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Why You Shouldn't Free-feed Your Dog

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

A german shepherd husky mix dog is looking longingly at a bowl of raw food. The bowl has a raw meat base, a pretty arrangement of diced strawberries and blueberries and a whole fish on the top. The photo is taken in a garden outdoors.

Free-feeding your dog is the act of leaving food down for them all day long, allowing them to eat as they choose and topping up their bowl whenever it empties. It's most commonly done with dry kibble, and is incredible common among cat owners. I wanted to make a balanced argument post but honestly: I couldn't think of a single positive argument for free-feeding, so here we are. Why you shouldn't free-feed your dog:

- It makes monitoring food intake near-impossible

Refusing food or a decreased appetite is an incredibly common symptom that dogs exhibit when they're sick. When you portion feed, your dog will eat the amount that you put down in one go, and it instantly becomes clear that something is not right if they suddenly don't eat their meal or don't eat all of it. While you will eventually notice decreased appetite with free-feeding, it may take a while before it becomes obvious and your dog could get much sicker in that time.

In addition to this, if you are asked to monitor food intake for weight loss or surgery recovery or for any medical reason, it's going to be incredibly difficult.

- Decreased food drive

This point goes for training and for health. If your dog always has food available, the value of it becomes zero. It's not a fun or exciting resource because they know it's always there when they want it. This severely harms training attempts because you lose the main and most convenient reward; I can't tell you how many training sessions I've struggled through because a free-fed dog didn't care about any food or treat and we lost our biggest reward system.

From a health perspective, there's going to be times when you need your dog to eat a meal and if they're free-fed, you may not be able to get them to eat on cue. These times include if they need to eat before a blood test, if they need to fast before a blood test or operation (they'll need to eat before the fast begins) or if they need to eat following illness or surgery.

- Weight management

I have never once met a dog that is free-fed and also is a healthy weight. And by healthy weight I mean a truly healthy weight, that would score 4-5 on a body conditioning chart. Every free-fed dog I've met has been overweight as a bare minimum, with a lot of obese dogs too. As a society we have warped the idea of what a healthy dog should look like and overweight dogs have become the norm, to the point that most healthy weight dogs I know get asked by the public if they are underweight (their weight is approved by vets). If you are reading this and want to say "I free-feed and my dog is a healthy weight" I'm going to need you to search the body conditioning chart for dogs and be truly honest about where your dog lies on it.

- It's unnatural for them

Another thing I've seen people who free-feed say is that in the wild no one feeds them portioned meals, and that's true. In the wild, dogs spend days hunting down prey. They eat as much as they can/need to from whatever they catch and then spend another couple of days catching their next prey. Their natural diet actually much closer resembles portioned meals because they don't have a food source constantly available to them.

- Holiday boarding

If you go away on holiday and book your dog into a holiday boarder or kennel, it's extremely unlikely that they'll be able to accommodate having food down all day long. Holiday dog boarders often have multiple dogs boarding at the same time; if food was left down all day, it would be impossible to prevent the other dogs from accessing and eating it.

- Toilet routine

Typically, dogs build their toilet routine around their food schedule. They eat their dinner at 5pm, have a big drink at then at 7pm they need to go out to toilet. What happens if your free-feeding dog has a big meal at 1am when you've gone to bed? 5am Accidents. Also from a medical perspective, our dog, Mars, having a consistent toilet schedule meant when we needed to get a urine sample, we knew exactly when we would be able to get one.

- Raw feeding and/or wet food

It makes feeding anything other than dry kibble near impossible, because raw food and wet foods don't hold up well when left exposed to air for hours. In addition to attracting flies, they're also going to dry up and the raw meat especially will expire. If you want to switch your pet to a raw food diet, introducing portion feeding is always my first step.

There's honestly probably even more reasons but these are the main ones I can think of. The only possible benefit I can think of is that it saves the human time, but... does it? You're still having to fill the bowl up with food when it empties, probably at least twice a day. Why not just put down a portioned amount instead?

If you'd like to get your dog switched over from free-feeding onto a portioned meal schedule, drop us an email and we can help you get started!

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