Wonder why your dog refuses to eat his kibble? You may need to look in the mirror. If you give your canine yummy table scraps all day long, he’s likely to turn up his nose at a dinner of just plain dog food.
“If you asked your child would she rather eat spinach or a Twinkie, the answer is obvious,” says Louise Murray, DVM, a diplomate ACVIM and director of medicine for ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City. “If you’re going to sometimes give your dog bacon for breakfast or steak from your plate, why would you blame him if he shies away from dry dog food?”
The good news is that even though your dog may be a picky eater, there are ways you can encourage healthier eating.
Dogs and Food
There are two kinds of dogs. The first kind lives to eat. They will devour anything you put in front of them. The second kind eats to live. They pick and choose, take longer to finish meals, and sometimes won’t finish them at all.
A dog’s size, breed, and age often dictate whether he adores food or could care less. “Every Labrador who ever lived is food motivated,” Murray says. Smaller canines, such as Maltese and Yorkies, tend to be more discriminating.
When Does Picky Eating Become a Problem?
“If you’re having trouble getting your pet to eat on a regular basis, and he won’t consume his food at least once a day, your dog is a picky eater," says Margaret Hoppe, DVM, of the Abingdon Square Veterinary Clinic in New York's Greenwich Village.
If your dog has always been a picky eater, there is likely no need for concern.
A picky dog that maintains a healthy weight, is alert and perky, and has a shiny coat, is much less worrisome than one who has dropped a few pounds and has a less lustrous coat. Also, as Hoppe points out: “If you have a dog who is a regular eater that suddenly stops, that can be a sign something is wrong. Picky eating is one symptom.”
“What concerns me most is change,” Murray says.
Many illnesses could be why your dog refuses to eat. Even problems associated with old age, such as joint pain while walking to and from the bowl, could be the cause.
The only way to get to the root of the problem is to visit the vet.
“If your dog has always been a voracious eater, and is becoming more selective, go to the vet after about 48 hours,” Murray says.
For puppies, who have less reserves, don’t wait more than 24 hours.
Tips for Encouraging Your Picky Eater Dog to Develop Healthier Eating Habits
Tip 1: Start early. Before you bring a dog home, come up with a feeding plan. “You and your family need to sit down and decide what the rules will be,” Murray says. “And you must all be on the same page. If mom gives food off the plate, but dad plays by the rules, it won’t work.” If one family member is adamant about people food, then agree to mix in some healthy options, such as low-fat vegetables, with the kibble.
Tip 2: Don’t feed from the table. Doling out table scraps will cause your dog to eschew dry or canned food and hold out for more salivating options. It can also cause health problems, such as pancreatitis. In addition, variety or changes to the diet may cause diarrhea, as well as reinforce the inappropriate behavior of begging.
Tip 3: Keep dog food and people food separate. “Never let a dog associate your food with their food,” Hoppe says. “You have to keep it very separate. Otherwise they’ll start to think they can eat their food and their owner’s, too.” Your dog should only eat food out of his bowl, and should never see food as coming from your plate or from something you’re preparing for yourself.
Tip 4: Stick to a schedule. Feed your puppy two to three times each day, as recommended by your vet. Gradually increase the volume of food as you decrease the frequency of feedings as your puppy matures. Your adult dog should be fed once or twice daily without leaving the food out more than a short period of time. To ensure equal portions for each serving, use a measuring cup. If you do choose to incorporate healthy people food, mix it into the kibble. Variety may be the spice of life for humans, but consistency is key for your canine.
What if You Started on the Wrong Foot?
It’s never too late to start over, but if you want to transition your pup off the filet mignon and sweets, and on to strictly canine fare, it’s best to take it one step at a time.
“It’s going to be tough and require 100% compliance from the entire family,” Murray says. She suggests lessening people food and increasing dog food bit by bit every day until your pup is off human food entirely.
While you are mixing foods, it’s best to use canned dog food as opposed to dry food. That way, your pet can’t separate out and just eat the people food.
If your dog refuses to eat, he is likely holding out for people food, but it’s important to hold firm. “Just because he skips a few meals, don’t give in and give him what he wants,” Hoppe says. “Leave the bowl out for 15 minutes, and if he’s not finished, take it away.” He’ll eventually choose dog food over no food at all.
Make Sure You’re Giving Your Dog a Healthy Diet
Occasionally the problem with a picky eater may be that he doesn’t like the brand of food you’re giving him. Or it may be that he prefers canned food over dry or vice versa. Both vets tell WebMD that a high-quality commercial brand is important for a healthy diet.
Check the ingredients, and make sure corn doesn’t top the list. Murray says, “Corn isn’t an ideal diet for a carnivore.”
If you’ve tried three brands and both canned and dry food, it’s time to look for another reason your dog refuses to eat. Most likely, he’s holding out for table scraps.
Reserve treats for times when praise is necessary, such as in training. But remember, not all rewards have to be edible. “If your dog loves attention, a scratch behind the ears is a treat,” Murray says.
If you find that food treats get the best results, create some boundaries.
For instance, only give a treat after a trick, and always do it in the backyard.
Also, limit treats to three a week, and put them in a separate container so that the entire family knows how many have been given.
“It’s one thing if your dog knows he only gets certain things while he’s training,” Murray says. “But it’s another if you’re sitting in the kitchen reading a magazine and give your dog a treat because he looks cute.”