It is November and Thanksgiving is almost here. While most of us over-eat, and then feel bad about it, remember that dogs and cats over-eat almost every meal. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (there really is such an organization) estimates that more than half of dogs and cats are overweight. You have the willpower to pace yourself at the festive meal – your furry friends usually do not and constantly demand more. Pacing eating can help with weight control, decrease unwanted vomiting, improve digestion, and increase overall quality of life.
Cats are famous for eating quickly, then regurgitating the food onto your rug. The food fills the esophagus but does not enter the stomach, thus they feel the need to expel this excess food, and it winds up some place unpleasant. Slower eating allows for the lower esophageal sphincter to open and permit food into the stomach. This is not unique to cats, as dogs can have the same problem, but it is less frequent.
Another advantage of slowing down eating, involves satiety – or the feeling of being full. This is better achieved with smaller, more frequent meals, instead of one or two large portions. Many cats are grazers by nature, but allowing free access to food often leads to obesity. And restricting meals to once or twice a day may lead to their stomach being empty, resulting in hunger or vomiting yellow bile. This condition, called bilious vomiting, is also seen in dogs. In short, there’s too much acid in the stomach and no food to neutralize it, so the pet puts it somewhere – on your floor. By having frequent meals, this usually can be abated.
Even if you feed frequently, some pets will gorge themselves. For many, this is not a problem, but for others, let’s discuss ways to prevent this behavior. Using a standard bowl only allows for the rapid combustion of food. Feeding dishes with ridges or knobs make your pet work to get out the food, slowing eating. There are mats specifically designed with bumps and raised areas, providing much more space to spread out the food. And even more effective are toys where the pet must push around a ball-shaped object with a hole in it – as the toy is moved, food falls out bit by bit. It can take a dog or cat up to an hour to get all of the food out. This provides great transit time in the esophagus and is great enrichment activity. Out in the great wild, food is not in a bowl–the animal has to work for it!
Puzzle games are fantastic, too. Generally these should not be used for main meals unless your pet has learned how to beat the game. Start off with using puzzles as a treat with only a small amount of food. Once proficient, consider changing the game up a bit.
We use a simple low-tech method at home: we spread the food around our apartment. When we remove it from the bag we shake off all loose crumbs and then throw kibbles around each room in our dwelling. It takes Brian T. Dog about 10 minutes to get each piece. Afterwards, he is a bit tired. For cats, try using a Ripple Rug or like product. The food can be hidden between the layers of the rug.
Remember that all bowls and toys need to be cleaned regularly. Running them through the dishwasher, so long as they are safe to do so, is a great idea. Most food bowls are amenable to such cleaning.
So as you are at your Thanksgiving table, stuffing yourself, remember that slow eating is a good thing for your pets.
Dan Teich, DVM is Medical Director at District Veterinary Hospitals, www.districtvet.com.