Feeding A Fussy Dog: The Ultimate Guide to Fixing your Pet’s Selective or Picky Eating Habits
You know the drill – you set out a bowl of the most appetizing pet food in front of your pooch and instead of digging in it joyfully with tongue and teeth, he sniffs it, licks it a little maybe, gives you that disappointed shrug and walks away. And that repeats bowl after bowl, and meal after meal.
We understanding how heartbreaking it is to try everything possible to feed your picky dog and still fail. You try hand-feeding the food, topping it up with treats or a little hooman-food to make it more acceptable, even pretend to eat and like the food yourself in the hopes that your dog would reciprocate. But your dog doesn’t seem impressed. We feel your pain!
Every parent wants their kids to eat well, and stay happy and healthy. Naturally, it’s a huge cause of concern if your dog turns out to be a picky eater, or turns into one.
Fussy or selective eating may have many different forms. Different dogs are differently selective about the things they eat. Hence, it could be a bit tricky to address your dog’s picky eating habits. And it may often time require more than one or several attempts and different ways to fix them. Almost all picky dogs can be conditioned to eat normally, but it requires exemplary patience and dedication (and some tough parenting) from your end.
Types of Picky or Selective Eating Behavior in Dogs
First of all, it’s important to understand if your dog is a picky eater or is just selective about what he eats. Some dogs may like to eat some foods but not others. And that’s normal, except if the only things he likes to eat are unhealthy. It’s just different personalities with different preferences, like hoomans. However, if your pup often gets “bored” of his food after a few days or refuses to eat what he loved until last week, we may have a problem. If your pup is a growing one and is starting to reject only certain food items, he may be developing a taste against them. If you’ve had the dog in your family for a while, we feel you understand the pattern by now.
Picky dogs are often characterized by heaps of food always lying in their bowls, from one meal to the next. Their parents are often characterized by heaps of different brands of pet foods stashed in the house, and internet search history like “my dog won’t eat”, “how to feed my fussy dog”, “how to convince my dog to eat”, etc.
Please note that if your dog has only recently become fussy about his food, or has shown a sudden loss of appetite, it could be a sign of illness. Please take your dog for a veterinary check-up immediately.
Dogs are NOT born Picky. It’s an Acquired Trait!
Let’s begin by getting this straight, no dog is fussy by birth. Dogs are opportunistic hunters by nature. This means they scavenge food when given the opportunity. That’s how wild dogs became domesticated – it was easy to find food among hoomans, and over time they became less and less wary of us until eventually, they became our best friend. This inherent scavenging behavior continues and is still strong in all healthy dogs today.
However, man’s company has taught them a thing or two. A domesticated dog knows that he’ll never run out of food. Even if he skips a meal, he’ll get the next one. And if he doesn’t eat this one, he has a better chance of getting something he enjoys even more. And that is what happens really, doesn’t it?
When your dog refuses to eat his usual meal [low-value meal – according to your dog], you replace it with chicken or eggs (or something else that he loves) [high value]. If he refuses to eat that, you replace it with something more tempting (pour a little gravy on it, or sprinkle some treats on it) [higher value]. Most dogs understand these relative high and low values very well. No dog would starve himself, but he can very well skip a low-value meal or two in the hopes of getting a high-value food item.
Why do Dogs turn Picky or Selective about their Food?
Depending on what the exact pattern of your dog’s selective eating habit is, there could be several reasons driving his fussy nature. Let’s look at some of the probable causes, starting from the least likely to the most commonly observed ones.
When a dog won’t eat, the condition is called anorexia. If your dog refuses to eat at all or eats only very minute quantities and is rapidly losing body condition (symptoms of starving), there could be medical reasons responsible for it. A blockage somewhere in the gastrointestinal tract or an ulcer somewhere in the mouth or stomach, or even a kidney or liver malfunction could be stopping your dog from eating. A thorough check-up with your vet can help identify the exact cause.
If your dog has only temporarily stopped eating, it may not necessarily be one of these causes, but you may still want to check with a vet for any possible infections, inflammations or illness.
Elder dogs may have trouble with eating food that’s too hard to chew or swallow. Sometimes a broken or loose tooth, severe gingivitis and an oral tumor could also stop the dog from eating.
ALSO READ: Pet Oral Hygiene & Dental Health Guide
If your dog prefers some food items over others or only eats when hand-fed, his problem may be behavioral, and not medical. Such dogs will often only eat the chicken, or eggs or their favorite food and leave behind all the veggies or rice or anything they don’t like. Often it’s the high-value food versus the low-value food conundrum. Some of these dogs may refuse to eat the high-value foods after some time because they would have found another higher value item. We’ve met pet parents who have 10-15 different brands of dog food in their home now because their dog would quit eating them every 3-4 weeks.
