Why is My Dog a Finicky Eater?

If your dog is a finicky eater, one very important question to ask is whether your dog has always been this way or whether it's a new behavior that has recently popped up out of nowhere. The thing is, dogs shouldn't be finicky by nature. Often, behind a dog who is finicky, is a dog owner who may have trained his dog to be this way, or perhaps, the dog may be feeling sick or worried. For sure, a finicky dog requires some investigation to ensure nothing is going on medically or emotionally.

A  History as Hunters/Scavengers

Although dogs are domesticated animals who are fed bags of kibble from shiny bowls, they still retain traits as hunters/scavengers by nature. 

Sure, while it's true that wolves are considered a dog's ancestors, it's important to remember that both parties split into two separate lineages 27,000 to 40,000 years ago. However, despite this great divergence, dogs have retained a few instincts and the urge to fill up quickly is one of them.

Here's the thing: back in the olden days, a dog's ancestors were hunters, and as such, they were forced to catch their own meals. Now, in the wild, meals were never predictable. One day they could have had a whole deer to munch on, the next three days they could have had none.

This "feast and famine" lifestyle meant that, when food was available, it was best to wolf it down as fast as possible, also considering that each member or the group had to get their own fill, and that after that, there were plenty of opportunistic animals waiting for any tasty remnants. So yes, in case you were wondering, this is how the saying "wolf it down" was born.

Ancient dogs, therefore, filled up to their full capacity, but not just out of gluttony, but because they led what was known as a "feast or famine" lifestyle. 

Did you know? According to the The National Wildlife Federation, adult wolves are capable of consuming 20 pounds of meat in just one single meal!

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A dog's ancestors led a feast or famine lifestyle 

The Making of a Finicky Dog

Now, in many cases, dogs aren't born finicky, rather, they are made to be so. What's the recipe for the making of a finicky dog? Often, all that is required is giving dogs table scraps or adding goodies to their dish. 

It may all start one day when Rover isn't too hungry. Perhaps his tummy is a bit upset, or he may just not be in the mood for eating. The dog owner may therefore worry, so to convince him to eat, he or she may add some tasty addition to his bowl in hopes that he'll be back to eating normally. 

The tasty addition works. Next day, Rover repeats the same exact scene. Next thing you know, Rover won't eat his meal unless you add something tasty to his bowl. At this point, congratulations, you have just taught your dog not to eat until something tasty is added to his meal!

And if you feed your dog tasty table scraps from under the table or have children who do, consider that these may be making him full. All the scraps can easily add up, so when meal time is around the corner, your dog will be satiated especially if you own a small dog which gets filled up quickly.

"If your dog grew up with you offering multiple kinds of food, that may have trained him to hold out for something better, just like children will hold out for ice cream, instead of Brussel sprouts. If you’re constantly coaxing your dog to eat, then your dog has trained you to keep offering tastier and tastier items. "~Dr. Becky Lundgren, veterinarian

Something Wrong With the Food 

If your dog usually eats his meal with gusto, and now he is turning his nose at it, don't be too fast to label him as spoiled- chances are, there might be something wrong with his food. 

Perhaps the food may be expired, or perhaps the bag was opened and the food went rancid. Perhaps there was some change in the formulation of the food. Worthy of investigating is also whether there were any recent recalls of the brand of food you are feeding your dog. 

If you are home cooking, make sure none of the ingredients are expired and that everything is freshly made. Ensure you aren't wearing any perfume or hand creams when you prepare your dogs meals: such smells can cause dogs to perceive their foods as funky-smelling and may therefore back off. 

Something Wrong With the Dog

If your dog has always been an avid eater and now he is on strike, this should raise a big red flag, considering that, most likely, there's something medically is going on. 

Dogs can suffer from a variety of digestive disorders which can cause reduced appetite to the point of causing dogs to display finicky behaviors. Problems may range from a food intolerance, chronic pancreatitis, to inflammatory bowel disease just to name a few.

Nausea in dogs with digestive issues may trigger what's known as taste aversion. Such dogs may associate a certain food with nausea and therefore may refuse that. A novel food is then offered, only to trigger taste aversion for that food as well, leading to a vicious cycle. 

