What, When and How to Feed Stray Dogs: Ultimate Guide

The scrawny dog approaches you hesitantly, ready to shy away at the least hint of threat, but with hopeful eyes. Its fur is patchy, and you can count all its ribs. Yet another city stray, sick, starving, and desperate. Those soulfully begging eyes just melt your heart.

You give in and break the chocolate doughnut you’ve been snacking on to give the poor stray half.


Are you sure that’s good for a dog? Is it a good idea to feed it here, in the public playground where you take your kids? What will be the consequences of feeding this stray? Can you get in trouble with the law for feeding stray animals?

Stray dogs are a growing problem worldwide, not only in developing countries but even in First World nations.

The World Health Organization estimates a total of more than 200 million stray dogs worldwide. In the United States, about 6-8 million cats and dogs are brought to shelters each year, of which about 3 million are euthanized annually. As much as 80% of these animals were healthy and could have been given new homes through adoption.

The problem is only made worse by the dog’s incredible fecundity. It’s estimated that a single pair of dogs can breed a total of over 300 dogs over just 3 years, as within that time the earlier litters will also be breeding.

This has led to cities in some countries being overrun by packs of stray dogs. In parts of Asia and Africa, where stray dogs are major carriers of rabies, hundreds of thousands of stray dogs are culled every year.

It’s a sad end for an animal we’ve always called our species’ best friend. Dogs have been such a part of human life, over thousands of years, that they’re one of the very few animals that can understand our voices and gestures.

Even stray dogs can read and react to human gestures, and they in turn retain their domestic parents’ ability to communicate with us. That’s why even the mangiest stray still knows how to make puppy eyes.

These homeless dogs, all too many of them abandoned pets, deserve better of us. At the same time, we have to keep in mind the problems they can cause for our communities, especially for vulnerable folk like our kids and the elderly.

Feeding stray dogs by itself doesn’t solve the problem, as the animals remain on the streets. Instead, responsible feeding practices can be used as means to get strays tame enough to be captured for placing in shelters, where they can be sterilized and vaccinated, and hopefully adopted by a new family.

Nor should we feed stray dogs whatever we’re snacking on, or just dump our leftovers on them. Many of our foods are unhealthy for dogs, and feeding them messy leftovers such as bones can cause sanitation problems for the neighborhood later.

How to Feed Stray Dogs Properly

stray dog
Image credit: Canva

Before going into what you should feed a stray dog, you should first consider your safety and the needs of the neighborhood. You don’t want to cause a nuisance, or worse, create a hazard for motorists or children as a result of your compassion.

Proper means of feeding stray dogs will help reduce hazards for others and at the same time help keep the dogs from being further abused by those who want to drive them away.

In general, responsible feeding avoids encouraging behaviors that can endanger other people or the stray.  Don’t just toss food out your car window; it encourages the stray to chase cars.  Don’t sneak tidbits under the table when you’re eating at a restaurant, it encourages the stray to stay there and beg from diners.

Do use the feeding as an opportunity to identify, observe, and re-socialize the stray. Remember, the real goal is not to simply relieve the dog’s hunger; the mission, should you choose to accept it, is to get that doggy off the streets and into a new home.

Take a clear photo of the stray showing any identifying markings or collar tags, so you can report it to the community. This will help owners recover their lost pets. Observe the dog for parasites and diseases.

For example, if it has ticks, you can try feeding it food with anti-tick medicine, or spray it with tick spray while it’s eating.

Talk gently to the stray as it feeds. As it gets used to you, establish eye contact.

This gets it accustomed to being well-treated again by humans, re-establishing its trust in people and its skills at reading and communicating with people. This will help in getting it to a shelter, and from there getting it adopted. Studies have found that dogs that know how to make ‘puppy eyes’ well are much more likely to be adopted.

Once the stray trusts you enough to stay still even when you bring friends, lure it into your car or trap it so it can be brought to a shelter or veterinarian for checkup, vaccination especially against rabies, and sterilization.

Where to Feed Stray Dogs

Once you start feeding a stray dog in a certain place, you give it a reason to stay in that place and attract more strays to that spot. This could create problems of sanitation, traffic hazards, dog fights, and dog attacks. Pick a feeding spot only where the dogs will not create a hazard or nuisance.

  • Always feed the strays at the same spot, and at the same time every day. Make sure this spot is safely away from foot and vehicle traffic.
  • Try to feed the dogs in the early morning or late evening, when there are few people about.
  • Avoid feeding stray dogs anywhere that people gather, especially children or the elderly, such as parks and playgrounds.
  • Avoid feeding stray dogs by the street, as this creates a traffic hazard and can inconvenience or endanger pedestrians.
  • Avoid feeding stray dogs near others’ residences. This keeps the dogs from hanging around others’ houses, which helps avoid conflict with people and other dogs and keeps the strays from passing their diseases and parasites to house dogs.
  • Never feed stray dogs near a food store or restaurant, as this will give them sanitation problems and possibly endanger their customers. Keeping stray dogs away from such places also keeps them from being hurt by irate owners or staff.
  • If the strays hang out in a pack, observe them first and try to see where their territory ends. Feed a stray dog pack only inside its own territory if possible, to avoid starting fights between rival packs.

