Feeding Fussy Fido. How to fix your dog’s selective or picky eating habits! (Part 1)
You know the drill – you set out a bowl of the healthiest and most delicious pet food (or so you think!) 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.
I know how heart-breaking it is to try every possible way to feed your 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 Fido doesn’t seem impressed. I feel your pain!
Every parent wants their kids to eat well and stay happy and healthy. It naturally becomes 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 facets. Different dogs are differently selective about different things they eat. So it could be a bit tricky to address your dog’s picky eating habits, and may often times require more than one or several attempts and different ways to fix them. Almost all fussy eaters can be conditioned to eat normally, but it requires exemplary patience and dedication (and a little strict parenting) from your end.
First of all, it’s important to understand if your dog is a fussy 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, I trust 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. And 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 skill.
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 domesticated. This inherent scavenging behaviour 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 this 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], 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 food in the hopes of getting a high value food item.
Why do dogs turn picky?
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.
Medical – 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 before giving up on food 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.
Behavioral – 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. I have met parents who have like 15 different brands of dog food in their home now, because their dog stops eating the current brand every 3-4 weeks.
Some dogs won’t eat until hand-fed. I have met dogs who would want you to chase them 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, as 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 dog 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.
Physiological – If your dog eats very less or eats rarely, it could just mean he’s not that hungry. A dog’s daily calorific 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 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 sized or large dogs. Smaller dogs have relatively less calorific requirements 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.
Busting some myths around fussy eating
Dogs get bored of their food after a while and need variety. Wrong! Dogs love consistency. Not only their body responds better to a consistent nutritional mix, they also like the routine of eating the same food over and over again. Like humans, most dogs have preferences. Like some may prefer Pizza over Pasta (or the equivalent of it in the dawgie culinary world!). But for dogs, they can eat their favorite Pizza (equivalent of) every day for the rest of their lives, and unlike us humans, don’t crave for a variety.
Fussy eaters can’t be fixed. Wrong! While fussy eaters (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.
Changing a dog’s diet frequently prevents him from becoming fussy. Wrong! Not only his digestive system has to bear the consequences of the often changing nutritional mix of the diet, you also give your dog 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.
If you’ve read so far, you obviously have questions about how to fix your picky eater. We will cover the do’s and don’ts and some simple steps to condition your fussy dog into eating his regular meals in Part 2 of this blog. Stay tuned for it! (You can follow our Facebook page to stay updated with all the blogs I publish or come back and check our blogs page)
UPDATE: Part 2 is out now! Read here.
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