Adjusting pet feeding times, the low stress approach

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved

In most of the United States, a Sunday in the fall or spring is usually the beginning or end of daylight savings time. This mechanism for bringing more light to farmers and children waiting at rural bus stops can leave city dwellers off to work and back in the dark. Daylight savings time means scheduled activities are set back one full hour in autumn or forward one full hour in spring, including the set times we may feed our pets. This change may be upsetting to companion animals that are aware only of a sudden shift in feeding times, especially when they have to wait for that unexpected extra hour.

The disruption in schedule will no doubt stress your animals and pets, most notably some dogs and most cats, will actively “petition” for meals at their “normal” hour. Changes in regime including daylight savings time which makes days start even later at that time of year, can leave pets happy breakfast and dinner are served earlier and stressed that food is not on offer when expected in the fall. And while, our dogs may not be as vocal when stressed, cat owners know that kitty complaining can reach new heights when food does not arrive on time. People tell me those plaintive meows can make them crazy, well how do you think kitty feels about all of this? When our customary routines are adjusted it affects the routines and the expectations of the pets in our lives as well.

There are a number of things to pay attention to here, with the number one being the issue of choice and control. As much as we love our companion animals we most definitely deprive them of much of the choice and control over the resources in their lives when to eat, what to eat, where to eliminate, in what, when it’s cleaned, when to go out, when not to, what to do, what not to do and with what, what to play with and who, where to sleep and on what and who, the list goes on and on. Being deprived of choice and control is inherently stressful for all animals and with a resource so integral to survival such as food, the stress is greatly amplified.

All animals have internal or biological clocks and are subject to circadian rhythms which relate to light and dark cycles in their environment and impact behavioral, cognitive and physical changes in the animal. Our pets do adapt to our waking and sleeping patterns if we maintain them in our environments. A 2013 study which compared nighttime behaviors of cats housed indoors with cats let out for the evening (9 pm - 8 am) found that the indoor cats had established activity patterns of rest and sleep which were in concert with their humans, the outdoor cats were, you guessed it—mainly active at night. Another note on circadian rhythms worth mentioning is that they are not a strict 24 hour time span this rhythm ranges with species and individuals from 23.5 hours to 24.5 hours more or less. Mechanical time clocks which measure out an exact span of hours may not be keeping time with an actual day set by circadian and biological time keeping. Along with the anticipation of looking forward to the event, (which is also a documented factor influencing the cat’s behavior) this time discrepancy may help us in understanding why some of our pets may always be on the “earlier” side when it comes to reminding us of mealtimes. It certainly goes to explaining why daylight savings time is a huge interruption in schedules.

Cats and dogs are crepuscular animals, which means they are naturally most active during twilight or dawn and dusk compared to humans who are diurnal, meaning most active during daylight hours. Domesticated animals being dependent upon us for food become accustomed to our diurnal routines. We feed according to our own patterns of when breakfast and dinner should be. Dogs being famously more obliging usually appear less put off by timing changes. While the change may be vexing for them the accommodation for their humans is usually more apparent. Why felines are more affected by waiting for a meal may be due to a number of factors. During the history of our domestication of the cat we have depended on this animal to partly procure its own food whether for utility, nourishment or for its own sport. Cats are focused predators with superior hunting skills. Cats hunt for mice to "help" us alleviate a rodent “problem”, for a meal or for the fun of it.

Foraging and/or hunting account for a significant portion of how wild animals spend their time, leaving our pets with a whole lot of free time with little to fill it save for what we provide. To offset boredom and provide for the opportunity for your cat or dog to indulge those natural foraging behaviors, feeding either the morning, evening meal or both with a puzzle feeder can be intrinsically satisfying, from the time spent and appeal of the chewing dogs love and need to do to and finding yummy kibble and treats in a Kong to the joy of the "hunt" when kitty bats delicious kibble piece by delectable piece from a rolling feeder to giving your pet that something to do that solves problem, provides control over objects in their environment and adds to your pet's overall well being.

Along with puzzle feeders, keep routine times to feed pets, especially when those times are complimentary with what the animals might choose for themselves, offer the best possible food for satisfaction (if your pet won't eat their food, chances are they don't like the taste), this too can help to lessen other stresses surrounding feeding times. For cats and dogs this means looking at their crepuscular nature, being most active before dusk and dawn (probably when the best hunting is). Remember, while dogs are omnivores, like us, cats are “obligate carnivores” so feed the best possible meat based diet, no vegetarian formulas and do feed early in the morning and early in the evening to translate to the best feeding times for feline and canine natures.

Focus and anticipation carry over to meal time expectations. When observing stereotypic behavior in captive tigers (an indicator of poor welfare) pacing prior to meal times is not classified as being stereotypic rather as “anticipatory.” This behavior is also apparent in the intertwining anticipatory dance your own cat may do while you open food cans or fill kibble bowls and when your puppy may nudge or carry that food bowl towards you.

Now if you are leaving dry food down for your cat or dog at all times ("ad libitum" or free), your pet and yourself can be blissfully oblivious to the whole spring forward fall back routine. For free feeders, do raise the enrichment factor and give your pet more to do by feeding with a puzzle feeder (for all meals and not just treats). For the rest of us it will soon become apparent that your cat just did not get the memo about daylight savings time. Depending on whatever hour kitty expects breakfast expect a reminder at the pre-daylight savings time hour, you know the reminders: the pat on the cheek, the plaintive cry, the books toppling off the bookshelf.

Ease yourself and your pets into this new routine by adjusting feeding times gradually. For instance, depending on whether you have lost or gained an hour begin with the same time minus the time change to make your adjustment. So, if dinner is usually served at 6 PM start serving at 5:15 PM for two days followed by two days at 5:30 PM then serve two days at 5:45 PM and finally at 6 PM. A breakfast feeding at 7 AM can be adjusted by serving two days at 6:15 AM then two days at 6:30 AM followed by two days at 6:45 AM until you are serving at 7 AM. (Sounds overwhelming? Consider using an automated feeder to help you with the time transition but please do phase it out for the much preferred puzzle feeder for needed enrichment and maximum pet satisfaction during feedings.)

A little flexibility for your pets in when you are serving and scheduling mealtimes during this transition will make the change less nerve-racking for your pets and less demanding for you.


Piccione, G., Marafioti, S., Giannetto, Panzera, M., Fazio, F. (2013) Daily rythm of total activity patterns in domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) maintained in two different housing conditions. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. Published online January 7, 2013.

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