How to Feed Stray Dogs Safely

lost dog
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Always have your own, other people’s, and their dogs’ safety in mind when feeding a stray dog. Avoid any behavior that antagonizes a stray dog such as approaching too close. Always be aware that strays often carry pathogens and parasites that can make house dogs sick.

Learn to read canine body language:

  • Never approach a dog that is growling, particularly if it is foaming at the mouth. Growling is of course a sign of fear and aggression while foaming at the mouth is a sign of rabies. If you see a stray dog with signs of rabies, report it to the authorities immediately.
  • Avoid actions that can agitate the stray dog, such as coming too close to its food while it’s eating, trying to capture it, or startling it, as this can make it aggressive. Whenever a dog bares its teeth at you, back away.
  • Don’t try to pet a stray dog until you’re sure it trusts you. Strays can be unpredictable, as some of them are no longer used to human contact, while some are victims of abuse and may attack out of fear.
  • To avoid leaving a mess behind, always feed dogs from a bowl or other deep container. Don’t use fragile plastic or styrofoam containers the dog might destroy and scatter around as litter. Sturdy plastic or metal bowls, or old pots, are ideal as feeding dishes.
  • If the stray dog leaves some uneaten food, take it away with you. Don’t leave it behind as it will attract flies, rats, and roaches. A reasonably healthy dog will eat every crumb until it’s full. If it doesn’t, observe it well – the dog is likely sick.
  • Observe anti-Covid 19 safety measures such as wearing a mask and face shield, especially if you’ll be working with other volunteers or have to walk through a high-traffic area to get to your feeding spot.
  • Don’t take your own dog along. This keeps your dog from catching any diseases or parasites the stray may have. Also, the presence of another dog could trigger the stray’s territorial aggression, particularly if it’s part of a pack.
  • If you have a dog, make sure to wash your hands, and change clothes and footwear, after feeding stray dogs. Do not have any contact with your dog until you’ve made sure you can’t transmit any parasites from the strays to it.
  • If your dog is highly territorial or belligerent to other dogs, take a shower after you’ve fed stray dogs and change into fresh clothes, before you interact with your pet. Otherwise, your pet may mistakenly attack you or pick fights with your other pets.

What to Feed Stray Dogs

Feeding a stray dog should be an ongoing commitment if you really want to help relieve its misery. This means coming up with a feeding program that’s convenient and light on your budget, is healthy for the dog, and doesn’t cause sanitation problems for the community.

Don’t just give your leftovers!

Some ingredients in human food such as spices, chocolate, dairy products, onions, garlic, berries, and raisins are toxic or indigestible for dogs.

And while dogs absolutely love bones, we should only give them bones that won’t splinter and possibly lodge in their throats or stomachs, and we have to make sure the dogs won’t end up scattering chewed bones across the neighborhood’s streets and lawns.

Here are some recommended items for feeding stray dogs:

Dry Dog Food

Dry dog food is the most convenient and hygienic option for feeding stray dogs. Because it’s dry, you can easily buy it in bulk and keep it without spoilage, and it won’t leave a wet, odorous mess behind after the dog finishes eating. Best of all, it requires zero preparation on your part.

You will also be able to choose formulas specifically designed for the dog’s age or condition, for example, a dog that seems to be suffering diarrhea could use food designed for sensitive digestions, while a high protein food is best for growing puppies.

Some stray dogs have been living on human leftovers for so long that they may refuse dry kibble. If the stray you’re feeding won’t eat dry food, you may be able to tempt it by adding a little meat stock or some oil in which you’ve fried meat or fish to the kibble.

Another method you can try is to add some chopped jerky treats to the kibble. Make sure to chop them finely and mix them thoroughly so the dog can’t just eat the jerky alone.

If the dog won’t touch any food at all, however, chances are it’s sick and needs to be brought to a shelter or a veterinarian immediately.

Getting a stray dog used to dry dog food will also make it easier for shelters and adopters to take them in, so consider this as part of your long-term program to improve a stray’s life.

Boiled Rice, Potatoes or Sweet Potatoes

Domestic dogs have evolved to digest many of our staples, and even their ancestors the wolves have always consumed some vegetable matter. Rice, potatoes, or sweet potatoes may be cheap in your area, and these can be boiled, preferably with meat or bone stock, into nutritious soft food for dogs.

