Food is one of the most basic needs of all living creatures. The struggle to find enough food to survive is one of the main preoccupations for many animals, and indeed many humans.
In the wealthy West, with our richly stocked supermarkets, it’s easy to take food for granted. However the strong instincts that we have inherited from our forebears ensure that eating food remains very high on our list of important activities. Most of our big social celebrations are centred on food. A slap-up meal in a restaurant to celebrate a big occasion is probably the best example. Even on a daily basis, the family meal is often one of the most important times of the day, when everybody sits down together, shares food, and communicates.
Social hierarchies are important around food
Eating is an equally important activity for animals, and many of the rules that govern animal society are affected by food. Mealtimes are one of the most obvious examples of the importance of the social orders. The more privileged are allowed to choose the best selection of food, finally backing off when they have satisfied their appetite. The shy individuals who are most submissive are the last to eat, foraging for the scraps that have been left behind.
Mealtime is also an occasion that is used as a battleground to sort out the boundaries in a home with multiple animals. In a well adjusted household, several dogs may eat peacefully with no noticeable interaction. However, if there are two dogs competing with each other, it can get complicated. Fights may break out as one dog pushes the other out of the way. Some owners need to deliberately feed their dogs in different rooms, since conflict over food can lead to serious fighting.
As food-controllers, humans occupy a powerful position
Human owners control the food supply for their pet animals, and this gives them a massive social advantage. The food-provider is a very important individual. Many aspects of dog training are assisted by the provision of food rewards when the correct behaviour is carried out.
If their food supply is threatened, dogs can react aggressively
Dogs can be very defensive of their food. Some of the worst bites inflicted by dogs on children take place around food, when the dog perceives that the child is interfering with their food supply.
Is it ever acceptable to have dogs eating at the human table?
Strict rules at feeding time are fine in theory, but in reality, many people break all the rules and do not have problems. In France, many people bring their dogs with them to restaurants. It is common for a small dog to be allowed to sit on their owner’s knee, being fed morsels of food from the plate. I have even seen a dining place being set for a dog in a restaurant, so that it can eat its own meal directly beside its owner. Our own culture would never allow this in public, but I am sure that some people quietly allow their dogs to eat at the table in the privacy of their own homes.
And finally, breakfast with a parrot?
A friend of mine, Paul, has an African Grey parrot called Geordie. The parrot has his own cage, but he spends most of the time free-flying around the home. Food is very important to Geordie, and he often attempts to join in when the humans in the house are eating. Paul is generally strict at meal times, confining the parrot to his cage so that the humans can eat in peace. However, breakfast is often the exception. A bowlful of muesli is equally suitable for human and parrot, and Geordie often picks out his favourite morsels from Paul’s bowl. This level of food sharing cannot be recommended from a hygienic point of view, but from a social perspective, Geordie wouldn’t have it any other way.