Food and water dishes
There are many different types of food and water dishes on the market. Just like with pet foods, there is no one-size-fits-all food dish. Choosing a food dish that works best for you and your pet is very important, but can be difficult due to all the options available. You’ll want to consider the material the dish is made of, as well as the design of the dish.
Studies show that pet food dishes are significant reservoirs for bacteria. They are the third dirtiest objects in the home, after kitchen sponges and toothbrush holders! Pet bowls can harbor pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria as well as zoonotic bacteria (transmissible from animal to human). Visit Raw diets for information on why this is important for both pet and human health.
The material from which the bowl is made can influence the types of bacteria that like to grow on its surface. In addition, a pet’s diet will have a major impact on the bacteria found in both their food and water dishes. The length of time between cleanings, as well as the cleaning method, also influence the bacteria found on the dish.
It is important to note that while studies suggest different materials are “better” for inhibiting bacterial growth, the numbers are not truly statistically significant. This means that all pet dishes are reservoirs for bacteria, regardless of what they’re made of. Additionally, studies show it’s nearly impossible to clean all bacteria from a pet dish using conventional methods – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the best you can! Regardless of material, all pet food dishes should be washed with soap and water daily. They should be scrubbed free of any debris and then soaked in a diluted bleach bath once weekly.
Studies suggest that due to the charge on the metal, bacteria are attracted to stainless steel’s surface. However, the bacteria do not grow very well on the material. One of the great things about stainless steel is that it’s easy to clean: it can go in the dishwasher, and it holds up well to disinfectants. Be sure to use the proper dilutions of disinfectants, however, as undiluted bleach and other chemicals can damage the metal.
Plastic is often a poor choice for pet dishes: it wears and scratches easily, and those small imperfections contribute significantly to bacterial adhesion and provide a great growing environment. Plastic dishes are not recommended for cats, as the bacteria present in the dish can contribute to feline chin acne. Plastic dishes are difficult to clean properly, and they may not be able to go in the dishwasher.
Studies suggest that ceramic dishes have lower bacterial adhesion and may actually reduce bacterial growth, compared to plastic and stainless steel. Ceramic is easy to clean and can go in the dishwasher. However, it is breakable, and chips or cracks in the ceramic provide bacteria with a favorable growing environment. If a ceramic pet dish is broken or chipped, it should be replaced.
Copper & brass
These metals may have antimicrobial properties, as suggested in some studies. However, there are no “real life” studies that relate these properties to pet dishes specifically. These metals may be similar to stainless steel in that they are easy to clean, though undiluted chemicals will similarly harm copper and brass.
Automatic food dispensers typically have a reservoir of food, and dispense a specific amount of food at a certain time of day. These feeders are great for pets who need to be fed when their owner is not home. They can also be good for controlled feeding and remove the human error from measuring pet food. The feeders that weigh the food in grams are more accurate than those that measure the food in cups.
Unfortunately, the reservoirs on most automatic feeders do not preserve the food very well (visit Food storage for more information). Another downside to these feeders is that they usually need to be plugged in. They may also be difficult to clean, as most are made of plastic.
Elevated feeding stations can be great for pets with esophageal conditions, such as megaesophagus or GERD (see Vomiting and regurgitation for more information). However, for most other pets, elevated dishes should be avoided, as they are a risk factor for GDV, also known as bloat (see Canine bloat for more information).
Feeders with a microchip or RFID tag reader have a door over the dish portion which opens when the chip/tag is close by. These types of feeders are great for multi-pet households, especially those where one pet needs a special diet, like a therapeutic diet.
These feeders may need to be plugged in. They also may be difficult to clean, depending on the material and structure.
Puzzle feeders can be great for slowing the eating behavior of pets who gorge on their food (see Food gorging for more information). They are also a good choice for pets who are prone to GDV.
Most puzzle bowls are made of plastic, and they may be difficult to clean due to their design. These dishes may or may not be dishwasher safe.
Water fountains usually have a reservoir at the bottom, with a mechanism that pulls water upward so it can flow down in a stream or waterfall motion. These waterers can be great for cats, especially those who are picky or those who drink a lot due to a health condition (e.g., kidney disease).
Unfortunately, the water reservoir can harbor bacteria and debris, and the fountain may be difficult to clean due to its many parts. Another downside is that these waterers need to be plugged in.
Gravity waterers work in a passive motion: water is pulled downward into a dish from an upright reservoir when the dish level gets low. These waterers do not require electricity to work. They can be great for pets who drink a lot, or for multi-pet households. It is easier to assess water intake with a gravity waterer than with a fountain, because you can see the water level in the reservoir fall.
Like with the water fountain, the reservoir can harbor bacteria. These waterers may also be difficult to clean, as many are made of plastic.
Dr. Justine Lee: “Can cats get acne? What to do about feline acne, from a veterinarian.”
Dr. Justine Lee: “Should you get an automatic pet feeder for your dog or cat?”
Dr. Justine Lee: “Why this veterinarian loves the SureFlap microchip feeder SureFeed”
Tufts University: “Puzzle Feeders for Cats: Dogs Shouldn’t Have All the Fun!”
Donofrio RS et al. (2012). Are We Aware of Microbial Hotspots in Our Household?
Lambertini E et al. (2015). Transmission of Bacterial Zoonotic Pathogens Between Pets and Humans: The Role of Pet Food.