My dog is such a fussy eater!
‘How to get fussy dogs to eat?’ This is a very common question we are asked in the shop. No matter what size or shape your dog is, we have seen examples of fussy eaters in all of them! But what makes a dog reluctant to eat? Firstly, is your dog is fit and well with no underlying dental or behavioural issues? Are they being fed a good quality food? If so, here are some key factors worth considering that may be the cause of your picky pooch:
- Life stage of your dog. Is it a puppy, an adult or a senior?
- Exercise levels
- Alternative food sources
- Learnt behaviour/Adapted environment
Fussy Life stage?
The stage of life your dog is at can affect how much food they need. Reluctant eaters can be dogs of any age. A young growing pup will need lots of food. However an older pup at the end of their growth curve will need to have their portions gradually reduced. A fully grown adult dog’s portion size should match their activity levels and metabolic rate. This is a maintenance diet. It is to help maintain a healthy weight.
Similarly, the physical activity levels of an older dog will often (but not always!) start to slow down as part of the ageing process. This slow down in exertion should be matched in adjusted food amounts. Otherwise your older dog could start to gain extra weight. This extra weight can have knock-on effects for the joints, heart and other internal organs.
We have already talked about older pups going off their food. To read the full article, click here: https://www.thepetexperience.co.uk/puppy-feeding/ For a young puppy up to about 4 months old with very a small digestive capacity, it is important to offer 4 distinct feeding times. If your puppy does not eat a feed, take the bowl away. It is very easy and totally natural to be concerned that your puppy has not eaten some or all of its food. Assuming your puppy is well in itself, full of puppy energy, drinking well and behaving normally then I would initially have no real concern.
By removing any uneaten food once the puppy makes it clear that they do not want the food, you are giving a consequence to their choice. They may not have eaten fully for a number of simple reasons; not hungry, too tired, distracted by something else etc. If however the food bowl is left down, they will very quickly learn that they can graze their food. Eat whenever they like. This is not good from a behavioural point of view or a digestive point of view. Dogs are not cows. Cows are designed to graze. Dogs are not but they will graze if you let them. This is one of the most common causes of fussy dogs and why fussy dogs do not eat readily.
My own experience of a fussy puppy
Cookie was my second Samoyed and first from a pup. She came home at 9 weeks old. She was a healthy, white and fluffy bundle of joy! Initially she cleared her food bowl like she’d never seen food before! Then one day that changed. I put her morning feed down as usual. She casually wandered up to her bowl and slowly ate about half of it. She then walked away. ‘That’s odd….’ I though. But if she didn’t want it, why would I leave it down? After all, she was getting offered food again in a few hours time. So I took the bowl away. The exact situation happened again on each of her following 3 feeds that day. All the while she was lively, happy and playful.
The next morning, after realising that if she didn’t eat when I offered her food, she went back to clearing her bowl immediately! She is now over 13 years old and I can count on one hand the number of occasions she has refused her food in that time. As a result, when she did refuse food, I knew she was not well. I could then take appropriate steps and watch out for any illness developing etc. or arrange a visit to the Vets.
Adult dogs are the most common category of fussy eaters from what our customers tell us. When your dog is a fully grown adult, the amount of food they eat each day should support their normal bodily functions and exercise levels. That should make feeding straight forward shouldn’t it?! 1 or 2 feeds a day. Easy peasey! That is until you add in extra food like treats, dental sticks, natural chews like pigs ears and even scraps from our plates.
These extras, on top of their daily food portions can cause your dog to be overfed. And what happens when you overeat, you loose your appetite! The apparent result? A fussy dog that ‘doesn’t like their dog food’. The reality? A dog that may be being fed too much which results in a loss of appetite. In conclusion, if you are going to feed extra to your dog, be mindful of what you are giving in terms of quality and adjust food portions to account for some of these extras.
As dogs age, their metabolism slows down. They can become less active and any activity they do have can become less intense. This all equates to lower calorific requirements. In other words, reduce their feeding amounts. If you do not, you may start to see food left in the bowl. This is usually because the dog has eaten what it needs and is therefore satisfied. Again, this is assuming the dog is mentally and dentally healthy. Older dogs are more prone to dental issues. If there is any doubt or concern, get their teeth checked by a Vet.
