer Scheduled Feedings

Many dog owners, dog trainers and veterinarians strongly object to free-feeding dogs. Following are several reasons why they prefer feeding scheduled meals instead of free-feeding.

A Way to Keep Food Fresh

Leaving out kibble all day may lead to a loss of aroma. Dogs may turn their noses down to stale food that doesn't smell fresh and may get picky about eating it.

For this reason, several dog owners place kibble inside airtight sealed containers so to preserve freshness. Not to mention, food left out may attract pesky rodents or bugs like flies and ants.

Of course, dogs who are fed raw food, canned food or home-cooked meals shouldn't be free-fed considering that such foods go spoiled rather quickly.

Knowing How Much Dogs Eat

When food is left out all day, it may be difficult telling how much a dog ate especially if dog owners aren't measuring how much a dog is fed.

Is the dog eating enough? Sure, you can see if there is a lot of kibble missing, but it may be challenging finding out how much the dog actually eats.

If you own multiple dogs, it may be difficult to tell whether one dog may get more food than the other. You may notice it only later when one dog starts getting chunkier than the other.

On top of this, knowing how much a dog eats can help you know how healthy he is. You can therefore immediately detect your dog is ill that day he turns his nose away from his food at his scheduled feeding.

You will also have more detailed information about how long your dog has been off food which is precious information for your vet.

This is in great contrast with dogs who are free-fed, where you may notice your dog is not feeling too well only once you start realizing you haven't added much food lately to his bowl or automatic feeder.

More Predictable "Outings"

What goes in at predictable times, must come out at predictable times. In other words, if dogs eat at specific times such as twice a day, they'll likely poop as well at specific intervals, making the process of potty training easier.

Proponents of free-feeding though often argue that they haven't encountered any particular hardships in potty training due to the fact that, since their dogs eat small amounts throughout the day, bowel movements build up slowly often creating less urgency compared to dogs who eat in larger settings.

A Reassuring Routine

Dogs are very routine-oriented animals and benefit from knowing what to expect during the day. Feeding the dog at timed intervals, such as twice a day, can reassure dogs and provide them with a predictable routine that can help alleviate anxiety.

Many dogs come to eagerly anticipate their meal times which become the perk of the day, and some dog owners could even swear that their dog must be able to read time as they start getting happily excited when mealtime is around the corner!

The Training Value

Feeding a dog from a bowl offers several training advantages. Calling your dog for his meal provides an excellent opportunity for reinforcement when it comes to recalls, and teaching a dog to lie down as you prepare your dog's meal is a great impulse-control exercise for dogs.

On top of this, dogs who find food interesting, are more likely to engage in using food puzzles which provide a great opportunity for mental stimulation and environmental enrichment.

Increased Value of Food

Finally, offering food in a food bowl at specific times versus allowing it to sit out all day, increases its value. It is indeed not unusual to encounter dogs who are free-fed and become very picky eaters.

Feeding food at a specific time during the day, therefore, becomes an anticipated event, and dogs will look forward to it with a good appetite.

Preventing a Recipe for Disaster

For certain types of dogs, free-feeding would spell disaster. For instance, Labradors are known for having stomachs without bottoms. In other words, if they were provided with food ad libitum they would stuff themselves and quickly grow very fat.

Free feeding without measure therefore wouldn't work for canine gluttons, especially considering today's highly palatable foods, explains veterinarian Dr. Christine Zink, in the book: "Healthcare and Nutrition For Dummies."

On top of this, if you free-feed, your dog may eat too much in one sitting, potentially predisposing him to bloat.

You may also be unaware of the amount he ate before, and therefore, if you decide to exercise him on a full stomach, that could potentially lead to bloat.

Dogs who are free-fed have a tendency to become picky eaters

Dogs who are free-fed have a tendency to become picky eaters

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Free-Feeding Dogs

As seen, there can be various advantages and disadvantages when it comes to free-feeding dogs. As with many subjects of controversy, it is important to consider both sides of the story.

The ultimate truth is that every dog is different. It is not fair nor correct to blame owners of free-fed dogs for being lazy or not wanting to commit to investing time in their dogs. In many cases, owners of such dogs have their own good reasons to commit to it.

Now that we have seen why some dog owners are all for free-feeding and why some others avoid this practice like the plague, it's time to see what some experts have to say about it.

From a Nutritional Standpoint

Board-certified veterinary nutritionist Dr. Sherry Lynn Sanderson claims that, while some adult dogs can be fed free choice, most dogs cannot be fed this way without becoming obese. She, therefore, feels that the best feeding regimen for most adult dogs, in the fight for obesity, is portion-controlled feedings, in other words, feeding adult dogs two pre-measured meals at regular times each day.

Dr. Stephen J. Ettinger and Dr. Edward C. Feldman, two board-certified veterinarians specializing in internal medicine, claim that during gestation and lactation, performance is enhanced when dams are fed meals several times a day or when they are fed free choice.

Board-certified veterinarians Dr. Freeman and Dr. Heinze claim that, although some puppies can eat free choice and maintain ideal body condition, this tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

Board-certified veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Larsen agrees and warns that free choice feeding may lead to overeating and research has shown that this can have adverse effects on skeletal development.

From a Behavioral Standpoint

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Julia Albright weighs in as well in regards to the topic of free-feeding and food guarding. She claims that, while it may be helpful to free-feed a new dog or puppy for the purpose of teaching that food is not a scarce resource, owners are cautioned to never free-feed a dog with food-bowl aggression.

The reason for this is that, with an ingrained behavior as such, with the food being present all the time, the dog will feel tense due to the need to continually guard it.