Some dogs won’t eat until hand-fed. We’ve come across dogs who would want to be chased for hours before they’d finish their meal and some others who would only eat when someone puts a morsel in their mouth. Otherwise, they’d just pass.
Both of these situations are dangerous. One day you’d just run out of options for new food to feed your dog. And your dog will starve to death if you’re not around to feed him. It’s important that your pet eats what he’s fed and eats it on his own. Pampering is necessary and important, but parenting should always win.
If it’s a puppy you’re dealing with, sometimes they don’t even know what to do with that food. How many times have you seen him more interested in the bowl than the food that’s in it?! In such situations, you might have to take a morsel and put it in his mouth the first time to get him hooked to the taste. He should start eating on his own thereafter. But do not repeat or continue the hand-feeding for long, else he’ll get used to it.
If your dog eats very less or eats rarely, it could just mean he has a small appetite. A dog’s daily caloric requirement is based on his size, his activity, and exercise. If your dog does not exert himself much throughout the day, he’ll have a low metabolism rate and he’ll feel less hungry. And if he’s offered treats to motivate him throughout the day, he’ll have enough calories by the end to keep him running without food.
This is the reason why we see more small dogs showing fussy behavior than medium or large dogs. Smaller dogs need relatively fewer calories throughout the day and can derive enough energy to sustain stubbornness even from the small morsels of food they taste, or the treats they’ve conned you into.
Common Myths about Picky Eating Habits in Dogs
- Dogs get bored with their food after a while and need variety.
Wrong! Dogs love consistency. Not only their body responds better to a consistent nutritional mix, but they also like the routine of eating the same food over and over again. Like humans, most dogs have preferences. For instance, some may prefer fish over chicken. But dogs can eat their favorite food every day for the rest of their lives, and unlike us humans, don’t crave for variety.
- Fussy dogs can’t be fixed.
Wrong! While picky dogs (particularly the behavioral type) demand time and patience to fix, they can certainly be conditioned with time to eat like normal dogs. Fixing stubborn little brats is not easy, but we know it’s for their greater good. If you’re used to eating junk food for a better part of your life, switching to a salad diet may be difficult, but we know it’s the right choice for us. It’s the same for our pets!
- Changing a dog’s diet frequently prevents him from becoming fussy.
Wrong! If anything, it aggravates the problem! Not only his body has to bear the consequences of the often changing nutritional mix of the diet, but your dog also gets more options to choose a high-value food item from. While variety may be the spice of life, your dog (and you) may not enjoy it so much after all.
How NOT to Fix Fussy Dogs?
DO NOT Succumb to your Dog’s Alpha Game
We know how it feels when your pooch looks down at his bowl and snubs at you with dismayed eyes. But don’t fall for it, that’s his alpha game. He wants you to feel sorry for him, and guilty for feeding him that dog-forsaken thing for food. He wants you to feed him his favorite treat instead. But hey, those puppy eyes are a trap!
DO NOT Bribe your Pet with Treats
Do not incentivize your dog to eat his food by topping it up with treats or hooman-food. The food itself should be an incentive for his good behavior. You both know that he’s only going to meticulously eat the treats off and leave the food behind. If that really worked, Popeye wouldn’t have to go through the troubles to make the kids eat Spinach. He’d just sprinkle some Butter Chicken gravy over it and wham!
Bribing him with treats is perceived by the dog as a reward for not eating his food. These treats are often loaded with MSG and other synthetic flavors which only make things worse. Once your dog gets addicted to their taste, it’s extremely difficult for him to switch to anything else.
DO NOT Hand-Feed your Dog
You don’t want your kids to be dependent on you forever, do you? Ideally, the dog should be made to earn every meal. Food should come as a reward for being a good dog. That’s how the wild works, you either work to get your food, or you starve and become food for others.
In our homes, it’s enough that he’s getting the meal without having to scavenge for it. Feeding it by your hands will not only make the dog heavily dependent on you but may also give birth to a hundred other behavioral issues. We complete support pampering your furry baby, but only once he’s finished his meals on his own. Let your attention be a reward for his good behavior, not a reinforcement to his disobedience.
How to Fix a Picky Dog – The Correct Way!
The first and the most important thing you need in order to fix your picky dog is Commitment.
When you start, there is a chance that your dog may not eat on the first few attempts. He may go hungry for an entire day or even two. There are a ton of things you can try, but they’ll all fall apart if you cave in at the end of the day and feed him his favorite high-value food or top it up with treats to convince him to eat.
It’s important to understand that the dog will never let himself starve. He may go on a hunger strike initially, but eventually – he’ll eat whatever is available. While none of us pet parents want to see our pets like this – a dog can easily survive for many days without food (even with moderate daily exercise). The smaller and lazier the dog, the longer your dog could take to start eating. But once he’s really hungry, he’ll come around and eat.
