BY ANNA DICKENS
Although we think of dogs as garbage disposals, readily devouring whatever they can get their paws on, some canines can be exasperatingly fussy eaters. Take my dog Dolly, for example. For the longest time, getting her to eat was an impossible task—she’d sniff her food bowl, turn her nose up, and walk away. After unsuccessfully experimenting with several different dog foods, I finally stumbled across a kibble she will actually eat. (Turns out, she prefers a very pricy lamb and rice formula. What a little diva.)
What causes picky eating in dogs? Well, for one thing, size and breed can dictate a dog’s enthusiasm to eat. Labrador Retrievers, for example, tend to be innately food-motivated, while smaller dog breeds, like my 14-pound Dolly, can be more discriminating about food. Also, you might be to blame for your dog’s finicky ways. If you frequently toss your pet scraps of succulent meat from the dinner table, don’t be surprised when he starts to grow uninterested in his plain-old dog food.
So if you’ve found yourself with a fussy dog on your hands, here are some tips for coaxing your dog to adopt more normal eating habits:
1) Although humans crave variety in their food, dogs are incredibly routine-oriented. Try to maintain a consistent feeding schedule as recommended by your vet, and adhere to one specific type of dog food. Which leads us to the next point…
2) If your dog isn’t eating his food, although your first impulse might be to try a new food brand, be careful about switching up your dog’s food too often. Abrupt diet changes can lead to digestive upset and even nausea in some dogs. If you do want to experiment with a new formula, try incorporating it gradually; you can do this by mixing a small amount of the new kibble into the old food, then slowly increasing the ratio.
3) Remove the food bowl after 30 minutes, even if it’s not eaten, and don’t feed your dog until their next designated mealtime. This will teach the dog a lesson: Either you eat your food while it’s there, or you miss your window of chance.
4) Stop feeding from the table and tone down the treats. Not only can this spoil a dog’s appetite and set them up for weight gain, excessive treats can make the dog dissatisfied and bored with the contents of their food bowl. It’s similar to if I’ve been fed a steady diet of plain chicken breast for my entire life and then one day I’m introduced to a juicy cheeseburger—that chicken breast suddenly seems pretty darn boring.
5) Use positive reinforcement. To instill good habits, praise your dog and lavish him with attention only when he finishes his food. This will teach him that eating is a good, desirable behavior.
6) Exercise can be a great way to stimulate a dog’s sluggish appetite. You might consider taking your pooch on a casual 15-minute walk before mealtime. (That said, don’t allow your pet to eat immediately before or after running or high-energy playtime, as it can sometimes lead to bloat. Most vets recommend allowing 45 minutes to an hour before and after high activity to be safe.)
7) Entice your pet to eat his food by making it more interesting. To make kibble more palatable, you might consider pouring some beef or chicken broth on top or using a high-quality canned food as a topper. (We also love topping kibble with a bit of canned pumpkin, which also helps tummy troubles.) Or, try warming the food in the microwave for 15 seconds. Try not to overheat, though, as this can zap away some of the essential nutrients.
In most cases, picky eating in dogs is not a cause for alarm, especially if your animal has always displayed this sort of behavior. However, if your pet shows a sudden disinterest in food, vomiting, diarrhea, noticeable weight loss, or a dull-looking coat, talk to a vet—these might be signs of an underlying health problem.