If you have multiple dogs in your family, or a dog and a cat, feeding time can be chaotic. In multi-pet homes, it often feels like you need a referee, with dogs pushing to get each other’s food or stealing food from the cat. As a result, mealtime can be stressful for owners as well as pets, but with a little planning and training, it doesn’t have to be.
An important part of developing healthy relationships between pets at mealtime is to create routines. The first step is to have specific times when you feed them, instead of “free feeding” or having food constantly available. The exception to this would be if one of your pets has a medical condition and your vet advises you to have food available at all times. By creating a consistent eating time, you’ll be able to focus your training and ensure that it’s safe for all your pets by supervising them and preventing conflict. If you are transitioning pets from free-feeding to specific mealtimes, talk with your vet about portion size and what times of day you should be feeding.
The easiest way to resolve conflict between pets at mealtime is to prevent it from happening. You can do this by making sure your dogs aren’t in positions where they feel like they need to compete for valuable resources, which can lead to tension between pets and even fights.
Just as you shouldn’t allow children to interfere with your dog while they’re eating, it’s important to prevent other pets in the home from interfering with your dog during meals. Don’t allow your dogs to approach one another while they are eating. If one dog doesn’t finish a meal, pick up their bowl and don’t let another dog finish the other dog’s food.
Fostering good manners at mealtime in a multi-pet household will go a long way in preventing resource guarding and general conflict between pets in the home. To create and maintain healthy habits and relationships between pets, make sure they eat separately. Don’t allow dogs to share bowls at mealtime, and create different locations in your home where you feed each one so that they don’t feel like they need to scarf or protect the food. This will allow them to feel comfortable eating slowly, which is better for digestion.
Dogs who have unknown histories together, or who have a history of resource guarding or conflict over high-value resources like meals, should be prevented from physically accessing each other during mealtimes. Other dogs are fine eating in the same room as other dogs or pets in the home, but each should still have a specific area where their bowl gets placed at mealtime.
In addition to having designated and consistent spaces where pets go to eat, don’t be afraid to create physical boundaries between them during meals. An easy way to do this is to feed pets in different rooms of your home and close doors while they’re eating. An alternative is to use baby gates or x-pens to divide areas of your home or to feed dogs in their crates. This has the added benefit of helping to build value for crate time if you’re in the process of crate training your dog. If you also have cats, you can use your cat’s natural desire to seek heights to create a private area for them to eat, using a cat tree or your counter. This will prevent your dog from being able to reach the cat’s food while they are eating. Most animals adapt quickly to mealtime routines and will quickly start running to “their” eating area as soon as the bowls start getting filled.
Creating structured mealtimes and physical distance between your pets will usually prevent or alleviate mealtime challenges in multi-pet homes. But if you’re still seeing ongoing conflict between pets in your home, it’s a good idea to seek support from a professional trainer. Find one well-versed in positive reinforcement techniques who will observe and evaluate the interactions between your pets at mealtime and help you create personalized training plans.