Should you feed your dog once daily? Are there potential benefits once daily feeding for dogs? And what does research say about feeding frequency for our canine companions?
A recent study published by the Dog Aging Project on April 28th 2022 suggests feeding less often is associated with better health in dogs.
“We found that dogs fed once daily have better average cognitive scores, are less likely to have gastrointestinal, dental/oral, orthopedic, kidney/urinary and liver/pancreas health conditions than dogs fed more frequently.”The Dog Aging Project
And social media has since taken this research to mean that dogs should be fed once daily. With headlines such as:
“Dogs Fed Once Daily are Smarter, Healthier and May Liver LONGER”Dr. Karen Becker, Forever Dog Book
Obviously as a proactive pet parent – we all want what is best for our pets. And if feeding less often helps our pets live longer and healthier lives – most pet parents would jump on the opportunity to do so.
But does the research study actually say we should feed our dogs less often? Let's take a deep-dive into this research paper to understand what they actually discovered, and it's limitations.
The Dog Aging Project
To understand this study, we first have to understand what The Dog Aging Project is. The Dog Aging Project was created to look at how thousands of dogs across the world of different ages, sexes, health statuses, and that are fed differently – AGE. The original enrollment period for this study was December 2019 to 2020, and this study plans to keep collecting data on these same pets via medical records and surveys for ten years.
During this study period over 27,000 survey responses were given.
Note that this study was published in April of 2022 thus we are likely looking at the first year or so worth of data collection. This current paper does not look at long-term feeding trends or long-term health data. It also does not include medical record information.
The Study Set Up & Limitations
The first thing that is extremely important to note is that even though this was a large sample size, they study was still largely survey-based. There were no actually physical interactions or examinations performed by the researchers. This was not a double-blinded controlled research trial.
This means researchers will be evaluating correlations between different variables within a dog's lives. And correlations do not equal causation.
In the case of this study, all participants were required to fill out a “Health and Life Experience Survey” – according to researchers this survey collected information on dog demographics, physical activity, environment, dog behavior, diet, medications and preventatives, health status, and owner demographics. Then participants were given the options to complete a “Canine Social and Learned Behavior Survey” to measure cognitive function.
One of the main limitations of survey-based research is participant recollection and bias. Though participants may attempt to be accurate, research has shown that most are not complete accurate.
What Did Researchers Look At?
The main focus of this set of data analysis was looking at feeding frequency and nine different diseases/conditions. Dental/oral disease, Skin disorders, orthopedic, cancer or tumors, kidney or urinary disorders, cardiac disorders, neurological disorders, and liver or pancreas disorders.
If a pet had one of these conditions they were marked as “affected” if they did not, it was marked as “unaffected”. Dogs were excluded if the condition was genetic in nature. And dogs under 1 year of age were excluded as feeding frequency may be more often due to age.
Researchers then compared this disease status to a question of “How many times per day is your dog fed?”
Dogs fed only daily were sorted into “once” and dogs fed two or more times per day were sorted into “fed more frequently”. Thus the category of “fed more frequently” did include dogs fed twice, three times or more, and free fed.
Finally researchers took this data and adjusted for age, breed, body size, if owner gave omega 3 supplementation, physical activity, and training history.
1. Note that body condition score, obesity and calories fed were not adjusted for within their data set. This is important as caloric restriction and ideal body weight have already been proven through controlled research studies to help dogs live 1-2 years longer, with less incidence of disease. 2. Treats or chews were also not accounted for within this data set. This means that it's unknown if dogs fed once daily were truly "fasted" or not. Or how many treats were given outside of the diet that may have unbalanced the regular diet.
Of the 24,238 dogs within the study after exclusion criteria were applied, 8% were fed once daily, 74% were fed twice daily, 7% were fed three times daily, and 11% were free fed.
The Results: Once daily feeding for dogs vs. Disease
Basically what researchers found was that if you fed your dog once daily – your dog was less likely to have: liver/pancreas disease, gastrointestinal disease, kidney/urinary disease, orthopedic disease, or dental/oral disease.
However feeding frequency did not significantly correlate with the chances of your dog having heart disease, cancer, neurological conditions or skin disease.
Researchers also found that if you feed your dog once daily they have slightly better cognitive health. The difference here was 0.62 points. To give you an idea of the scale – dogs could get a score of 0 to 80. However most dogs had scores between 32 to 45 (with lower scores meaning better cognition).
Should We Feed Our Dogs Less Often?
Personally I think the researchers brought up some very interesting preliminary data within their study that will need to be further investigated. And though we do have some limited research in mice suggesting fasting may be a useful tool to extend lifespan, and decrease certain diseases/conditions – this study provides correlations, not conclusive evidence that this is true.
Some major limitations of this study are…
#1 A Snap-Shot in Time – The Chicken or the Egg?
Though this was a large survey of many dogs, the study did not look at feeding frequency and how it changed over time. It’s possible that a dog may be fed once daily for a majority of it’s life, then switched to twice daily feeding later in life due to a disease or condition.
Many of the diseases correlated within this study such as liver/pancreas diseases, gastrointestinal diseases, kidney/urinary disease, and dental disease – feeding more often may actually be used as part of the treatment or management plan of these conditions.
Meaning feeding “more often” did not cause these diseases, but instead was a response to these diseases being present.
Note Orthopedic disease would likely not fall into this category of limitations.
#2 Once daily feeding for dogs may result in fewer calories consumed.
Researchers did not control or ask about caloric intake, body condition score, or control for obesity (just weight – which is not an accurate way to assess body condition).
We have several studies, both epidemiological and controlled research studies that have shown that dogs who maintain a healthy weight throughout their lives live longer and healthier lives.
