Julie has written in about her dog, Molly, a spayed female Labrador retriever. Molly is “absolutely crazy” about her food, and quickly gulps her kibble down at every meal. Once she is certain there is no more food available, Molly calms down, but Julie is worried about her ‘vacuum cleaner’ impersonation every time she is fed. She inhales her food so quickly that she often chokes it back up again.
Julie goes on to say that she has begun to give her more at each meal now, thinking Molly is “starving” due to her behavior, and is exceeding the feeding guidelines on the bag of dog kibble for a dog her size.
There are lots of dogs out there that fit your description, Julie, and there can be many contributing factors, including metabolic rate, quality of food, and competition from other dogs. There can also be medical reasons for this behavior to occur, including hyperthyroidism, which is a disease that causes an overproduction of the hormone thyroxin. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include ravenous appetite, weight loss and hyper activity. So before making any other changes, Julie, I’d suggest a thorough examination and blood work up at your veterinarian’s office.
If there are no physical problems at the root of this behavior, then I’d start getting creative in other ways. First, I’d suggest you look carefully at the type of food you are offering. Dogs require a diet of about 70 percent protein, and contrary to what is in a lot of commercial dog food, they are not big grain eaters. Make sure the quality of the food offered is high, with no grain in the formula.
If Molly is fed in the company of other dogs, or even the family cat, I’d change the routine to be sure she eats alone. Sometimes the mere presence of another pet can cause the dog to accelerate the eating process. Molly may consider other pets as competition, and she definitely doesn’t want to share, so may eat faster as a result.
Next, you will need to do something to physically slow Molly down during meal time. You can discard the food bowl and toss her kibble all over the floor, or place it single layer in a shallow pan. Doing so will require that Molly pick up each piece of kibble individually, instead of successfully gobbling up mouthfuls at a time. Don’t expect her to do a lot of chewing. Dogs are carnivores, and their teeth are shaped to bite, tear and shred food, not grind it to a pulp.
Another option is to buy a specialty food bowl; one with separators built right in, which causes the kibble to settle in numerous, little compartments within the bowl, forcing the dog to really slow down and work to retrieve each little piece. You could also get more creative, and offer Molly her food in a type of puzzle. There are numerous toys on the market that are specifically designed to hold a full meal; my favorites include the Buster Cube and the Kong Wobbler. There are various ways to make these toys dispense some of the food, but it usually involves nosing or pawing it around in some way, and a little kibble at a time falls out. Some of these toys can stretch out a meal to last 30 minutes or more. The benefits of making sure Molly slows down while eating almost pale in comparison to the mental stimulation they provide; a win-win for your dog. These options may give Molly the feeling of getting more at each meal, although in reality you will only be adding to the length of time, not increasing the amount of kibble.
Labradors are well known for their love of food and mealtime. Consider offering Molly more activities that involve food, but not her kibble. For example, offering her a big femur bone to chew on a few days a week will likely please her to no end, while the additional calories consumed will be minimal.
Finally, when looking for guidelines as to how much kibble to feed your dog, forget about what the label on the food bag recommends; look to Molly’s actual weight and activity level to determine how much to feed her. Start with a fixed, measured amount, then weigh her, reassess, and adjust the quantity every couple of weeks until you’re certain that the amount of food your offering her is keeping her at a healthy weight. If you’re not sure whether or not she is overweight, ask your veterinarian to assess Molly for you. “Bon appetit,” Molly!
Lisa Moore’s pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.