Before we discuss the topic of Fussy Eaters we feel it is important to stress that if you are seriously concerned about your dog's lack of appetite then we would always recommend seeking veterinary advice before going further.
Is there an underlying issue to be concerned about? We would suggest that if your dog has been a good eater and has suddenly lost their appetite or if they are not even taking tasty treats and human food this would be the time to consider seeing the Vet. Be aware that if a dog suddenly goes off their food this could relate to dental problems, stomach upsets or another illness and it is often better to err on the side of caution and get a clean bill of health before you consider anything further.
Don't forget - You are not alone! The most common dietary problem we hear about (almost on a daily basis) relates to Fussy Eaters. We often hear of the dog that started off eating something happily but after a short while they go off it, when a new food is introduced they eat this for a short while and then go off that too!
Why dogs become fussy There are some dogs that have a greater appetite than others and they will always eat what you put down to them. For those that are slightly choosier, without realising it, you may inadvertently be training your dog to become a fussy eater. Often they are just not hungry for their food and this leads the owner to conclude they don't like the food so they need something tastier. It is widely accepted that dogs are not born fussy, they are made that way! If the dog understands that if they can hold off eating the, for example, dry dog food that you put down that the tastier (less healthy, less balanced) table scraps will then be offered then they will often do just that. This behaviour need not repeat itself too often before clever dogs will learn to do this more often and draw it out for longer periods. They often fill up on treats and table scraps and this means they are not getting the right mix of nutrients to maintain good health. Table scraps should ideally form less than 10% of a dog's daily diet because whilst they may be enjoyable and even sometimes healthy, they are not nutritionally balanced in the same way that a food designed to meet all a dog's nutritional needs is.
Often puppies will start to become fussy eaters. Sometimes this is them just gaining confidence and knowing how they can push their boundaries but sometimes it is a sign of overfeeding and if they have gone past the 6 month mark it could just be the time to reduce their meals to twice a day.
As dogs age their tastes can change and they may no longer find plainer/harder/blander foods they enjoyed when they were younger as appetising.
Sometimes fussiness is created by "free feeding" (if food is left down for your dog all day to pick and choose when and how much they eat). The fact that food is constantly available can make it unexciting and less appetising to them.
We also often hear of dogs who have been fed dry food all their life and have happily eaten this and then they have had a period of being ill and during the recuperation period they have been fed human food and/or wet food and now will not eat their dry food. Wet food is naturally more palatable than dried food and there is nothing wrong with feeding wet or dry or a combination of both (providing they are good quality foods) but if you want to move back onto dry for storage, dietary or budget reason (or even just to help maintain clean teeth) then we would recommend adopting the "tough love" approach that we are going to describe. Dry food is less wasteful if you are using this approach as it stays fresher for longer.
Option 1: teaching your fussy eater to be less fussy (recommended for most dogs, especially younger ones)
For many reasons (health, budget, time constraints) it can be useful to try teach your fussy eater not to be so fussy about their food. It's easy enough to do this, though it does require consistency on your part. Below we outline how to go about this.
1. Select a good quality diet for your dog that is appropriate for your budget, lifestyle and that agrees with your dogs tummy (dry food, raw food and wet food diets all have their own pros and cons and we always say there is no "one size fits all" diet that is best for all dogs although generally dogs tend to be less fussy about wet and raw foods) .
2. Decide how many meals a day you are going to feed. Usually two meals a day is agreed to be the most beneficial (try to avoid feeding 1 hour before or after exercise to avoid risks of stomach upsets or twisted gut). If your dog does not have a huge appetite or if you have a bigger dog then a smaller meal at breakfast and a bigger meal or two later in the day may be an option.
3. Stick to whatever schedule you opt for and don't sway from this.
4. Make sure the entire family are all agreed on the approach (even set up a feeding diary if needed). If one person caves in when they see the sad eyes then this sets you right back to square one! It is also good to check with dog walkers and neighbours to make sure no one else is caving in!