Boiled rice and chicken is the recommended diet for dogs with upset stomachs, and many strays have this condition from eating a mix of unhealthy or spoiled foods.


Dogs can digest bread, and it is safe for them in moderate quantities. If there’s a bakery on your way home, bread may be a convenient and mess-free option for you. If you feed stray dogs bread in the morning, the local birds will quickly take care of whatever crumbs the dogs miss.

However, you should not feed dogs any bakery products that contain chocolate, coffee, nuts, garlic, raisins, berries, poppy seeds, or xylitol. All these are either toxic to dogs or hard for them to digest.

Too much bread however isn’t good for a dog. It can cause stomach bloating and upsets and may give puppies diarrhea. Also, bread isn’t very nutritious for dogs. Be sure to feed them something else aside from the bread, or alternate healthier food with bread.

Bone Stock

You can purchase some bony cuts at budget prices as these aren’t in much demand. Bones can be used to make bone stock that you can boil rice, potatoes, or sweet potatoes in. The meat aroma and bits of meat in the broth will make the mix much more appealing and nutritious to dogs.

If you can feed the dogs in a place where they can bury the bones afterward, such as a vacant lot or the wooded section of a park, you can also give the bones. Otherwise, take the bones out. You don’t want the strays scattering chewed bones in public places where they can cause bad odors and become sources of bacteria that flies can transport to our food.

Organ Meats

dog food
Image credit: Canva

Do you know what part of an animal a wolf will eat first?

The internal organs – heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, and the like. They instinctively know these are the most nutrient-rich of all body parts!

Offal contains more protein, iron, vitamins, and minerals than muscle meats. The liver alone contains up to a hundred times more nutrients than muscle. Hearts contain vitamins and minerals that improve a dog’s coat. The extra iron helps relieve anemia, which many stray dogs can have due to tick-borne diseases.

Feeding stray dogs offal will help fix many of their nutritional deficiencies, which will greatly improve their health and appearance.

This in turn helps in getting them adopted. Better yet, these are often the cheapest cuts of meat at the butcher since few people like them. If you’re seriously into improving the diet of a stray dog, try giving them some offal. Boil it without seasoning until thoroughly cooked.

To deodorize stinkier offal such as tripe, add vinegar and thyme to your boiling water. Thyme is one of the herbs that dogs can consume safely, and is good for their digestion and gum health.

Boiled offal can be mixed with dry kibble, rice, potatoes, or sweet potatoes to make a highly nutritious, hearty, and appetizing meal, one that will definitely be appreciated by a stray.

Boiled Chicken Breast

A little chicken can go a long way to providing stray dogs with much-needed protein, particularly if the stray is a nursing mother. However, chicken bones are brittle and their splinters can injure dogs’ stomachs. Boil the chicken breasts without salt or flavoring and shred them finely, leaving the bones out.

Boiled Eggs

Eggs are highly nutritious food for dogs and are good sources of protein, iron, and vitamins. Dogs can eat eggs that have been fried or scrambled, but the best eggs for their digestion, especially if they haven’t been eating healthy food in a while, is boiled.

The American Kennel Club recommends a maximum of one large egg per day for a large dog. If you’re feeding a smaller breed, halve or quarter the egg. You can mash boiled egg into a portion of dry dog food to make a tasty and nutritious treat for a stray.

Boiled Fish

Fish is another excellent source of nutrition for dogs, and if you live near the coast or a lake may be quite cheap in your area. Prepare fish for dogs by boiling or frying without seasonings, and flake the meat off the bones. Fishbones can injure dogs’ stomachs. Choose budget farmed fish like tilapia.

If you live near the Great Lakes, pest fish like the Asian grass carp are ideal dog food. These fish will not only be easy on your budget, but you’ll also be doing the region a service by helping to control an invasive pest.

Avoid feeding dogs long-lived ocean fish like tuna, marlin, or swordfish, as these are not only increasingly expensive and unsustainably fished, they also concentrate mercury. And because a dog is much smaller than we are, it takes far less mercury to make them sick.

Beans, Lentils, and Chickpeas

Dogs can safely eat cooked beans, lentils, and chickpeas in moderation. These are good sources of protein and fiber. However, just like us, they can get gas from eating too much of them! Make sure to feed only beans that have been thoroughly and plainly cooked, without any seasonings.

Do not give dogs canned baked beans or chili con carne with beans, as these products often contain more sugar, onions, garlic, and spices than is good for a dog.

Don’t Forget Water

Clean, safe water is an absolute luxury for stray dogs. On the streets, strays often have to drink from gutters, rain-filled potholes, and other unsanitary sources just to stay alive. You can do much to relieve their misery by giving them a drink of good water from a clean container, especially in hot weather.

