When Rusty was a puppy, he was far from picky when it came to eating. He’d leap in the air as Jay approached him with a bowl of food. “One of the first things I taught him, purely for my own benefit, was to sit and wait while I gave him his food,” says Jay. “It saved me from cleaning up a lot of spills after he ambushed me to get at the bowl.”
But one day, the two-year-old border collie became much less enthused about mealtime. “When I put down the bowl, he just sniffed at it and walked away. He’d wait all day to eat his breakfast. Many days, breakfast became dinner. Suddenly he seemed really picky about his food.”
Jay switched Rusty’s diet, thinking he needed a change. That sparked some renewed interest, but Rusty soon bypassed that food too. Next they made a trip to the vet where the dog was declared to be in perfect health. “Rusty was fine, no health or weight problems. That was good news, but it still seemed wrong, a dog who’d go all day without eating.”
After further discussion with the vet, Jay realized he was overfeeding Rusty and began offering less food. He also took away any untouched food, rather than leaving it out all day in the hopes Rusty would eat it. “He’s still not a big eater, but with a smaller dinner the night before, he eats his breakfast more often now.”
If your own dog is acting picky, follow these four steps to solving the problem.
1. Get a clean bill of health
Whenever your dog exhibits a prolonged change in appetite – either eating more or less than usual – your first step is to rule out illness, parasites or other medical conditions. Dental problems, such as pain from tooth or gum disease, can make a dog avoid eating. A visit with a holistic or integrative veterinarian will help rule out any physical issues.
“Routine blood work may determine that the stomach or intestines are sick, but it won’t determine if a stomach is out of balance – for example producing too much or too little acid,” says veterinarian Dr. Mark Newkirk. “The dog may feel low-grade nausea, and doesn’t want to eat. A holistic vet may do a Metabolic Nutritional Analysis of the blood, then use homeopathy, herbal remedies or digestive enzymes to restore the balance.”
2. Realize that not all dogs are big eaters
Most dogs are known for being voracious eaters, but a finicky dog is not uncommon. “It also varies by breed,” says veterinarian Dr. Anne Hermans. “For example, Labs notoriously eat everything, while poodles tend to be pickier.”
Before you start worrying, realize that dogs tend to be very selfregulating, and eat when and what they need to. A dog in the wild might go days without a meal, or might bypass one food to seek out something he is nutritionally craving.
“You shouldn’t worry about an occasional missed meal,” says Dr. Newkirk. “As long as he’s drinking water, seems happy and playful, a dog can go up to five days without food, particularly if he’s overweight to begin with.”
3. Improve his diet
Switching your dog’s diet may be a solution. There may be something about his current food that he is reacting to. It’s also possible he has become bored with his diet. Always choose the best quality dog food you can afford.
“If your dog is avoiding his low-end kibble, but is interested in bits of human food, try switching to a high quality, minimally or unprocessed dog food,” says Dr. Hermans. “Your dog may eat less, but his nutritional needs will be better met.”
It’s also important to give him a variety of foods and flavors. If you had to eat the same meal every day, you’d soon get tired of it no matter how good it tasted at first. Rotate protein sources and flavors on a regular basis to give your dog a change.
Apart from medical or nutritional problems, lifestyle issues can cause finicky behavior.
•Dogs are quick learners, and develop behaviors based on your reactions. “If the dog doesn’t eat his dinner, and you run off and make him scrambled eggs, he learns to wait and see if something better will come,” says Dr. Newkirk. “You can also cause nutritional deficiencies by doing this – he isn’t getting a steady, balanced diet.”
•A sluggish appetite may be a symptom of boredom or inadequate exercise. Add an extra walk or playtime each day, and give him his meal shortly after exercise, when he’s naturally invigorated. Add mental exercise by offering a meal of high quality kibble inside a Kong toy or canine puzzle.
•If your dog appears to be skipping meals, you may be feeding him too often or too much. The frequency a dog needs to eat can vary greatly depending on his size, level of activity and age. Some dogs prefer one large meal a day; others may like two or three smaller meals. And don’t depend on commercial pet food feeding suggestions to determine how much your dog should eat daily, Dr. Newkirk warns. “Unless he’s very active, that quantity is usually too high for the average dog. Ask your veterinarian for the ideal amount your dog should be eating.”
•Like people, a dog that snacks too much will lose interest in meals. If you need to offer frequent treats for training or agility work, use a premium kibble or nutritionally dense treat. Factor these into your dog’s daily food intake, and offer smaller meals on a high-treat day.
It’s worrying when your dog loses interest in food, but realize that your own reactions can perpetuate the problem. Once you’ve ruled out medical concerns, keep an eye on how he’s acting. If he’s drinking water, playing and otherwise acting normal, explore some diet and/ or lifestyle changes. Be patient and he’ll soon be looking forward to mealtime again!
Spark his appetite
To occasionally trigger a dull appetite, mix these in with your dog’s regular food:
•Warm water poured over the food (to release the smell)
•Yogurt or cottage cheese
•Chopped cooked sweet potato or pumpkin
•A sprinkling of minced garlic