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Dog Free Feeding vs Scheduled Meals: Which Is Better?

By Aviram K.
December 12, 2021
8 min read
Dog Free Feeding vs Scheduled Meals: Which Is Better?
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The ways in which we feed our canine companions have changed drastically in the last few decades - from table scraps to kibble and from home-cooked to raw diets.

Beyond just the food selection, new methods to feed your dog began to appear as well in the forms of free-feeding or scheduled meals.

But with so many self-proclaimed canine diet specialists and actual veterinarians engaged in the controversy of what method to pursue to feed one’s dog, you might be wondering whether free feeding or scheduled meals is better for Fido.

Free feeding is good for dogs with portion control, owners who may be unable to get home at the scheduled time every day, and to prevent dogs from having a negative relationship with food. On the other hand, scheduled feeding works for dogs that need portion control, as a helpful way to potty train puppies for multiple dog households and an easier way of tracking appetite loss.

I researched the two different methods and compared them to one another for you, helping you sort out whether free feeding or sitting on a more regimented feeding routine is best for your dog!

Ready? Let’s dive in.

Table of Contents
01
Pros and Cons of Free Feeding
02
Pros and Cons of Scheduled Feeding
03
My Recommendation for Your Dog

Pros and Cons of Free Feeding

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Free feeding is a term that refers to leaving food-time at the discretion of your pup. Proper free feeding can manifest in two different ways: the first being leaving a portioned amount of kibble in a bowl available for your dog all day long, and the other being your dog indicating when they are hungry.

It’s important to note that if you opt for leaving food out all day, it must be kibble or a similar form of food that won’t go bad being out in the open like that for hours at a time. If your dog is sitting on a home-cooked or raw diet, as you can imagine, free-feeding in this capacity isn’t going to work out.

Equally so, it is possible to free feed a cooked or raw diet if you’re a pet owner that tends to spend much of the day with your dog - your dog can be taught to indicate when they are hungry. For example, dogs can express their needs by walking up to the refrigerator or by ringing a bell.

Free feeding has long been a controversial subject amongst canine experts, with some stating that free feeding actually helps maintain proper weight and others retorting that free feeding actually leads to canine obesity. The reality of this is heavily dependent upon the dog you have in your home, some dogs have great natural portion control and others do not.

Spitz breeds, such as the Siberian husky, and primitive breeds, such as the Korean Jindo, are well known for having excellent portion control and food balance. However, dogs such as pugs and labradors are seen as lacking proper portion control and can be prone to obesity.

As well, free-feeding earns an unfavorable reputation due to pet owners not actually following the correct protocol for free feeding - instead of simply offering your dog’s full daily portion for the day, some dog owners opt to have unlimited amounts of kibble on the ready - which if your dog doesn’t have portion control, as mentioned above, will lead to a dangerous amount of pounds tacking on.

On the upside, some dog trainers state that free feeding can help eliminate behavioral issues such as resource guarding and food aggressiveness. This is because the dog never feels that their meal is being limited or at risk of being taken away from them.

Free feeding can also slow down the gobbling of food (eating too fast can cause stomach upset, and a dangerous condition in dogs known as bloat) because the dog is not anticipating the meal with grave excitement.

If you’re a busy individual who does not keep a consistent schedule on a daily basis, free feeding can make the day significantly less stressful as there isn’t a worry about being unable to be home to feed the dog at a regimented time.

Dogs that are active and need more calories based on their daily activity level can also thrive on free feeding, as it can be hard to measure out how much food an active dog needs daily.

Pros

  • Dogs are not left to feel hungry during the day or between meals.
  • Resource food guarding and food aggressiveness ceases to be an issue.
  • Dogs with portion control can naturally maintain a proper weight, and active dogs are able to eat the number of calories they need based on their activity level.
  • Dogs don’t eat too quickly and can lower the risk of bloat.
  • Great for busy people as your dog will never miss its meal due to your running late or being unable to be home in time (if you leave kibble out all day).
  • If you work from home or spend much of the day with your dog, free-feeding can offer your dog independence to ask for meals when hungry.

Cons

  • Improper free feeding can cause obesity in dogs with a lack of portion control. Consistently refilling the dog bowl when it looks empty, is not a good idea.
  • Free feeding can be extremely difficult to do in multiple dog households.
  • Puppies have a very hard time with free-feeding as it can make potty training problematic.
  • Unless you opt for the dog indicating when hungry, free-feeding can only be done with food that doesn’t spoil when left exposed, such as kibble.

Pros and Cons of Scheduled Feeding

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Scheduled feeding, as the name implies, is when you develop a feeding regimen for your pooch and keep to it on a daily basis.

