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How to Handle a Dog That’s a Picky Eater

Christie Long is a small animal veterinarian with 10 years experience in medicine, surgery, and acupuncture. As PetCoach's Chief Veterinarian, she directs a global team of veterinarians fielding inquiries regarding all aspects of pet car...

We know cats are finicky, but dogs can be just as picky when it comes to food

Dogs love to eat, right? Many of them do; however, some of them seem to be extra picky when it comes to the foods they will eat. Dog lovers can go crazy trying to find a brand of food that makes their picky eater happy. Read on to learn some tips to help you find a diet that makes both of you happy.

More: 9 of Your Most Pressing Cat Health Questions Answered

Start by ruling out medical problems

At PetCoach, we get lots of questions that start with, “My dog isn’t eating...” or something similar. Most dog parents know that dogs are an extremely food-motivated and food-loving species, and when your favorite pooch’s appetite wanes, especially if it’s a food that he’s eaten before with no problem, it’s important to look for any underlying medical conditions.

Medical causes of hyporexia (that’s doctor-speak for “decreased appetite") can be classified as 1) gastrointestinal and 2) non-gastrointestinal. While hyporexia is most frequently related to diseases of the GI tract — problems like parasites, dental disease, infections, certain cancers, food allergies — problems outside the GI tract can cause a decrease in appetite as well, such as kidney disease, pancreatitis and liver disease.

Don’t give up easily

It’s important to remember that even if routine lab work — complete blood count, chemistry panel and urinalysis — is normal, your dog could still have a medical problem. So for persistent, long-standing appetite changes — especially those that occur in a dog with a previously normal appetite and with no change in diet — it’s important to look thoroughly for problems such as food allergies and chronic pancreatitis that are a bit harder to uncover. Doing so may involve more in-depth testing, such as advanced blood work and imaging of the abdomen with ultrasound.

More: How Much Does It Actually Cost to Own a Cat?

Assess your dog’s weight and how much you’re feeding

Get your veterinarian’s help on this one. If your dog’s body condition is normal or especially if he’s a bit chubby, he’s probably getting enough calories, and it’s time you examined your expectations about just how much he should be eating in order to stay healthy. Often, pet parents don’t realize that their dogs are overweight and that they’re overfeeding them.

Classically, when asked how much dog food they’re offering, pet parents will often say, “about a cup.” But that cup could be a coffee can, a giant plastic soda fountain cup, or an actual measuring cup. So make sure that you’re clear on exactly how much food you should be offering your dog — your veterinarian can help you make this determination — because what you’re perceiving as a lack of appetite might actually be that he’s simply got more on his plate than he can eat.

Cut out the snacks

If you and your veterinarian are convinced that your picky eater is healthy, it’s time to examine how you’re feeding him. Are you feeding too many treats? Is your dog allowed to have a bite here and there from the table? If so, it’s likely that you’re training him to exhibit less-than-normal enthusiasm about his dog food because he’s learned that you’ll eventually cave in and feed him something extra tasty.

Think of it this way: If you’re not hungry and someone offers you a salad, it’s pretty easy to turn it down. But if someone offers you a hot fudge sundae under the same circumstances, you can probably find some room, right? Your dog is no different, so make sure that what you’re offering him is an appropriate portion of a high-quality, balanced canine diet.

Avoid abrupt changes

It can become really frustrating having a picky eater, and often, pet parents will try multiple flavors and brands of foods in a short period of time to try to find something their dog likes. Remember that abrupt diet changes can actually bring on gastrointestinal upset, and try to avoid doing so at all costs. When changing to a new diet, do so slowly, incorporating increasing amounts of the new food over 7 to 10 days until the transition is complete.

Liven things up, within reason

Don’t go topping your dog’s food with whipped cream or pâté in an effort to make it more interesting, but it’s OK to try adding a small amount of low-sodium chicken or beef broth to kibble in an attempt to enhance the flavor. You can also change things up by simply combining a bit of canned food — preferably the same variety he’s eating in kibble — to the kibble in order to create a bit of variety and interest as well. I recommend avoiding commercially prepared “toppings,” as they are often high in sodium and other additives.

Dogs with appetite problems will often respond to foods that have been gently warmed for 10 to 15 seconds in the microwave since this process tends to release the aroma of the food a bit and increases interest level.

More: Leaky Gut Syndrome Doesn't Just Occur in Humans — Your Dog Is Affected Too

Consider a homemade diet

It’s understandable when pet parents get to the end of their ropes with picky eaters and want to prepare their dog’s food at home. This is a great method if you’re committed to the extra work, but the difficulty of this approach is that it can be difficult to balance a canine diet properly for the essential minerals calcium and phosphorus. So be sure that if you decide to prepare your dog’s food, you use a recipe that’s developed by a veterinary nutritionist.

A great source for home-cooked diet recipes is the site BalanceIt, which is run by the veterinary nutritionists at the University of California, Davis. There’s a fee for these, but using one of them assures that your picky eater is being well-fed in every sense of the word.

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