We Owe It to Dogs to Keep Them Healthy, Fit, and Trim

What and how much we feed our canine companions affects their health
By Marc Bekoff, May 2019

"It’s estimated that more than half of all dogs in the United States and the United Kingdom are overweight. (Reference 1) Veterinarians talk about the canine obesity crisis in the same dire terms that public health experts talk about the human obesity crisis. Many consider obesity to be one of the top welfare concerns for pets." 


Our canine companions depend on us to give them the very best lives possible in a human dominated world. Most dogs like to eat, and we know that how, what, who, and how much we feed our canine companions directly affects their weight and their health. And, while many dogs simply have to wait to be fed by their humans, we also know that many don't mind working for food. (See "Working for Food Enriches Dogs' Lives and Breaks the Boredom.") We also know that far too many dogs are carrying around too much weight, and that "feeding the wolf in your dog is far too often ill-advised because the dietary and caloric needs of companion dogs and wild wolves are vastly different. (See "'Should I Really Be Feeding 'The Wolf' in My Dog'"?) Here I consider how we feed our dogs and how much we offer them in a world where we control their gustatory desires and needs. There are many important lessons to be learned when we revisit these topics.  

How we feed our canine companions

What you feed your dog matters, but the ways in which food is offered are also important in developing and maintaining strong and enduring social bonds between you and your dog. 

There’s no simple rule about how dogs should be fed, and each dog needs to be treated as a unique individual. One of the things we can do, as human caretakers of our canine friends, is to pay attention to the vehicle that’s used to give them food. It’s important to think about your dog’s shape, size, physical capabilities, and eating style in relation to the shape, size, placement, and height of the food bowl. What might work best to make eating pleasurable and easy for your dog? A few examples of frustrating situations for a dog might include a very hungry dog trying to eat kibble from a slick flat plate because the kibbles keep moving out of reach of their tongue; a basset hound who always comes away from dinner with half of the meal stuck to their ears; or a pug who must struggle to reach their nose down to the bottom of a very deep dish. For older dogs, a raised bowl can make eating more comfortable. Elevated food bowls are good for very large dogs—think about having to bend down to below your knees to eat your food — and shallow bowls are nice for puppies and short-nosed dogs.

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Some dogs certainly “wolf down” their food, and some people like to brag about it. However, wild animals don’t necessarily do this except under certain conditions. For dogs who eat too quickly or gulp their food, which can make them sick, a slow feeder might be a good idea. Feeding by hand can be good for puppies because it helps build attachment and can help avoid competition for food, if older, bigger dogs are also present. Using different feeding methods can also reduce competition between older dogs who prefer different feeding styles. 

What, who, and how much we feed our canine companions 

Freedom from overfeeding may sound totally counterintuitive, but too much food is unhealthy, and poor health is a freedom inhibitor. Being overweight can have a whole range of negative health effects for dogs. It can cause inflammation, heart disease, arthritis, ligament and muscle injuries, breathing problems, and liver disease, all of which can compromise a dog’s health just as they do ours. It can make it less enjoyable for dogs to walk, run, and play and can thus reduce the overall quality of life.

It’s estimated that more than half of all dogs in the United States and the United Kingdom are overweight. (Reference 1) Veterinarians talk about the canine obesity crisis in the same dire terms that public health experts talk about the human obesity crisis. Many consider obesity to be one of the top welfare concerns for companion animals. It’s no coincidence that dogs and people have grown fat together: We and our dogs eat a lot of junk food, we eat more than we need, and we don’t get enough physical exercise. Overfeeding is a form of mistreatment, and it can have serious consequences. Psychology Today writer and bioethicist Jessica Pierce heard a story from her local shelter about a dog who was adopted and brought back three months later after having gained forty pounds. He had to become part of the foster program; he needed a temporary home where he could be given extra physical exercise and brought back to a healthy weight before being adopted by another family.

Like humans, dogs can be both overfed and undernourished at the same time. Plenty of doggy “junk food” is available, such as the Pup-Peroni, Snausages, and Pup Corn dog treats lining pet store shelves, smartly packaged to appeal to human consumers. As with humans, a little bit of junk food probably won’t shorten your dog’s lifespan, but no one should live on donuts alone. 

Think about what you put in your dog’s mouth just as you would think about what you put in your child’s mouth. Consider the nutritional profile of your dog’s food, not just the price, since as a rule, you get what you pay for. A great deal of the so-called food on the market is garbage. That said, a wide range of moderately priced high-quality foods are available. Do research and talk with your veterinarian about your dog’s specific nutritional needs, so you can find a food that provides appropriate nutrition and, of course, that your dog enjoys. Many pet stores will allow you to return food products if your dog doesn’t like them, so you and your dog can experiment.

Finally, if you have a dog who is a little wide around the belly, measure his or her food and include snacks in your overall calorie calculations. “Eyeballing” a half cup of kibble is deceptively hard—try it and see how accurate or inaccurate you are. If you offer an overweight dog table scraps, feed less at mealtime or make the table scraps part of their meal. For dogs who are insatiable, splitting the allotted food for the day into several smaller meals can help keep them feeling more satisfied. For example, now that Maya is a senior citizen, she eats four small meals a day. She has a thyroid condition that makes her feel very hungry, and the time between meals seems very long to her. There is no rule about only feeding dogs once or twice a day. Just make sure to measure out the day’s food carefully so that you don’t feed more than is healthy.

Individual dogs obviously vary in what they need and how they process food. If you are feeding processed kibble or canned food, keep in mind that the feeding instructions on the back of a bag of dog food won’t necessarily be exactly right for your dog. The “amount to feed” guidelines given by dog food manufacturers are generally bloated. Their goal, after all, is to sell more food. Food and feeding also can be emotionally complicated. For example, the food your dog eats can affect his or her mood (Reference 2) and some dogs are stress eaters. (Reference 3) Furthermore, for many people and dogs, food is love. Humans use food and feeding to build trust and attachment with their dog. And looking longingly at us as though they are truly starving to death, even if they just ate half an hour ago. It can feel cruel to deprive hungry dogs of what they really want—namely, more food! But we don’t do dogs any favors by allowing them to become overweight. Because we control their diet, it is our responsibility to keep them at a healthy weight.

Finally, here are two interesting research tidbits about food and feeding. First, Labrador retrievers have a reputation for being food hogs. Apparently, there is a reason for this: Labs have a genetic mutation that makes them exceedingly hungry. (Reference 4) And second, if your dog isn’t “weight compromised,” you could add a little fat to their diet, and it might have a surprising side effect: When dogs eat more fat than protein, their sense of smell may improve. (Reference 5)

Stay tuned for further discussions about how we can keep our canine companions happy, trim and fit, satisfy their gustatory desires and needs, and at the same time give them the best lives possible in a world in which we pretty much control how, what, who, and how much we feed them. When we understand how we can offer them a tasty life that also provides a healthy life, it's a win-win for all. 

Some of the above is excerpted from Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. I thank Jessica Pierce for her collaboration on this and other projects.

This story was originally published by psychologytoday.com. Reprinted with permission.

Marc Bekoff is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder. 

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