On top of digestive disorders, dental problems may be an issue too. Small dogs in particular are prone to periodontal disease and may refuse to chew hard food if their mouth is sore. 

A veterinary evaluation is therefore important. While it's true that healthy dogs can go 24 hours without eating, a dog who is refusing food for that period of time on a regular basis needs to be looked into further. 

Emotions Getting in the Way

Being nervous can also considerably reduce your dog’s appetite. Just as it happens with people, dogs won’t eat as much if they’re anxious. The reason for this is simple.

When dogs are nervous, stressed or fearful, their bodies often go into what's known as the fight or flight mode. This means that powerful stress hormones circulate in their blood, triggering blood to flow where it matters the most. 

Blood therefore flows directly to the dog's muscles and away from the dog's stomach and intestines so that he can be ready to sprint into action. This leads to appetite suppression. 

Dogs may therefore refuse to eat when they are placed in a shelter or brought to a new home due to the stress of being in a whole new environment. Dogs may also be reluctant to eat when they suffer from separation anxiety and noise phobias.

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Beagles and Labs are generally dog breeds who love to eat

Just a Finicky Eater 

Finally, consider that some dogs may be just finicky by nature. It may just be an attitude which can vary by breed (huskies and some small breed dogs are known in particular for being finicky eaters) or perhaps the dog was never taught to perceive food as appetibile. 

This latter may happen with dogs who are free-fed food all day (leaving it always available in the bowl). 

While some dogs live to eat  some others just eat to live, claims Dr. Lundgren. While such dogs may only eat sporadically, if they are healthy otherwise, still maintaining their weight and acting normal, there maybe nothing to be overly concerned about. However, it's always best to discuss this with the vet to make sure nothing is amiss in the medical department..

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs may become finicky eaters for a variety of reasons. Due to the fact that finicky behavior may stem from a medical problem, it's always best to consult with a veterinarian to make sure there are no underlying medical problems. Own a finicky dog?? Following are some tips.

  • Have your dog see your vet. As mentioned, dogs may refuse to eat their foods because of feeling sick. A thorough investigation may be required.
  • Sometimes, seeing a specialist may be necessary. In some cases, finding what may be wrong isn't as easy as it sounds. If your dog's appetite isn't as good as it used to be, it may be worthy having a second opinion by a board-certified veterinarian specializing in internal medicine. An ultrasound and GI panel may turn insightful.
  • Dogs with food intolerance/allergies may need prescription hypoallergenic diets. These special diets may contain just one novel form of protein (rabbit, duck, bison) the dog was never exposed to, or they may contain proteins that have been chemically altered (hydrolyzed) so the dog's immune system doesn't recognize them as triggers.
  • Dogs with inflammatory bowel disease may benefit from a change of diet alone or may require the addition of prednisone, a corticosteroid known for increasing appetite and reducing inflammation. Consult with your vet for advice.
  • After having ruled out medical causes, it may help to stick to one brand of quality food, placing the food bowl down (with no coaxing or obsessing over getting the dog to eat) and then picking it back up after 15 minutes and not feeding it until the next meal time. No treats or other foods should be offered in the meanwhile. This should teach dogs that if they don't eat, their food bowls are removed and no tasty additions are added. Eventually, once the dog gets the message, he or she should start to eat with more appetite within 1-2 days. "Just be sure not to "give in" and offer him bits of your own meals or he will learn to "hold out for the good stuff," suggests veterinarian Dr. Chris.
  • Make your dog work for food. Ditch your dog's food bowl and start feeding your dog's kibble in interactive toys or feed meal portions during training. Many dogs gain renewed interest in their meals if they work for it. 
  • For anxious dogs, consider trying calming aids.  Adaptil products, which come as a spray, a collar and a wall plug-in, work by releasing soothing pheromones that can help stressed dogs. Ask your vet for other types of calming products and supplements.
  • If you decide to home cook for your dog, then make sure you balance the diet so that  she is getting all the nutrients she needs. A large proportion of home cooked diets are nutritionally incomplete according to studies.
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