Free Feeding Pets? Not Worth the Price

Cat with bowl of food
Do you leave out your cat or dog's food bowl out and refill it when it starts to get low? Well, you could be doing more harm than good for your pet.

We pet lovers are so fortunate to have the variety of high-quality dog and cat foods that are available to us these days. Many of us barely have time to cook properly for ourselves, let alone our pets, so the option of healthful prepared food is one that we’ve embraced wholeheartedly. A little too wholeheartedly in one respect.

What am I talking about? Free feeding — the practice of just pouring dry food into a bowl, leaving it out for pets to nosh on at their leisure and refilling it when it starts to get low. I have to tell you: That’s a recipe for disaster in both dogs and cats.

Binge Eating

Take dogs. Their ancestors were scavengers and never knew when or where their next meal would come from. When they got food, they binged (and then purged back at the den to feed their pups).

Our dogs today are still genetically programmed to eat as fast and as much as they can stomach when they belly up to the food bar. So can we expect them to switch off their hardwired habits and eat with moderation? I don't think so.

Cats have a history of being hunters. Hunting means being awake, moving and going in for the kill, all of which burns calories. That’s a far cry from the lifestyle of today’s pet cats.

These days, the only animal our cats love to listen for is the human family member in charge of opening the cupboard door and pouring out kibble or plopping some wet food into their dishes. Getting up from their beds to mosey over to the food bowl isn't the equivalent of hunting — it doesn’t constitute an appropriate amount of exercise, and it sure doesn’t consume many calories. Cats who have food available all the time don’t get satiated, and if they don't exercise, they don’t burn fat. That makes them prone to obesity and diabetes.

Measure for Measure

Our job, as their human caretakers, is to limit the amount of food our pets eat. How much your dog or cat needs depends on breed, life stage (puppy, kitten, adult, senior), activity level, whether he’s altered or intact, and his genetic predispositions. For instance, if your dog or cat is of a breed that’s prone to heart disease, you want to protect his health by not letting him become overweight or full-on obese.