When I work with someone to help them get their dog thriving, one of the things we always talk about is fasting. Initially, many people are a bit hesitant about fasting their dogs. They say things like, “I don’t think my dogs would be OK with only eating once per day–and definitely not with skipping a day!” Or they tell me that they would feel bad not feeding their dogs every day. But as we talk about it, many of them become more open to the idea. And that’s all to the good, because once we’ve completed the transition to a balanced, varied, species-appropriate raw food diet and their dog has gone through the healing response, fasting is an important tool that they can use to keep their dog balanced and thriving at an optimal level.
Why should I fast my dog?
Why do I want people to consider fasting their dogs? Fasting reduces inflammation and is a form of healing. Fasting, which is done by animals in the wild, gives the body a break from the duties of digestion. Our dogs evolved to eat large meals intermittently, and it is that intermittent fasting that gives their digestive system a chance to rest and heal. One analogy that illustrates the importance of fasting is to think about how you would feel if you had to work all day, every day, for months at a time without any vacation or time off on the weekends. Eventually, you would get burned out and irritable. Your productivity would go down, wouldn’t be able to focus very well, and you would get stressed out and sick. When the digestive system—whether it is ours or our pets—is asked to work constantly without a break, the same thing happens. Fasting provides a “vacation” for the digestive system. When the body is digesting, it must use energy that could otherwise go towards healing (such as reducing inflammation)—it cannot heal and digest at the same time. Intermittent fasting also improves the immune system (which is vital in maintaining optimal health) by reducing free radical damage and reducing cancer cell formation. In the wild, animals that are sick will fast, sometimes for days, to give their bodies a chance to come back into balance and reduce stress on their internal systems.
How do I do it?
When it comes to how often you should fast your healthy, raw-fed dog, you have lots of options (by the way, I only discuss fasting with people who have healthy, raw-fed dogs–not dogs that are fed a processed-food diet). You will have to experiment to find what is best for you and your pet, but I can share several different models for you as a starting point. If you currently feed your dog twice per day, start by reducing the amount to once per day (feed them the same amount in one meal instead of two). You may notice a healing response, or detox, when you do this. Your dog may vomit or experience some diarrhea. Let everything settle down and even out again before you change the feeding frequency again.
Once everything is back to normal, you may decide to feed your dog every other day (this is what I typically do with my own dogs). On some occasions, you may decide to fast your dog for two days in a row (I recently did this when my pack had an extra-large meal). Or, you may decide to allow them to eat as much as they want at mealtime, and then fast them until their bellies are back to normal size. You may decide to fast them one day per week. Or, you may decide to feed them every day for a few months, and then fast them for a number of days in a row (generally not more than two). There are lots of ways to fast, and as I said, you should experiment until you find something that works for you and your dog.
Will my dog be able to adjust to fasting?
Dogs generally adapt quickly to fasting; it is, after all, a more natural way for them to eat. It only took a few days for my dogs to get used to it, and now they only get excited to eat when I actually start pulling the food out and they see that mealtime is really going to happen. I know an agility trainer who fasts her raw-fed dogs intermittently, and she once told me that sometimes she briefly forgets to feed her dogs at their normal mealtime because they are so calm about meals. Her dogs (Border Collies) have lots of energy (they have won lots of agility competitions, and they are also titled in K9 Nosework), but mealtime doesn’t cause any stress in them, because they are used to fasting intermittently and because they eat at different times in the day.
What about exercising?
If you decide to fast your dog, you may want to avoid exercising him or her intensely on their fast days, especially if they’re detoxing or seem tired. You may find that a gentle walk on the fast day is perfect. Or, you may find that your dog actually has more energy on fast days (mine do), and you may decide to let them run around and burn off energy. Keep an eye on your dog, and let them guide you in what they need.