Dogs have a reputation for being fearsomely greedy creatures and capable of polishing off anything that you put before them — and occasionally things you were trying to keep away from them, too.
While that’s certainly true of many canines, it’s not the case for all. Some are a lot fussier when it comes to their food and can go days without eating.
This can seem out of character and of concern to parents, but there are lots of reasons why dogs might suddenly become picky eaters. Sometimes, it’s a learned behavior that can be unlearned with guidance — or it can require medical intervention.
It helps to understand why your dog is a picky eater in the first place, though.
We’ve listed some reasons below, and also included a training plan for picky eater dogs devised by the in-house Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist at 5-star-rated fresh dog food company Nom Nom, Dr. Justin Shmalberg DVM.
Why are some dogs picky eaters?
They don’t like the food
You might find it hard to take culinary feedback from an animal prone to devouring things they find on the sidewalk, but sometimes the problem is the food itself.
A dog’s senses are a lot more finely tuned than humans, so food that may smell OK to you might be particularly offensive to your pet’s nostrils, perhaps due to unseen mold.
Alternatively, your dog just might not like the taste of certain recipes. Some dogs are averse to the taste of high-fiber foods, while others are not so keen on palatants, a coating sometimes found on the surface of kibble to enhance the flavor.
Too much good food
We get it — it can be a struggle to not spoil your dog, but if you do it too much, you just might find their appetite changes.
For instance, be a little too generous with the calorie-rich treats when you’re training and you might just find your pet isn’t too hungry around mealtime.
Another common situation is when dogs have tried wet, raw or fresh dog food and are reluctant to go back to the comparatively dry and less enticing kibble afterwards.
You could be entitled to wonder what a dog could possibly have to be stressed about — after all, most of their day is taken up with sleeping and cuddles.
However, they’re sensitive animals and sudden changes in their environment — maybe a recent addition to the family or a new house altogether — can make a dog anxious. A loss of appetite is one possible symptom.
An age-old problem
As they reach their autumn years, dogs tend to move around less and require fewer calories to maintain their weight. On the back of most pet food packaging, you’ll see a reduced amount is recommended for senior canines.
At the same time, they become more prone to certain medical conditions that play havoc with their hunger. Sadly, cognitive disorders such as dementia can have a similar effect.
An underlying medical condition
One thing to look out for is whether your dog is only rejecting certain types of food or if they’re bypassing meals and treats altogether — the latter scenario could suggest something deeper is wrong with your dog.
Look out for bad breath, loose teeth or a build-up of mineral-like substance on teeth (calculus), as this may be the problem — dogs with dental issues can find it painful to eat and may prefer to go hungry instead.
If their mouth is looking OK, it could be a gastrointestinal condition, organ dysfunction or pain from inflammation. Your vet will consider all of these should your dog stop eating for longer than three days in one go.
How can I get my picky dog to eat?
After observing your dog’s habits and getting some expert insight from your vet, you might be able to pinpoint what’s causing your dog to be fussy with their food.
If you’re sure it’s a behavioral issue rather than a medical one, there’s good news — it’s possible to get them back into a healthy routine with a little bit of tough love.
Dr. Shmalberg has devised a training program dog parents can follow to get their dogs back to eating meals regularly.
Be warned, it requires a level of commitment and you might need to repeat steps until your dog’s fully absorbed the lesson, but it will be well worth it when mealtimes are no longer a hassle.
Dr. Schmalberg recommends splitting the day into three phases — morning mealtime, evening mealtime, and afternoon.
Parents should set an alarm so that breakfast is at the same time every day. When this sounds, they should fill up the bowl — positioned away from distractions — with food and call their dog over.
However, do not let them eat straight away. Instead, make them wait for two or three seconds before signaling they’re allowed to start. Once they begin, stand out of view and observe their reaction.
If they finish off the portion, happy days.
But if they reject the meal — perhaps by barking or moving away from the bowl — the parent should also walk away and ignore the dog for ten minutes. Cruel to be kind, remember.
After this point, they can repeat the routine again — calling their dog over, getting them to wait and allowing them to start — for two further minutes.
If this still doesn’t work, the parent needs to pick up the bowl and put the food away for the time being. Consider this meal skipped, but make sure your dog has enough water.
Don’t worry about starving your dog, they’ll be perfectly fine for a few days.
“Dogs are designed for extended fasting,” says Dr. Shmalberg. “Although they’re very food-motivated, they can go for some time on no food without issues as long as they’re otherwise healthy.”
Just as with breakfast, parents need to set an alarm for their dog’s dinner to drum in a routine. Take a portion of dog food and use it as treats while training your pet to do tricks, be that sit, lie down or stay. Fifteen to twenty minutes of training should suffice.
Following on from this, a little more activity is needed — around half an hour of walking, running around or playing fetch is recommended.
At this point, your dog should have hopefully worked up an appetite. However, it’s important to follow the same routine you carried out at breakfast. Again, if necessary, you can take their bowl away if they don’t start to chow down after you’ve given them the chance.
As already mentioned, dogs can sustain themselves without food for quite a while, so if after the first two days you don’t see a positive result, Dr. Shmalberg urges you to introduce the pre-dinner training and exercise regimen into the middle of the afternoon as well.
This is done in the hope of increasing your dog’s metabolism and getting them hungry enough to accept what’s put into their bowl come dinnertime.
This program may take a few days to get the desired outcome and your dog might test your resolve in that time. It’s always advised you to consult with your vet beforehand to see if your pet is healthy enough to embark upon what might end up being a crash diet of sorts.