Veterinary behaviorists Dr. Debra Horwitz & Gary Landsberg seem to agree on this, stating that food aggressive dogs should be fed a scheduled meal, although they admit that, in rare cases, free-choice feeding may help reduce arousal and aggression around the food bowl, but it won't treat the dog's predisposition for acting aggressively around novel foods and treats.

From a Dog Training Standpoint

Certified dog trainer and behavior consultant Michele Godlevski, in her book, Take Control, But Don't Lose Control: Help for People With Dogs That Are Excellent Human Trainers, claims that free-feeding leads to a dog that is never really hungry which is the opposite of what you ultimately want when training a dog.

Hunger is a big motivator to dogs and such dogs may require something extra special to grab their attention.

Food is a great motivator for dog training.

Food is a great motivator for dog training.

Tips for Transitioning Your Dog to Scheduled Feedings

If you need to transition your dog to scheduled feedings, you will have to take steps to make the process smoother. The biggest hurdle is getting your dog to learn to eat his food in one sitting. Following are some tips.

Divide the Total Amount

Look at the advised total amount to feed your dog per day (you'll often find these instructions on the bag of food) and then divide based on how many meals a day you will be feeding.

So if for example, the daily recommended dose is two cups, feed one cup in the morning and one cup in the evening.

Create No-Food Periods

Going from free-feeding to schedule feedings should be done gradually. If you are home for most of the day, you can start by removing the food bowl at noon for a couple of hours for 2 to 3 days.

Next, you can remove the food bowl an hour prior to noon earlier and put it back several hours later for another 2 to 3 days.

Keep gradually expanding on the "no food periods" until you reach the point where food can be presented at scheduled times for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening.

Pick up the Bowl

Once you are presenting the food at scheduled times for an hour, progress to further decreasing the time. After you place the food bowl down, give your dog an opportunity to eat. Then, count 30 minutes.

Once 30 minutes have passed, remove the bowl. Then, offer the meal again for his next scheduled feeding.

Repeat this every time you feed your dog for several days and then progress to picking up the food bowl after 15 minutes for every feeding.

This should teach your dog that he'll lose access to his food if he doesn't eat it in one sitting.

Going Cold Turkey

What if you work all day and can't afford to take the gradual approach? In such a case, you can have a neighbor stop by to do this for you or you can make the switch cold turkey. Your dog may not be too happy about it, but there are benefits in the long run.

So if you work long hours, you can put the food bowl out in the morning before going to work and then put it away an hour before going to work.

Then, when you come home, you can once again offer the food, give an hour to eat it and then remove it, gradually decreasing the amount of time the food is left out until you can build to 15 minutes.

Provide a Quiet Area

Dogs who are stressed by noises and lots of action may not feel comfortable eating. This can explain why some dogs act like grazers; they're just too uncomfortable to eat and they'll limit their eating to times when the home is quiet and the boisterous kids aren't around. These dogs can be helped by providing them with a quiet feeding spot away from loud noises.

Don't Fall in the Pity Trap

Dogs can learn quickly to beg and use their pleading eyes to convince you they're starving and want just one bite of your delectable dinner. It may be tempting to give in and dole out a piece of juicy steak or add a little bit of your food to your dog's meals to encourage him to eat.

If you fall into this trap though, you'll be soon stuck with a dog who will only want people food and will go on a kibble strike because he knows he can get better.

Feed at Scheduled Times

As mentioned, dogs like routines, and knowing when dinner is coming will give them something to look forward to. Try your best to stick to a routine and therefore feeding at specific times.

Consult With Your Vet

When in doubt about what diet to feed, how often and in what portions, or tips on how to transition to a new diet, your best bet is to consult with your vet, or even better, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.

How Many Meals a Day Should You Feed Your Dog?

Puppies under 3 monthsPuppies 3 to 6 monthsDogs over 6 months

4 times a day

3 times a day

2 times a day

Given the choice, many dogs prefer working for their food.

Given the choice, many dogs prefer working for their food.

What Is Contra Freeloading?

Contra freeloading is a term that was first coined by animal psychologist Glen Jensen in 1963. This term is used to depict the phenomenon of animals choosing food that requires some effort to obtain over food that is offered freely.

Jensen conducted a study involving 200 rats where they were given the choice between food offered freely in a bowl and food offered in a food dispenser which required the rats to step on a metal bar several times for the food to be dispensed.

Interestingly, the rats preferred the food dispenser option over the food easily obtained through the food bowl.

Jensens' studies were backed up by several other experiments which obtained similar results. The choice of working for the food was also observed across a variety of species including rats, birds, fish, monkeys and even dogs.

References

  • Healthcare and Nutrition For Dummies®, Portable Edition, M. Christine Zink, DVM, PhD, DACVP
  • Health and Nutrition for Dogs and Cats: A Guide for Pet Parents, David G. by Wellock

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli

Comments

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 31, 2021:

I had this struggle with my cats given that I have such a mix in age and weight. I decided to leave out dry food and feed wet food on a rigid schedule.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 30, 2021:

I’ve never free-fed my dogs or considered doing it. Thank you for sharing the information about the process. You’ve given me some interesting things to think about.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 30, 2021:

You presented a lot of good information about feeding dogs, Adrienne. It does seem like it depends on the type of dog. You presented both sides very well. I usually did scheduled feeding with my dogs, but not always. Thanks Adrienne.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 30, 2021:

I have never heard of the term "contra freeloading." I find that fascinating that many animals prefer to work for their food. You will be giving people the pros and cons of leaving food out all day for their dogs.

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