5. Measure out the food and then place the bowl down for your dog to eat from. If he doesn't eat the food or only eats some then after 15 minutes the bowl should be uplifted and then no more food given until the next feeding time.
6. It is very important to ensure that no treats or tit bits are given in between meals whilst establishing a good routine otherwise dogs can fill up on these and not only does it mean they are less likely to eat their food, but it also means they are not getting a good nutritious balance. If you require rewards for ongoing training then you could consider using non-food rewards such as toys or play, or just using plain kibble from your dog's daily ration.
7. Even if your dog goes a full day without eating please don't panic . Dogs. digestive systems are very different from ours and they can go a full day or two without eating and it will not cause any harm. (If your dog is frail, underweight, a very young puppy, on medications or has certain medical conditions we would always recommend checking with your vet before withholding food for prolonged periods like this.)
If you can be consistent and apply these rules always then you will often find that your dog gets back into their feeding routine very quickly.
You may find that your dog doesn't have a huge appetite and will not always finish what they have in their bowl. Providing they are healthy and a good weight and shape then this should be fine. NB Unfortunately many dogs here in the UK are overweight so simply comparing your dog's shape to that of other dogs you meet may not be a good indicator of their ideal weight. This diagram serves as a rough guide, but body shapes vary between different breed types so if you are unsure we recommend checking with your vet.
If you continue to have problems do take a good hard look at how you are managing the routine. Have you slipped in an extra treat here and there, have you given a cheeky piece of chicken left over from your dinner? If you have then you are maybe not being "tough" and perhaps you need to be stricter with yourself.
Option 2: permanently changing your dog's diet to accommodate their fussy tastes
If you've tried option 1 but after all this you are still having difficulty it may be that your dog really does not like the food you are offering so you decide to change to something different. Be aware that if you opt to do this though you will likely have to continue with the new food on a permanent basis as once you're dog gets used to it they will not be happy to go back to eating their previous dry food diet.
- If you feed dry food sometimes soaking this can be enough to encourage your dog to eat it as it releases the smells and changes the texture. Increasing the temperature of the food can also increase its palatability.
- Some people will mix in some doggy gravy to their dogs food (don't use Bisto or the likes though as it can be very salty)
- Sometimes feeding a more nutritionally dense dry food (e.g. one the 80/20 diets) which require lower feeding volumes than other dry foods can make it easier for dogs with small appetites to eat the required portion at mealtimes.
- Wet Foods and raw food diets are naturally usually more palatable than dry foods and if switching to one of those you may find your dog is inclined to eat more readily. We are happy to advise customers about the pros and cons of feeding these types of diets and help you to find one that suits your dog's tastes as well as your budget and lifestyle.
- You needn't switch entirely but may opt to mix a smaller quantity of wet food through your dog's kibble. Thoroughly coating it with another more palatable food like this may entice your dog to eat. However it's important to adjust the portion size of all different types of food you are feeding to ensure that overall your dog is receiving the correct portion size for their size/weight/activity level.
Other factors to take into account
You may also need to consider outside stimuli. Some dogs can be very sensitive to their environments. We have listed some things that may upset your dogs feeding routine:
- We often have customers who have swapped from a plastic bowl to a stainless steel bowl and the dog does not like the noise the new bowl makes, or the reflection they can see in the bottom of the bowl.
- Sometimes even changing the room your dog feeds in can be enough to put them off.
- If there has been a new dog introduced recently to the family could this be causing stress or anxiety around feeding time?
- Older or taller dogs may find it uncomfortable stooping to eat from a bowl from the floor so using a raised bowl may help encourage them to eat.
- Some dogs prefer to be left alone to eat where as others may only eat when they have your company.
- Some dogs may find eating food from a bowl tedious and just plain boring. Using treat dispensing toys like a treat ball or Kong toys or food mazes/slow feeders can add fun and excitement to dinner time for them.
- Likewise turning feeding time into a game or training session can sometimes motivate a dog to eat. Perhaps you can hide the food around a room in cups for your dog to find. Or maybe try some trick training using a clicker?
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