While this may sound cruel and inhumane, it’s the right thing to do. We’ll ensure all along that your dog has ample opportunities to eat and doesn’t have to starve, but he’ll have to come the distance. The only difficult part of this exercise will be to convince yourself and the family, that this is for their greater good. It’s also the most difficult part! You will have to be a tough parent and stay firm against his stubbornness. If you stay strong, eventually and gradually your kid will eat!
Once you’ve ruled out the medical causes, you can work on addressing the behavioral and physiological causes. Here are the steps involved:
- Start by breaking out your dog’s daily diet in 4-5 smaller meals, one every 3-4 hours. Also make sure the food is served warm, at least at room temperature. Chilled or frozen foods slow down your dog’s metabolism – making them feel less hungry.
- Offer each meal in his bowl and leave him alone with the food for exactly 20 minutes. Giving your dog personal space while he’s eating is very important. Sometimes dogs feel threatened, distracted or just shy to eat in front of other people. Even we don’t like the paparazzi beaming into our dinner plates at weddings, do we?
- When you return after 20 minutes, remove the bowl whether or not your dog has finished his food. If he has eaten only partially, remove whatever is left over. Make sure he doesn’t get any food until the next meal (after 3 hours, or the next morning if this was the last meal of the day).
- Offer nothing else apart from his food – no treats, no fruits, nothing else edible. Do not give too much attention either. Your dog will start using hunger strikes as a way to get your attention.
Your pet needs to register that this is the only food he’ll get and it will not remain forever if he doesn’t eat it in time. He won’t take long to understand that he has just 20 minutes to finish his meals. Feeding every 3-4 hours will ensure that he doesn’t starve for too long. He’ll have the opportunity to eat every few hours, provided he eats his meals without fuss.
Every time he finishes his meal in full, pet him, call him a good boy – do whatever you do to appreciate him. If he doesn’t eat or doesn’t finish in full, don’t react. Don’t rebuke him, don’t scream at him and definitely don’t pamper him or convince (read: beg) him to eat. Just don’t give him any attention if he doesn’t eat in time (Yes, your dog can read your facial expressions and emotions.) He will soon realize that the best and only way to get your attention is to finish his meal in full. Love > Obstinacy, after all.
Consequently, you should also increase your dog’s daily exercise. Take him out for long walks at least twice a day, engage in physical games and make your puppy spend his energy. Something as simple as climbing a flight of stairs up and down a few times a day is a great exercise for smaller dogs. For medium to larger sized dogs, take them out to the terrace or the park across your street.
When dogs go on hunger strikes, they try to conserve energy as much as possible. When pets don’t eat, we often see them sitting quietly in a corner, not jumping around, not being their usual self. Not to mention, the looks they’d give you all the time – like you’re the cruelest thing ever! But don’t fall for it. Not only they’re exploiting your guilt, but they’re also shutting down their metabolism to survive the strike for longer. The quickest way to break their fast is to exercise your pet. The more your dog exerts himself, the hungrier he feels, and the sooner he’ll start eating.
Sometimes, putting your dog in the company of another similar sized dog who is not a picky eater also works. Dogs will eat their food immediately (even low-value food) if they see it under a threat from another dog. However, try this only when you understand both the dogs and the chemistry between them, lest you might find yourself in the middle of a dogfight.
What’s the Best Food to Feed a Picky Dog?
It’s a common misconception that dogs do not have a sense of taste. It’s true that dogs have only 1/6th the number of taste buds as that of a human, but most of what we taste is actually taste and smell combined. And since dogs have one the best sense of smell in the animal kingdom, our estimate is that dogs can taste stuff very well. Based on their taste-bud pattern, there are 6 main tastes that a dog identifies: Sweet, savory, sour, bitter, the taste of meat (favorite!) and one other (a taste that’s still unknown to man).
However, it’s recommended that you pick a food that’s closest to their ancestral diet and is predominantly meat based. Dogs need a diet that’s rich in animal proteins and fats. The fat makes the food more palatable and acceptable for dogs and helps their skin and coat too.
ALSO READ: How to Pick the Right Food for Your Pet
Since you’re conditioning them to eat only one kind of food over time, it’s important that the food delivers all important nutrients including vitamins and minerals necessary for correct growth at his life stage. When he begins to eat without a fuss, he’s trusting you with his food. Make sure you choose his food carefully. Steer clear of packaged pet foods that are mostly loaded with questionable ingredients and synthetic additives. Like all responsible parents, go natural. Feed real. DawgieBowl offers delicious, healthy meal plans for all life stages of your pet dog.
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