What to Feed Stray Puppies

Puppies, just like human infants, have significantly different dietary needs from adults. If your stray is still a puppy, or you’re feeding a family of strays including puppies, you’ll have to make sure you offer foods the pups can easily digest with their delicate little tummies and help them grow strong and healthy.

To determine what to feed a puppy, try to get an idea of its age. Observe its size relative to its mother, how it moves, the proportions of its head and paws to its body. Newborn and nursing pups are best helped by helping the mother lactate. Pups capable of running can eat solid food such as dry puppy food.

(Technically, the best way to tell puppy age is to examine its teeth. However this is not safe to do with a stray, so it’s better to just rely on observation.)

If you find stray puppies still being nursed by their mother, plan to feed the mother a high-protein, enriched diet that will help her regain her health and produce more milk.

Use foods labeled for pregnant and lactating dogs. These are often the same formulas used for feeding young puppies. If you can’t find food specifically for lactating dogs, you can feed the mother puppy food. You may have to feed the mother more than once a day to make sure she gets enough nutrition.

If the pups look like they still require milk but the mother can no longer nurse them, you’ll likely have to foster them yourself or get them to a shelter as soon as possible. Be very careful in approaching puppies guarded by their mother! Get help to catch and restrain the mother before collecting the pups.

Puppies that have already been weaned or are in the process of being weaned will be ready for solid foods. Feed these with dry dog foods formulated for puppies.

These foods will contain more protein and calcium to help the puppies’ growth needs and are usually enriched with additional vitamins. Again, dry foods are ideal because they leave less of a mess – and puppies are very messy eaters! Make sure the puppies get enough clean water.

When a puppy’s body proportions look identical to an adult’s, you can switch it to adult dog food.

What to Feed Aged Stray Dogs

stray dog
Image credit: Canva

You can easily recognize aged dogs by graying fur around their muzzles, cloudy eyes, lethargy, and slower movement, often with signs of pain or discomfort when forced to move. Older stray dogs in particular are much more prone to disease and will often be found already wasting away.

In general, older dogs thus need a diet with more protein, more fiber, more vitamins, and fewer calories. As dogs age, they begin developing problems, such as losing muscle mass, suffering weaker digestion, and constipation, and gaining weight. Very often aged stray dogs would benefit from wet food.

Dog foods formulated for senior dogs will contain the right balance of these nutrients and in a form designed to be easily digestible. However many older strays will also have bad teeth or gum diseases that can make dry food a problem for them, so these may prefer wet food.

If you’re making your own feed for older strays, consider adding more chicken breast, fish, eggs, or organ meats for protein, more meat stock for moisture, and more beans for fiber to the seniors’ bowls.

Make sure any whole pieces of meat are small and easy to chew. Heart muscle and tripe can be tough, so give these to the younger strays, but give the seniors the softer liver, lungs, and kidneys.

Give senior dogs smaller portions to match their appetites, and more water because they dehydrate more easily.

Is it Legal to Feed Stray Dogs?

In most countries, there is no law forbidding the feeding of stray dogs. However, in the United States municipal and county governments are free to make their own rulings on the issue. There are places where feeding itself is not banned, but occurrences related to feeding may be penalized.

For example, in Singapore, it’s not illegal to feed stray dogs, but littering is illegal. If your feeding of strays can be proven to have caused littering, you could be fined.

Check your local laws to see if feeding or related activities are banned, or if feeding strays is specifically banned in certain areas. Apartment and condominium owners may have rules against feeding strays near the premises, and since these areas are private property their rules are legally enforceable.

You should also find out at what point caring for a stray legally makes you its owner or caretaker in your locale. When this happens, by law you become liable for things such as having the stray vaccinated and sterilized, at your own expense, and you could be held responsible if the stray bites any person.

According to Paws.ph, a stray dog can be considered yours when it stays inside your property and a bond between you and the dog can be proven, such as when you’ve given it a name that it responds to when you call.

As stray dog numbers, dog attacks, and rabies cases increase worldwide, the legality of feeding strays may soon change. If you want to help homeless animals, you should check the latest laws and community resolutions to find how, when, and where you can do feed them.

Again, this reminds us that the real goal in helping stray dogs should be to get them off the streets. Feeding them is only a temporary, stopgap solution in ending their misery.

To help end the dangers of rabies, quell community conflicts over strays and feeding, and most of all to give our species’ best friend proper homes and decent lives, we should use feeding as means to get these strays vaccinated, sterilized, and adopted. 

In addition to helping feed a stray, you may want to use your influence to help stop the spread of homelessness in pets by encouraging friends and family to adopt instead of buying puppies, help connect people who need to let go of their pets with adopters directly, and encourage pet-owning friends who haven’t had their dogs spayed yet to do so.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The Pet Rescue.

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