Feed the Need
Understanding the psychology underlying our pet feeding habits may help us stem the epidemic of pet obesity in America today.
Studies suggest that pets given unrestricted access to nutritionally complete diets will often self-regulate their food intake to maintain a healthy weight. So… if cats and dogs have an innate ability to self-regulate their food intake at healthy levels, why is there an epidemic of pet obesity?
A recent study proposes that in some cases our pets may manipulate us to control the type and quantity of food we offer them. A comment by David Hemming from Hand Picked And Carefully Sorted on this post pointed me to an article by Day, Kergoat and Kotrschal about some interesting factors that affect what we feed our pets. Day et al.’s thesis is unique in that it doesn’t consider our pets’ feeding habits as the result of a simple one-way process. They propose that our pets have the ability to manipulate what, when and how much we feed them. Like most parts of social relationships - the way pets and pet owners relate to food and feeding rituals isn’t simple.
The objective of this paper is to review information that may provide a better understanding how owners are influenced by the feeding behaviour of their pets. The thesis of our review is that pets are able to influence both the type and quantity of food offered to them by their owners and that their degree of success will be determined by their owner’s personality and attitudes
It has been demonstrated that strong parallels exist in both animal–animal and infant–human dyads that offer insights into the social control of food intake in the pet–human dyad. In particular, it seems that begging behaviour and finicky eating habits may be powerful tools that pets could use to control ‘when’, ‘what’ and ‘how much’ they are fed. This has been described as a push–pull relationship where the personality of both the neonate and caregiver may exert an influence.
Push-Pull theory relates to a sort of relational inertia. Many problems in our relationships don’t start because we become attracted to new circumstances, they arise because we feel we are being pushed out of a comfortable, familiar situation. Change is stressful, and when we perceive a potential threat to the status quo, we become insecure and needy. Our needy behavior can then push our partner out of their comfort zone and trigger a cascade of dysfunctional push-pull dynamics in the relationship.
In social alticial species, feeding rituals help establish and maintain social bonds. So when your grandmother urges you to have seconds (or thirds) you stuff yourself, even when you don’t want to. We give food to those we care about as a show of affection. We accept food offered to acknowledge bonds shared with friends and family. And while food itself doesn’t create social bonds – it’s an important part of the cement that holds many of them together. A bit of cement that can become unglued when push-pull dynamics arise.
I don’t find it surprising that some dogs elicit their owners’ over-feeding, I want to know why they do it? Day et al. note in passing that push-pull relationships “may exert an influence” on our pets’ feeding and begging behavior. I suspect that for most obese pets (and their owners) push-pull dynamics are the root of the problem. Dysfunctional relationships feed this unhealthy behavior.
While some pets may be masters of manipulation, we humans certainly can’t lay all – or even most – of the blame for the obesity epidemic on them. After all, we control the keys to the food cabinet and we’re supposed to be the ones with the big brains. Can we learn to engage those brains before we dispense food on cue?