Help! My Dog won’t Eat: Feeding the Picky Eater

Sometimes the most frustrating part of pet parenting is trying to get your dog to eat. Does this sound like your pup? They may like food one day, but will turn their nose up at it the next. Then us as pet owners will find ourselves rotating through different types of food in to order to try and get our dogs to eat. They are many reasons why your pup might not want to eat and it is important to seek out advice from your veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical condition. However some eating habits can be tied to your dogs genetics, meaning picky eaters are more common in some breeds like Shi Tzu’s, Yorkies or Huskies than your average Chocolate Lab who will eat just about anything.

There are few things to consider when we are dealing with a picky pup. The first is feeding a poor quality diet to your pup. Your commercial kibble diet may be less appealing then the steak that you have on your dinner plate and for one good reason - smell. Dogs have a very strong sense of smell. In fact, their sense of smell is approximately 10,000 times greater than our own. Most often dogs are compelled to food based on smell, not necessarily taste. Unlike us human who have around 9000 taste buds on our tongues, dog only have around 1700. A study done on stray dogs in India found that dogs prefer meat over carbohydrate and the smell of meat matters more than the actual food contents. Another research study looked at the taste preferences of dogs and found that dogs also preferred diets with high meat contents then to cereal diets and moist foods compared to dry. They also found that dogs tend to prefer cooked to raw meats.  

The other this to consider is “pickiness” can actually be a learned behaviour. It is common as pet parents with a picky pup to add a little something to their food to help get your pup to eat. Adding a meal topper is fine but what usually happens is that you put the same meal topper on their plate as you did yesterday but today they won’t eat it so you scramble around the kitchen looking for something new to add to their bowl. Your dog is actually training YOU at this point.  It is important to avoid coaxing them or enticing them with different types of  food toppers, simply place the bowl in their feeding spot and allow them to eat or  not. Healthy dogs will not typically starve themselves and as long as they have access to fresh, clean water they can go days without food (BUT they won’t). Once they learn that they won’t be getting additional scraps or treats added to their meals they most often start gobbling up their meals.

We often have pet parents transitioning their pups to a cooked diet because their dog is a picky eater. Excited for your pups next meal time you go to serve it, they take one look and walk away. If this happens to you, don’t worry… you are not alone. While we know this can be frustrating but before you go running to the pet store for a different type of food here are few things you could do to:

1) Creating a safe space

While it may seem natural for us to eat our food in the kitchen, it may not be the best spot for your pup. Some pups may prefer a more quiet area where they have privacy. If you consider the feeding habits of their wild ancestors, meals were often dragged to dens, your domesticated dog may also prefer this. Try feeding your pup in their kennel or the bathroom where they can eat without distraction and away from people or other pets.

 2) Choose a food with a high meat content

Studies prove that dogs have a strong preference to meat-based foods. Look for foods that have meat listed as the first ingredients on the label and that contain over 35-40% protein on a dry matter basis. Be careful for ingredients like chickpeas, lentils, corn and peas. These ingredients will increase the protein of the food but will not entice your picky pup to eat. It is also important to be aware that dogs cannot utilize plant-based proteins so it’s best to stick with foods that have meat listed high on the ingredients list.

3) Opt for foods that include organs

Not only are organ meats super tasty for your pup they are incredibly nutritious as well. Look for foods with organs like hearts, gizzards, kidney and liver. Organ meats contain a long list of nutrients including vitamin A, B vitamins (B1, B2, B6, folic acid and vitamin B12), minerals such as iron, phosphorus, copper, magnesium and more.

4) Make feeding time fun!

Have you heard of Canine Enrichment? Enrichment can improve your pups mental state by using different activities to challenge their brains and encourage them to problem solve and engage in their instinctive behaviours such as playing, smelling, chewing, licking and scavenging. Try feeding your pup in a toppl or lick mat. These are great interactive feeders that can bring some excitement back to meal times.

5) A little bit of tough love goes a long way

If you pup is used to getting meal toppers added to encourage them to eat a little bit of tough love may be the best approach to get them to eat. We recommend offering your dog their meal for 5 – 10 minutes and if they don’t eat everything, pick it up and place it back in the refrigerator until their next meal. Once they learn that they won’t be getting any additional scraps or toppers added to their meals they will start gobbling up their meals.

6) Add heat

Most fresh foods are not meant to be heated so we recommend this as a last resort. You can try heating your pups meal in the microwave for 30 – 60 seconds or adding some hot water and mixing it in to warm it up. Heating can enhance aromas and make it more desirable for your pup. 

7) Ask for help!

The best thing you can do for your pup is make the switch to a fresh, cooked diet. There are so many wonderful benefits to feeding real food so if you find yourself struggling with getting your precious pup to eat we encourage you to stick with it. We are here to help every step of the way.