We also know that people are bad at measuring dog food by volume – research studies have shown that most people over-measure their dog’s food. Feeding less frequently allows for less margin of error.
It is possible that dogs fed once daily were just fed less, and had better body condition.
This would explain how orthopedic conditions were affected by feeding frequency. If dogs fed more often tended to be overweight, and in a caloric surplus. We already know that a dog being overweight can drastically affected joint related conditions.
#3 We don’t know if once daily fed dogs were Actually Fasted
Researchers actually admit that though they did have data on treats, they did not use this data because of lack of caloric information. Thus it’s possible that fasting was not even the cause of these correlations at all.
#4 Free Fed Dogs Were Not Sicker – They were Healthier?
Another odd finding in this researcher was concerning free-fed dogs. Free fed dogs actually had fewer incidences of disease than once daily fed dogs – however the group overall was too varied to draw statical significance.
Researchers within this study are speculative but cautious given the limitations of this study. Though this research is interesting, they do not recommend dietary changes to feeding routine at this time. Instead they recommend waiting for more data.
“Given the limitations of this cross-sectional, observational study, the results of this investigation should not be used to make decisions about the feeding or clinical care of companion dogs.”Researchers, Dog Aging Project
The Dog Aging Project has recognized some of the limitations of this current research paper and are adjusting their future surveys in order to acquire more information. Adding on a “Veterinary Electronic Medical Records” where owners are able to share medical records with researchers for further data analysis.
The main benefit of this is to be able to adjust for body condition in obesity, which will effectively remove caloric restriction as a comparative factor.
Obviously this research project is a 10 year project thus I suspect further data over time will allow for researchers to adjust for our other limitations of the data being a “snap shot” in time. Allowing researchers to see feeding trends of long timeframes.
“We view these results as an exciting first step of an ongoing exploration of the impact of diet on companion dogs living in human environments. Given the intense interest in, and popularization of, ‘longevity diets’ such as intermittent fasting and time-restricted feeding, these types of studies in dogs are both timely and important. We believe these studies will ultimately offer insights into factors that promote health and longevity for both dogs and humans.”The Dog Aging Project
My Thoughts & Take Away:
Overall I think that this study was a good preliminary look at how feeding frequency may be associated with different diseases and conditions.
Though with the current study limitations I agree with the researchers that we probably shouldn’t make any changes to our dog’s diets at this time.
Research looking at potential benefits of once daily feeding for dogs is still very much in it’s infancy. I am looking forward to hearing more from the Dog Aging Project and their future findings over the next ten years.
I also think it’s important to mention that even if this research study in the future finds stronger evidence that once daily feeding for dogs has benefits. It still not be a good choice for all dogs. Dogs are individuals and assuming all dogs would do well with the same feeding schedule does not make sense.
Exceptions for once daily feeding for dogs would be for behavioral purposes…
The number one reason most dogs end up at the shelter are due to behavior problems. The positive-reinforcement training that is needed in order to help dogs with severe anxiety, fears and phobias takes a lot of time and consistency. I wouldn’t want to limit a dog’s chance of staying with their owner, learning new skills, and gaining confidence due to food timing restrictions.
Enrichment is extremely important. For dogs that do not live extremely active lives out on a farm, or that do not have fields to play in all day. Food-based enrichment can be extremely helpful. The truth is most dogs do not have access to vast outdoor spaces, and many owners need to enrich their dog’s lives in very limited space. Using food-based enrichment is an excellent way we can do this.
Exceptions for once daily feeding for dogs with medical conditions…
Another common reason why a pet parent may want to not feed their dog once daily is due to a medical condition. We know that for certain diseases and conditions when weight loss and muscle wasting is common – feeding more frequently can help with clinical signs. These would be for dogs undergoing chemotherapy, dogs who have kidney disease, dogs with heart disease, dogs with liver disease.
We also know that for gastrointestinal diseases such as acid reflux, pancreatitis, gastritis, IBD, and colitis – smaller, more frequent meals can often help with the management of clinical signs such as vomiting, abdominal pain, or diarrhea.
Other diseases like Diabetes where twice daily insulin with food is ideal for disease management, feeding once daily may actually make their condition worse.
Exceptions for once daily feeding for thin dogs or those with difficulty eating…
Along the same line as dogs with medical conditions. Some dogs have difficulty consuming enough calories to maintain their weight. This can be due to dental disease (oral pain), difficulty breathing (respiratory or heart disease), or joint pain (difficulty bending down or maintaining their position to eat). And some dogs just have very fast metabolisms or are very active where they just physically cannot consume enough calories in one sitting.
Exceptions for once daily feeding for Large and Small Breed Dogs…
Finally we know that dogs at both ends of the spectrum as far as size may have issues with once daily feeding. Small breed dogs can be prone to hypoglycemia due to their fast metabolism. Meaning they can suffer from blood sugar crashes that can be dangerous. In contrast our large/giant breed barrel chested dogs are prone to bloat. Where a single large meal may cause the stomach to extend, then as they move, flip over on itself causing the life-threatening condition called Bloat, or GVD.
Overall it’s important to understand that each dog is an individual. As pet parents we need to observe our own dogs and discuss our observations with our veterinarians to come up with individualized plans that suit their needs.
About the Author: Nikki is a Registered Veterinary Technician (Veterinary Nurse) and Dog Mom with over a decade of experience with dogs and cats. Since graduation from college (BS Biology, AS Animal Health -2013) she has adopted two mixed breed dogs – Ranger and Ash, and has focused her time learning about pet food and nutrition.
Nikki shares information on a range of dog nutrition topics: from how to create a homemade complete and balanced dog food recipes, to how to choose a dog food. Nikki strives to give dog parents the information they need in order to make the best nutrition decisions for their pup!
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