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Dogs, Eating, and Emotions

Food can be an emotionally charged issue for dog guardians and dogs alike.

Key points

  • Relatively little attention has been given to the emotional complexity of how people feel about feeding their canine companions.
  • In deciding how often to feed, dog guardians may feel a tension between making their dogs happy and keeping them healthy.
  • Like humans, dogs can develop complicated feelings related to food, and "food anxiety" can negatively impact dog welfare.
Photo by Paul Ttrienekens on Unsplash
Food is love
Source: Photo by Paul Ttrienekens on Unsplash

Within the human psychology literature, the emotional complications of eating and diet have garnered more attention than almost any other issue. Yet relatively little attention has been given to the emotional complexity of how we feel about feeding our canine companions, or about how complicated feelings about eating might arise in dogs as a result of how and when and what we feed them.

How often should you feed your dog?

For many of us who live with a dog, feeding is an act of love and care. Yet withholding food is also, curiously, an act of love and care. A decision as seemingly simple as “how often do you feed your dog?” turns out to be pretty darn complicated.

As with the nutritional content of food, advice about feeding schedules is all over the board, and no single answer seems to fit the needs of all dogs. How often to feed depends on age, activity level, body condition, special circumstances (pregnant or lactating), medical conditions, family schedule, dog’s preferences, and so on.

There is an emotional tension within feeding schedules that all dog guardians will need to resolve: Indulging your dog’s desires may conflict with optimal physical care. Within the animal welfare literature, there has been lengthy discussion of the benefits of free—or ad libitum—feeding versus dietary restriction. With ad libitum feeding, food is always readily available, and animals eat whenever they want, while dietary restriction, as the name suggests, involves restricting access to food so that animals can only eat enough to maintain physical functioning over their lifespan.

A paper by Finnish researcher I.H.E. Kasanen and colleagues cashes out the welfare dilemma as a tension between function and feelings. If we define welfare in terms of physical functioning, dietary restriction would be the best way to feed our animals, because it results in improved physical health and longevity. Ad libitum feeding they warn, “can produce obese individuals with severe health problems.” On the other hand, if we focus on an animal’s feelings, ad libitum feeding might be better because dietary restriction “can leave animals suffering from hunger, frustration, or aggression.”[i] Function vs. feelings.

With pet dogs, our goals are mixed. One goal has to do with feelings: We want our dogs to be happy. The other goal has to do with functioning: We want our dogs to be physically healthy and active and live a long life. We are making trade-offs. Being fed more often or having food available always will make dogs happy because dogs love to eat. Restricting their access to food—even making them go hungry—is better for their physical health but may be associated with feelings of frustration and hunger.

All things considered, dietary restriction may be the preferable choice for most dogs. It better suits our dog’s health and quality of life and better suits our goal of having our dog with us for as long as possible. Free feeding is generally discouraged by veterinary nutritionists, mainly because it can lead to obesity.[ii] Still, even having made the overall decision to feed only certain amounts at certain times, many dog guardians are torn: to keep our dogs at a healthy weight, we must restrict food more than might feel comfortable. Dogs, for their part, have evolved various communicative tools to impress upon us just how hungry they are. For example, dogs have evolved special facial musculature that facilitates “puppy dog eyes”; we, in turn, seem to have evolved a unique weakness to their solicitation behaviors. Food winds up being an emotionally charged component of our human-canine relationship.

Food-related anxiety

Food is emotionally complicated, as nearly every human reading this will understand from personal experience. Eating is rarely just about the food itself. The emotional landscape of eating and food may be an important part of our dog’s daily experience, too, and as compassionate caregivers, we can try to be sensitive to what happens beyond the bowl. Dogs engage in emotional eating—eating in response not to physical hunger but to emotional “hunger” related to feelings of boredom, anxiety, depression, or frustration. [iii]

It would be nice to think that our dogs could modulate how much they eat according to what their body needs—an “intuitive eating” approach for dogs. Unfortunately, the way humans feed homed dogs is so far removed from the evolved suite of natural feeding behaviors in canids that “intuitive eating” is nearly impossible. Captive dogs don’t necessarily eat when they are hungry, since we control the timing of feedings, nor do they eat only when they’ve “earned” a meal by successfully navigating the challenges of their ecosystem.

My guess is that homed dogs suffer from chronic anxiety related to food, particularly insecurity about access and that a certain level of food craziness is endemic to them. If you Google “food anxiety” in dogs, you’ll find a billion articles about how certain kibble formulations or certain foods such as blueberries and pumpkin seeds can help calm an anxious dog, suggesting widespread misunderstanding of what “food anxiety” means and a discounting of the possibility that food—or, more precisely, “feeding”—might itself be a source of psychological distress.

Increasing the potential for food craziness is the fact that the processed dog kibble that most homed dogs eat is designed to be extremely appealing, even addictive—it’s the equivalent of human junk food, designed to hijack our brains’ reward pathways. An article by journalist Zaria Gorvett for the BBC describes how Big Pet Food makes kibble irresistible by adding what are called palatants, including chemical compounds which smell like offal or rotting flesh. [iv] There is nothing inherently wrong with kibble that appeals to dogs’ desire to eat dead stuff. But the addictive quality of the food may drive dogs to eat more than they should, which increases the potential for us to feel torn between what our dog desires and what our dog needs.

As the Grand Comptrollers of the Dog Food Budget, we must continually keep a balance sheet of what makes our dogs happy and what keeps our dogs healthy. If we overdo in one column, there may be deficits in the other. With intensively homed dogs, we also, often, control the amount and kind of physical exercise they receive, so we must add another column for calculating calories burned. Things can get particularly challenging with dogs who love to eat and hate to exercise.

Increasing our food-related mindfulness

The best thing we can do is to become mindful of our own feelings about feeding our dogs, for example, by reflecting on how food is linked to our bond with our dog, by trying to discern how we respond emotionally to food solicitation behaviors, by seeking objective input about our dog’s weight and body condition, and by trying to optimize physical health for our dogs while still providing our dogs lives filled with pleasurable experiences.

References

[i] Kasanen et al., “Ethics of feeding,” p. 37.

[ii] A great resource for dog guardians on how and what and when to feed is the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine’s Tufts Petfoodology. On dietary restriction, see Deborah Linder, “How Often Should I Feed My Pet?”

[iii] Pierce, "Is Your Dog a Stress-Eater?"

[iv] Gorvett, “The hidden reason processed pet foods are so addictive.”

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