But unfortunately, there’s one thing that can make even the best and healthiest diet totally irrelevant – when your dog just doesn’t want to eat it!
But what makes a dog picky? And what can we do as dog owners to encourage a picky dog to eat healthier, or break those habits altogether?
As it turns out, pickiness in dogs can be attributed to many possible factors, most of which can be resolved with a few different techniques.
For one, some dogs just aren’t as motivated by food as others, just like some people are more enthusiastic eaters while others just eat what and when they need to. But if your dog isn’t motivated by food alone, you can encourage their eating habits with something that does motivate them, like praise, attention, or fun activities around mealtime.
Stress and anxiety can also affect your dog’s appetite, and their willingness to try new things. If you’ve recently changed up your dog’s routine, or if just they tend to be nervous in general, they may be less inclined to eat their dinner.
If you think that stress might be a factor in your dog’s pickiness, helping your dog to relax and feel comfortable before the food dish comes out can help encourage their eating. If your dog has a favorite activity or toy, try letting them have their fun just before dinner – even aside from helping them calm down, physical activity can itself encourage the appetite! And try not to scold them when they don’t eat, as knowing that they let you down may only increase their stress.
Calming aids may also be useful in helping your anxious dog relax enough to eat. These over-the-counter solutions use a variety of methods to induce relaxation in dogs – some contain pheromones similar to those released by a mother dog during feeding, triggering your dog’s brain to release natural hormones that make them feel safe and loved. Others use natural compounds like valerian, chamomile, or tryptophan to induce a mild sedative effect. Effects may vary for different dogs, so you may need to try a few different types of calming aid before you find one that works for your own pup.
Of course, some especially intelligent and strong-willed dogs may act like they don’t want to eat the food you’ve given them, just because they’re holding out for a particular favorite snack they’ve had before! In that situation, you may be tempted to give in and provide that favorite just to get them to eat something, but this is probably the last thing you should do, because it teaches your dog that making a fuss at dinnertime will get them what they want.
This can be one of the most challenging varieties of picky dog to feed, but if you’re consistent, you can show them that eating what you give them the first time is in their best interests. For example, instead of providing a favorite snack or food to encourage them to start eating, only give them a little bit of that favorite as a reward only AFTER they have eaten all their regular dinner, along with lots of praise.
Finally, there are some health disorders which can affect appetite. Lots of different parts of your dog’s body are involved in eating and digestion, so anything from dental disease, allergies, certain medications, gastrointestinal disorders, or kidney and liver problems can make your dog feel inclined to skip dinner. There may be some steps you can take at home in this case, but it’s usually best to involve your veterinarian in this conversation, since they can tailor your gameplan to your dog’s specific needs.
If your dog’s pickiness only manifests when you’re trying a new food, they may just be nervous about those unfamiliar smells and flavors, even if they might otherwise enjoy it once they get over their nervousness. That’s why, when introducing a new food to your dog, it’s a good idea to mix in a bit of their old food, so they aren’t trying something totally new.
Breaking bad habits
Training your picky dog to always eat their dinner can take some time, and it’s natural to worry that your dog may suffer from a missed meal or two, but refusing to trade out their meal for something they want more is the best way to communicate that YOU are in charge of their diet, not them.
An otherwise healthy dog can miss several meals without endangering their health, and will never refuse to eat to the point of danger, even if they aren’t thrilled with what’s in their bowl. Of course, if your dog hasn’t eaten anything for more than a few days, it’s possible that there may be a more serious problem affecting their appetite; in that case, it’s a good idea to contact your veterinarian.
Adding something with an especially strong taste or smell that appeals to dogs, like low-sodium broth, yogurt, cooked chicken or fish, or freeze-dried toppers, is very likely to encourage your dog to dig in! Then, once your dog is eating their meals normally, you can gradually reduce the mix-ins as your dog becomes more comfortable with their new food.
Rotational feeding, where you frequently switch your dog’s regular diet between lots of different brands and recipes of food, can help dogs get used to regularly eating new and unfamiliar foods, especially if you start it from an early age. Rotational feeding is also good for dogs for other reasons, too – the broad nutritional base represented by a variety of different foods helps make up for any nutrient deficiencies present in any one particular diet, and it often improves digestive function.
That said, anytime you’re introducing new foods to your dog, it’s usually a good idea to bolster their meals with digestive aids. Even dogs with otherwise iron stomachs may have some digestive trouble with a new food, so the addition of probiotics, digestive enzymes, and/or fiber can help ensure that their new diet doesn’t give them a tummy ache.
Wishing you and your dog the best of health,
Dr. Edward Tuk
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