Creating healthy feeding habits

Giving your dog a healthy well-balanced diet can reduce their risk of a wide range of chronic diseases and can help keep their body fit and strong. A well-balanced diet is more than just what you put in their bowl, but also includes the amount you feed them and any additional snacks too.

It's easy to give your dog extra food throughout the day, either as treats, table scraps or just giving them a little more at mealtimes, but doing so regularly can be damaging to their health and can make them less happy in the long run. It’s vital that you take care of what food you give to your dog and that you maintain good feeding habits that will allow them to live the healthiest and happiest life possible.

Why healthy feeding habits are important

Maintaining good feeding habits can help prevent your dog from becoming overweight and can contribute to your dog living a longer and healthier life. Keeping your dog lean and fit can reduce their risks of developing heart disease, diabetes and can reduce the strain on their joints and back.

Choose a good quality food

The type and amount of food your dog should eat will depend on a number of factors, including their age, size and how active they are. Typically, food that is high in protein and fibre, but low in fat is excellent for helping to keep your dog healthy. These foods provide dogs with adequate energy while also keeping them feeling fuller for longer. Your vet will be able to help you work out a diet that is appropriate for your dog.

Don’t “guesstimate” when giving food

Some of the most important aspects of having a well-balanced diet include portion control. Many owners “guesstimate” how much food to give to their dog, but this can be very unreliable, especially as we are more likely to be overgenerous and give them too much food rather than too little. You could consider measuring out your dog’s food using a cup or a scoop, but even this method may not be accurate as they can be very easy to overfill.

Weigh out your food

To help you know how much food your dog is eating and how many calories they are consuming each day, it is important to weigh out their food. Your vet should be able to give you a guideline on how much they should be eating each day, based on their ideal target weight.

Good quality dog food will tell you how many calories each serving contains, so you can work out how much food they need to be given to maintain or reduce their weight. Some foods may give this as calories per scoop or per gram.

Avoid free feeding

Free feeding (leaving food out all day for a dog to graze on) is something you should avoid, especially if you are trying to help your dog lose weight. Dogs that have food constantly available to them are likely to eat more food than those fed fixed amounts at regular times each day. You know your dog best and if you are used to free feeding and your dog is a healthy size then continue doing what is right for you.

Try feeding two smaller meals in a day

Dogs like routine and having meals at regular times gives them something to look forward to and makes their day more interesting. To help keep your dog in shape, you could consider feeding them two or more smaller meals throughout the day. By feeding them regularly it prevents them from eating too quickly, which improves digestion, stops them swallowing lots of air when they eat and makes them less likely to still feel hungry after they have eaten.

Try not to feed them too late

When working out what times you should regularly feed your dog, make sure that you don’t feed them too late, as they will not burn many calories when sleeping at night. Late-night feeding can easily lead to weight gain.

Give treats sensibly

When giving your dog treats watch what you give them and how often.

  • Make sure treats are not high in fat or sugar. Some appropriate snacks include carrot sticks, or a small piece of cucumber, apple or banana
  • When giving treats, make sure you include them in your dog’s total daily calorie intake. Taking the calories your dog eats in treats from the calorie allowance of their meals is a good way to balance things out
  • You could put some of your dog’s kibble allowance aside and use that as treats during the day

Think about your dog’s daily calorie intake

It’s important that you divide your dog’s total calorie intake for the day between each meal so that you are not overfeeding them. If you like to give them treats, make sure that you assign a certain amount of their calories for these before working out how much to give them for each meal.

Avoid giving table scraps

Do you, or your family, have a habit of giving your dog food from their plate, or sneaking them food under the table? If so, it will probably make your dog happy, but feeding table scraps and other fatty treats may encourage many pets to overeat and gain excessive weight.

If you cannot resist giving table scraps, make sure they are something healthy, e.g. raw carrots or rice cakes. If your dog often begs for food scraps, you could consider feeding them before you cook or eat so they are not hungry.

Avoid giving some human foods

Some things that humans eat are not always appropriate for dogs. Foods such as grapes, raisins, onions, chocolate and some artificial sweeteners can be poisonous to dogs. Table scraps are also often fatty and high in calories, which will not help your dog lose weight and may upset their stomach.

Find out about other foods that are poisonous to dogs.

Make eating more fun

Toys that slowly release food when they are moved around, or played with, are an excellent way to help your dog draw out meal times so that they do not gobble down their food too quickly. This means they will be more satisfied with less food. These toys, available from most pet shops, are also a great form of mental stimulation that your dogs will love to play with.

Discourage your dog from begging

Begging for food is something that comes naturally to most dogs and can be something that is incredibly difficult to resist. Although it can be a sign that your dog is hungry, it may not always be the case. If your dog regularly begs for food, you could:

  • Offer them some fresh water - sometimes quenching their thirst may distract them
  • Take them for a walk, as this may help to take their mind off food
  • Give them a healthy snack, such as carrot sticks or slices of apple. Alternatively, you could give them a small amount of kibble, but make sure if you give any treats these are taken into consideration when calculating your dog’s total calorie intake for the day
  • Give them some attention, such as petting them or playing with them
  • Give them small meals throughout the day to keep them feeling full
  • Time your dog’s meal so that you feed them before you prepare your own meal or before you eat

Give them plenty of encouragement

Although many people think of dogs as eating pretty much anything, in reality some dogs might actually be quite fussy about what they eat from their bowls. If your dog is a “fussy eater” try to encourage them to eat their food and ignore their begging. Give them lots of praise for eating their own food from their bowl.

You could also try:

  • Restricting access to sneaky snacks, including human food from your plate
  • Limiting their treats to training tools only
  • Making your dog’s food more appealing
  • Being persistent and consistent with your approach to feeding
  • Switching to another type of food

Read more about feeding a fussy eater.

Get your whole family involved

Dogs can sometimes receive small amounts of treats from a number of family members. If everyone in a large family is giving them a treat it can all add up and be enough to fill them up. In houses where more than one person feeds the dog, it can be more of a challenge to know how much food your dog has had in a day.

Where possible, one adult should be responsible for all the feeding, but if this is not realistic, then you may wish to create a set of feeding instructions and records so that each person who feeds the dog notes down on a homemade chart how much they have given, what type of food and when. Alternatively, you could weigh out each of your dog’s meals at the beginning of each day and store them in labelled, sealable containers. This way everyone will know how much the dog has been fed and how much is left for the day.

Ensure your dog always has access to water

Giving your dog access to plenty of fresh water at all times throughout the day will keep them hydrated, help regulate their body temperature and will aid with digestion.

Be active

Regular exercise, whether it’s walking or other activities are vitally important to build into your dog’s day. It keeps them fit, builds strong bones, tones up muscles, burns excess energy and helps them maintain a healthy weight. Avoid feeding immediately before or after exercise, and allow an hour to pass between feeding and activity.

Speak to your vet

If you’re concerned that you’re feeding your dog too much, or not enough then it’s always a good idea to call your local veterinary practice for advice. Similarly, if you’re concerned that your dog’s feeding behaviour has changed or that your dog is displaying signs that you are concerned about then call your vet straight away.

Think your dog may be affected?

If you're worried about your dog's health, always contact your vet immediately!

We're not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article, please contact your local vet practice for further information.

Find a vet near you

If you're looking for a vet practice near you, why not visit the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons' Find a vet page.