The social importance of meal times – for pets and people

begging dog

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?

meal begging dogStrict 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.

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2 thoughts on “The social importance of meal times – for pets and people

  1. My Husky (12yrs) suddenly stopped eating! Full dental clean and full blood tests all clear. This is the third week (weight 30.1kg) increased after having liquidized food and being physically fed by hand to mouth! Getting to the point of despair! Tried the following too :
    30 min rule, putting food down and taking it away, at present on day 2 and still refusing!! Drinking water etc and urinating well, no discomfort in any area! Any advice would be gratefully welcome!

    1. Hi Christopher. It can be incredibly hard when pets go off their food, especially when they’ve been given a clean bill of health by your vet as then it’s difficult to understand the reason why. It would be worth contacting your vet again to check there’s nothing else they’d recommend in terms of tests, just to make sure it’s not being caused by a medical condition. To try and encourage eating, there are a few things you can try. Firstly, think about the diet. Has it changed recently? Is your Husky passing normal stools, or has there been any diarrhoea? This may indicate some kind of dietary intolerance. You can try changing diets to find something your Husky is more tempted by if there haven’t been any changes, but if you do this, do so gradually over 7-10 days, by mixing the old diet with new and gradually reducing the amount of old diet and increasing the new – this helps to prevent tummy upsets. You can also try offering food little and often, and at room temperature (animals don’t like to eat cold food, and with the colder weather, some food can be quite cool even out of the packet or tin). You can also try warming the food to bring out the smell – if it’s meat, it can be warmed briefly in the microwave, or if it’s biscuits, you can add a little warm water which then helps to create a ‘gravy’ and makes the food sometimes smell more appealing. Think about the food bowl you’re using – is this different? Maybe your Husky doesn’t like the material it’s made of? You could also try raising the food bowl – some older animals who may be becoming a bit arthritic can find it uncomfortable to bend down to their bowl. You can also try using food-dispensing toys to make feeding time more fun – there’s a huge range out there, and an intelligent dog like a Husky will probably really relish the opportunity to work for their food. We hope this helps, but do also have a further chat to your vet practice who will be able to offer more personal advice based on your dog’s history.

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