If a dog is not eating well then chances are, they do not have much of an appetite. Once again, I am presuming that the dog is otherwise fit and well. Appetite is simply a function of 2 things, food/calories eaten vs calories exerted/exercise. Eat too much and we are no longer hungry. Eat too little and we are hungry! If you do lots of exercise you will feel hungry as you body needs to replenish what has been burnt off. The same is true for dogs.
Firstly then, look at how much exercise your dog is getting. Are they getting enough to generate a healthy appetite? Could they be getting more? Is the quality of the exercise good? By that I mean are they able to run freely off the lead? This will burn more calories then a slow steady walk on the lead. You might be surprised at what an extra 20 minutes exercise a day can make to their appetite!
Alternative food sources
As mentioned above, it is worth being mindful of other food sources available to your dog. This is particularly relevant when considering small breeds. As small breeds have lower daily feeding amounts than larger breeds, a tiny treat here and there can quickly add up to be a significant proportion of their daily feeding amount. This in turn could reduce their appetite and lead to fussy eating. Larger, protein rich dog treats can also have an effect. Protein is generally the hardest ingredient to break down so can have dogs feeling full for a long time.
I remember one customer that had a small dog many years ago. They had been coming into the shop over many months trying to find a food that their dog ‘liked’. I had asked all the usual questions about portion size, exercise levels and treats etc. to determine if something specific was causing the problem. None of the customer’s answers raised any concern though. Then one day the same customer came in to buy a big bag of pigs ears…
In the course of the conversation it turned out that the pigs ears were for her fussy dog…. One a day! The customer thought that the ears were good for the dog so never mentioned them. The reality though was that the dog was filling up on those ears. This meant there was no appetite for dog food. Lo and behold, the owner stopped feeding the pigs ears and within a week the dog was clearing it’s food bowl! No more fussy dog! I would also add that the dog was lot healthier for eating a nutritionally balanced meal instead of a protein rich treat as it’s only food source.
Learnt Behaviour/Adapted Environment and poor appetite
Dogs are great survivors. They eat to live, as indeed do we. Though as our species has evolved, so have our eating habits. The same is true of dogs. They have integrated into life with their human owners. Adaptability is a key part of survival. Dogs adapt to their lives with us. They will adapt whether we like it or not and they will adapt around whatever environment we create for them. This is as relevant with feeding as it is with any other aspect of their lives. Let me elaborate….
As mentioned earlier in this article, dog owners can often change the way they feed their dogs based on what the dog does. So if their dog refuses their food, owners often try to ‘encourage’ their dogs to eat. This encouragement satisfies a need in the owner to be doing everything they can to make their dog eat. After all, dogs need to eat. If a dog doesn’t eat, it will die! A dramatic and true statement, eventually. There is however a very big grey area between the dog refusing to eat or being fussy with it’s food and any serious concerns about health and well being. It is in this grey area that fussy eaters thrive!
Encouragement to eat comes in many forms. Here are a just a few you may recognise:
- Adding ‘something extra’ mixed in with their food: cheese, meat, gravy etc.
- Continually changing the flavour of the dog food to keep their interest
- Hand feeding pieces of dog biscuit whilst talking to the dog
- Leaving the food down on the floor permanently so the dog can eat when they feel hungry
As nice as all of these seem, they are not actually helping your dog to be less fussy. They are actively encouraging it. Why should a dog eat perfectly good quality dog food from a bowl when the alternative is lots of personal attention, tasty morsels and variety?! In reality, all of this variation in food has a much greater chance of causing digestive upset or skin issues. These actions may not be killing your dog with kindness but they are certainly not helpful when it come to dealing with a fussy eater.
So how do I get a fussy dog to eat?!
Firstly, take into account all of the information in this article up to this point. Secondly (and again!) I’m going on the premise that your dog is fit and well, with no underlying health or behavioural problems. This is core to this article so I have repeated it several times. If you are in doubt or unsure about your dogs health, seek veterinary advice. It is also worth noting at this stage that although dogs can of course taste, they do not have anywhere near the same number of taste buds that humans have. Approximately 1,700 for a dog versus about 9,000 for a human. As a result their sense of taste is not as strong as ours*. This means that your dogs apparent reluctance to eat is less to do with what they can taste than you may think.