This is the most common and standard method of feeding your dog, with most people’s schedules being a morning meal and an evening meal. Food is not left out for your dog to nibble on daily and is only offered at select times.

Scheduled feeding has been the traditional approach to caring for your dog, with this method being most frequently advocated by those in the canine health world.

Scheduled feedings allow dog owners to better monitor how their dog is eating (such as, noticing a lack of appetite indicating illness or discomfort) as well as be in full control of portions to prevent obesity (or to encourage weight loss for dogs packing too many pounds).

Scheduled feedings make it easier to feed raw or home-cooked diets without the risk of food spoiling and causing your dog to be ill. They are also the best option when it concerns multiple dog households, as not all dogs are able to be fed the same way or the same amount!

Scheduled feeding (even if you plan on free feeding later on) is a must-have for puppies. Puppies thrive best on a routine, and routines help with potty training (a very important part of raising baby dogs!).

However, skeptics of the benefits of scheduled feeding state that the scheduled feeding method can cause dogs to have their own version of an eating disorder, such as gobbling down food way too quickly or eating way too much (if the owner is unable to properly portion the food).

Eating too fast, as mentioned before, can cause bloat which can be fatal - however, there are products such as slow feeders that can be purchased to remedy this issue.

Some specialists also surmise that scheduled feeding can also cause your dog to have an unhealthy relationship with food and yourself. That is because a lot of stress, anxiety, and anticipation can begin to build around feeding time. Scheduled feeding can lead to food aggression and guarding, especially in breeds prone to this.

Scheduled feeding can be more complicated on the human side of things, as the structure depends on the food being given at the same time every day. This means that if you’re unable to get home on time, you have to hire or call someone to come feed your pup. Some dogs have such sensitive stomachs that delaying a meal by an hour can cause stomach upset!

Pros

  • Much better control over your dog’s diet, such as portion control and noticing a loss of appetite.
  • Offers a structure to your pup, so they know what to expect and when.
  • Helps with potty training puppies.
  • Makes it much easier and safer to feed a raw or home cooked diet due to no risk of food spoiling.
  • Multiple dog households do the best with scheduled feeding, as each dog may not need to eat the same as one another.

Cons

  • Requires you to be available to feed your dog at the same time every day, or will require you to hire someone to maintain the schedule on the days that you can’t.
  • Due to the anticipation, anxiety, and potential stress surrounding feeding time, dogs can develop food aggression and resource guarding and/or eat their food way too fast.

My Recommendation for Your Dog

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So, what should you do for your dog?

Well, I personally feed my dog scheduled meals, but that’s mainly because I also have a cat living in the same house with an enormous appetite. In addition, I also want my dog to have a more predictable pooping schedule since they are still in the puppy stage.

You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of each approach for yourself and decide which is best for your own circumstances.

Whatever you decide, here are a few tips for success with each approach:

Free Feeding Tips for Success

  • If offering your dog access to food all day long, make sure to only put down the dog’s daily necessary portion! Don’t keep refilling the bowl when it looks empty. This helps prevent obesity and overeating.
  • If you are moving your dog over from scheduled meals to free feeding, be patient. Start by filling your dog’s bowl the required amount, after your pup has gulped down the food, fill it to the same portion again. After a few days, your dog should understand that the food will be readily available whenever they are hungry - and as such, appetite will regulate and your dog should be able to portion themselves better.
  • Because lack of appetite is a big indicator of health problems, only leaving the daily portion out is pretty important. You can track how much (or how little) your dog is eating this way.
  • Monitor your dog’s weight on a weekly basis to ensure free-feeding is going well or if your dog may be a better candidate for scheduled feeding.

Scheduled Feeding Tips for Success

  • To move from free-feeding to scheduled feeding, take your dog’s daily portion and divide it into two meals, one in the morning and one in the evening. Puppies need to eat more frequently, so consult your veterinarian for advice on younger dogs (generally, puppies eat three to four times a day). Once the bowl has been set down, leave it for about 15 - 20 minutes. If the dog doesn’t eat it or finish all of it, pick the bowl up and put it back down when the next meal time comes up. Your dog will understand meal times after a few days!
  • If your dog isn’t fancying scheduled feeding at first, resist the desire to throw treats or special yummies into the bowl! This can teach the dog that the longer they remain stubborn and hold out, the more goodies they will get.
  • If your dog is eating way too fast, get products such as a slow feeder. This helps slow down gobbling and prevents conditions such as bloat.
  • For handling resource guarding, manage the behavior by respecting your dog’s space. Do not allow the touching or handling of food or the food bowl once the dog has begun eating.
  • To maintain a great relationship with your dog, even during the anticipation of mealtime, be sure to spend lots of time with your pup. Walk them, play with them, build that healthy bond!

Tags
Free-FeedingFeedingDog Food
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