Feeding a dog, especially, a cocker spaniel, should be easy and straight forward. You choose the ideal food like 1–2–3–4–5, set times and see your gorgeous pup enjoy his meals. You think you’ve done everything right, and then comes a study suggesting that your dog should only eat once (which sounds a bit like a promo for another Bond film, really). Even though the study itself specifies that more research is needed, the media picks it up and spreads all over the internet telling people that they are literally crippling their beloved pooches.
What happens next?
Dog parents all over the world suddenly feel scared, confused and upset because who wouldn’t?
Luckily, we can talk about it here to clarify a few things and make life a little bit brighter for everyone, including pups who are probably holding onto their bowls right now panicking about losing the other precious meal they’ve loved so much.
So what did the study say?
The Dog Aging Project study published in November 2021 suggested that dogs fed once a day would be less likely to get diagnosed with age-related health issues. The study was based on three facts: dogs are from wolves and wolves don’t eat like dogs, intermittent fasting is good, and dog owners’ annual surveys gave positive response.
Now, let’s remind ourselves once again that thanks to evolution, changes in lifestyle and artificial breeding, dogs and wolves are not exactly the same. An average grey wolf lives between 6 and 8 years. Some may reach 17, but chances are slim because of the natural selection.
Intermittent fasting in laboratory animals may did them favours, but those animals are not living in the same environment or enjoy little pleasures of life as our pet dogs. It’s also worth to mention that most of the reference fasting studies were done on humans or rats. And true, we can do well with intermittent fasting done right. But even humans, when they do intermittent fasting, only follow 12-16 hour fasts, not 24! And, as humans, we do it at our own will and understanding of what is going on.
I don’t take owner’s surveys seriously at the best of times. Everything people think and feel about their dogs is biased and based on opinions, understanding, education and experience of each particular person. Even if we talk to 24000 of them, as the study did, it won’t rock my boat as a scientific fact.
I was also uneasy about two other factors. The study only used neutered dogs. And for me it does not make sense because their body functions have already been altered and thus any outcomes would only apply to other neutered dogs. And we know that neutering isn’t all fun and games. It does increase the risks of disease including several cancers. The other factor is that 56% of the dogs used in the study were mix breeds – in veterinary terms, they were mutts. Whilst I have no issues with loving all dogs, I would struggle to apply any study on mixed breeds dogs to changes any pure bred dogs would need to go through in order to live longer? Because… genetics… And among the breeds, many of them were large breeds that would feel comfortable with one meal a day, theoretically. Because… labradors and retrievers do love food.
How many times do we need to feed our dogs each day?
This will depend on several factors.
First of all, your dog’s age. Puppies need to be fed more frequently, 3-4 times a day, because it will allow their little bodies digest food comfortably (as their stomach is still growing), receive nutrients and calories (that are higher than required for an adult dog) how and when needed and, and as a result, help them grow at a steady rate. This alone will reduce the risk of obesity, bone disease and even some cancers in the future.
Most healthy adult dogs aged 12 months or over can eat twice a day with 8-12 hours in between. This will allow their stomach to digest the meal, keep the pup fill full and happy, then naturally empty and signal the brain the hunger “Must eat or look sad!” cue.
Breed is important.
Not only dogs would require different quantities of food per day, they will utilise what is given depending on their size! When a study looked into 69 clinical parameters in dogs of various breeds, 16 (including gut bacteria, specific proteins and antioxidants) were different between the large and small canines. Overloading the system by giving dogs one meal a day means that some of these dogs are even less likely to absorb the nutrients that could be vital for their long-term health.
Cockers are usually fed twice a day, but they are foodies and most of the dogs I know, including my own, would feel depressed, stressed or anxious if they suddenly lost a meal and had to go on empty for 24 (!!!) hours.
And what can happen to a stressed dog?
First of all, he will be so anxious about the next meal, he is likely to inhale it. This can lead to bloating and be life-threatening.
In fact, when a study looked into causes of bloat (or gastric dilatation-volvulus syndrome), the one-meal-per-day, fearfulness and stress were three of the highest risks.
If your dog has psychological issues such as separation anxiety, reducing the number of meals can cause release of stress hormone and make them feel worse as they lose their “comfort food”. Currently, about 20% of dogs are known to suffer from SA, 20-25% are fearful towards strangers (read – possibly have a build-up of stress hormones in their little bodies on a permanent basis) and as many as 50% may have noise sensitivity (again, read – stressed out regularly). Imagine if all these pups lost one thing that makes them feel good?
Even if, hypothetically, a one-meal-a-day diet could reduce the risks of some age-related diseases (which to me could be fixed and prevented with many other and much less dramatic diet and life-style changes and alternations such as, for example, not feeding dogs high protein or grain-free diets or avoiding so called “superfoods” known to cause kidney stones, or measuring dog food to prevent obesity – one of the major factors in age-related health conditions and cancers in dogs that the study did not even look into), it will cause great stress. Stress, in its turn, will lead to an absolute havoc within the body and affect every single system, from changes in hormones and digestive enzymes, blood sugar control and vitamin and mineral balance, to the bones and muscles, the nerves and brain, blood pressure and heart. Which does not immediately screams “healthy dog” to me.
What should you do about your dog’s meals?
If you have a puppy, stick with 3-4 meals a day until he is 6 months. Then, in case of cockers, try with two meals but if your puppy struggles, go for three. It is more important to watch the quantity of food per day rather than number of meals required to eat this food.
Do not feed your dog, especially a puppy, “free style” better known as ad libitum, by leaving a bowl of food for the entire day and allowing the cocker to help himself whenever he feels like it.
Set meal times are important for digestion, elimination and overall satiety. In other words, a fed cocker is a happy cocker who knows when to eat, sleep, poop, play and repeat.
If your dog has been diagnosed with any health conditions or has to take medication, you will always need to consult your vet about feeding times.
Remember that any health-related advice you’d even need should always come from your vet. This alone will keep your dog healthier for longer.