Our 6 step guide to dealing with a picky pooch
- Buy your dog a good quality food so that what you are putting in their bowl smells good enough to eat. Click the link to Teepee 80/20 dog food below for really fussy dogs! A steam cooked dog food like this will generally have a better smell than a standard dog biscuit. This is down to the higher meat content and more gentle cooking process. https://www.thepetexperience.co.uk/product-category/dry-dog-food/
- Offer them a fresh, clean food bowl filled with fresh dog food at each scheduled feed. By fresh, I mean fresh from the bag or the fridge. Not uneaten food from their previous meal. Throw this food away.
- When you place the bowl on the floor for your dog, allow them the time and space to eat the food or not eat the food. In other words, do not put the bowl down for them and then open a packet of crisps in front of them! This will probably distract them from their own food.
- If, when you put the food down, they make it very clear that they do not want the food at that time, take the food up immediately. For instance, if your dog see the food go down but decides to play with a toy instead or run into the garden etc.
- When the dog has finished eating, ignore the dog completely if there is any food left in the bowl. It is important not to give the dog attention for not eating. Instead, save that fuss and attention for when they do clear the bowl. It will make that act of eating all the food much more rewarding.
- For every meal that your dog does not clear the bowl, make the next meal portion a tiny bit smaller. This will result in the dog seeing their meal size reduce gradually over a number of meals. At the same time they will be starting to get hungry (as you will have been controlling their food intake) which will naturally encourage them to eat.
As harsh as it may sound, dogs should be hungry when it is their meal time. Just like we are hungry when we sit down to any of our daily meals. If they are not hungry and do not eat, then take the food away immediately.
This method has been tried and tested by myself over many years in a professional capacity. It is the result of combined experiences with many dogs that refused to eat. In addition, I have seen successful results with hundreds if not thousands of customers both in the shop and around the country through following this advice. It is a battle of wills to get a fussy dog to eat. I hope that this strategy will give you the structure and confidence to follow it through and turn your dog’s eating habits around.
That said, I sometimes have people say that this method is ‘cruel’ and that I am ‘starving the dog’. I disagree. The dog is being offered good quality food daily. At least once if not twice a day or more. If the dog is choosing not to eat, the dog will go hungry. Their survival instinct will then kick in and that is when the dog will decide to eat of their own accord. Sometimes this takes a day or two, sometimes longer. Let me tell you about one dog I worked with years ago, we’ll call him Steve…
Steve was spoiled by his owners, by their own admission. They tried in vain to get him to eat a good quality dog food. However their efforts were scuppered as they constantly fed him steak and chicken! Why would Steve want to eat a dog food when he can get juicy steak and chicken! In the end, after trying lots of different things to try and ‘encourage’ Steve to eat the owners handed Steve over to The Pet Experience for a one month residential training course. This was to address a number of issues, his fussiness being one of them.
It wasn’t easy. Steve was stubborn. Very stubborn! In fact, the hardest case I have come across in over 15 years. However, Steve had not encountered the feeding regime detailed above! It took over 3 weeks in total. Although he ate each day, it was only a small amount. As he had been so spoiled by his owners he was a bit on the chubby side so had some fat reserves to get through. All in all he lost a kilo in the month which was fine for a dog of his size. When the penny eventually dropped that he would get food from nowhere else and his only option was to eat the dog food, he wolfed it down! And from that moment on we had no further issues with him being fussy. Take away any alternative food sources and meal time becomes a very attractive proposition!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This article and guide are going on the premise that your dog is fit and well, both mentally and physically. If you are in any doubt, consult a qualified behaviourist or your Vet. If you’d like to talk to me in more detail about how to get your fussy dog to eat then pop into the shop, drop me an email or give me a call!
Seeing your dog not eating properly is understandably upsetting. The purpose of this general overview on how to get fussy dogs to eat is to highlight potential areas where your dog’s daily food intake may not be lining up with their actual requirements. This information, combined with the step by step guide will hopefully give you the confidence and understanding to persevere and get your dogs eating habits back on track!
If you want to really tempt your dog’s taste buds and stimulate their senses, try Teepee 80/20 dog food. 80% meat content, steam cooked and highly digestible: https://www.thepetexperience.co.uk/product/high-meat-content-dog-food/