Getting a dog to eat is one of the most complicated management, health care, behavior modification, training, and communication tasks you’ll ever do with a dog. If you’ve been through this, you’ve surely learned a thing or two. You’ll also have discovered what a lot of time this can take out of your day.
Some people enjoy the nurturing feelings of coaxing a dog to eat. Without meaning to, they can create picky-eater dogs, which is not good for the dog’s health. Conversely, they can create fat dogs. Some dogs are both picky eaters and overweight! Many picky eaters have something medically wrong, and these problems may be impossible to diagnose for long periods of time. Because of this possibility, always report picky eating to your veterinarian and have the dog checked whenever there is any question about new symptoms.
Physical Conditions that Affect Eating
When a dog refuses meals, start by taking the dog to your veterinarian. Refusal to eat is an especially concerning sign in these cases:
- A dog who normally eats enthusiastically and never skips a meal is likely to be sick if he or she won’t eat—possibly very sick.
- A puppy has less reserve to fight off illness, and needs to be checked promptly when there is any major symptom, which includes refusing to eat.
- Tiny dogs also have less reserve, and need to see their veterinarians quickly if they will not eat.
- Geriatric dogs may not digest their food well in the first place and can have all manner of physical problems, often with pain. They need close attention to any behavior change, including changes in eating.
- When refusing food is accompanied by other symptoms, the dog needs very prompt veterinary attention. Whether it’s an emergency or not depends on the symptoms and how severe they are. And anytime a dog is in pain is an emergency.
Nothing about using the behavior techniques we’ll be discussing here to get a dog to eat will replace good veterinary care. That always comes first. Your dog will feel better and so will you.
In the case of a sick dog, follow your veterinarian’s instructions about feeding to the letter; no ifs, ands or buts. Don’t give the dog any food not approved by the veterinarian. This can be a matter of your dog’s life or death.
Make sure you are not over-feeding your dog. That can cause picky eating. Get your veterinarian’s help with your dog’s eating, in the following ways:
- On every check-up, ask your veterinarian to evaluate your dog’s weight. In the medical log book you take to the veterinarian along with the dog on every visit, record the dog’s weight taken there. Ask the veterinarian whether the dog is under, at, or above normal weight, and what the dog should weigh.
- If you are keeping a log of the dog’s food, show it to the veterinarian. Contact dog food manufacturers for the calorie counts on any dog foods you are feeding and make that part of the log. Get calorie counts for “people foods” from package labels, books, and on the Internet. If you are not keeping a log, a list of the foods the dog gets will help. Figuring proper amounts for a particular dog requires tracking what the dog is being fed over time and how the weight responds, which the veterinarian can do. You could have two dogs from the same litter, same sex, same lifestyle; and one would need more food than the other. But across different breeds, the differences are huge. Dog metabolisms vary tremendously.
- Consult your veterinarian about any people foods you give your dog to make sure they are safe for dogs, that they are being fed in amounts that are not excessive, and that they are safe for YOUR dog. Some foods are harmful to dogs who have specific medical problems.
- It requires study to put together a healthy homemade diet. If you are not going to make a serious study of it, stick to dog food. Consult your veterinarian about the safety of any nutritional supplements. If you are considering a homemade diet, talk to your veterinarian first. It is especially important that your veterinarian know if you your dog eats raw meat, because that information can narrow the tests required when your dog becomes ill.
- Let the veterinarian be your guide as to when your dog’s medical condition calls for trying “novel foods,” as well as what foods to try. These might include things like eggs, baby food, cottage cheese, meats—work closely with the veterinarian because some things we think would work could undermine the dog’s chances. It’s actually good for all dogs to have a little experience with novel foods throughout life. We just need to do this in moderation. Feeding moderate amounts of novel foods show you what your dog likes to eat, so you can try that during illness.
Some situations work better if you divide a dog’s daily ration into more meals, so that the dog eats less at a time but more times a day. Unless your veterinarian directs otherwise, feed at least twice a day. Some situations call for feeding more than two meals a day. It is safe to do with almost any dog.
Tiny dogs may need more than two meals a day to avoid hypoglycemia (which can be accompanied by seizures), especially when they are puppies. Consult your veterinarian about frequency, amounts and types of foods that are suitable for the particular puppy. Dogs eat more reliably when fed on schedule, but if you cannot get home to feed frequently enough, you may have to leave food out for the little one and hope for the best.
Weight control is easier with multiple small meals, because the dog never has to go long without eating. It’s easier to adjust a dog’s weight either up OR down with multiple small meals, because the dog doesn’t notice much difference per meal. The total amount of food for the day is what you look at on quantity.
When a dog vomits small amounts of yellow or white liquid once in awhile (not multiple times a day) with no other symptoms, feeding more small meals a day sometimes helps. But talk to your veterinarian about this rather than putting off veterinary care. Vomiting has a lot of causes, and you don’t want to miss the chance to head off a serious problem at its most treatable stage.
Setting the Stage for a Dog to Eat
With a picky-eater dog, whether or not the dog is ill, it’s essential to have the best feeding schedule and diet you can. If you are having trouble with that, one thing to try is a food log. Most people over-feed dogs, and anyone in your dog’s environment could be doing this. Have everyone in the family record everything they feed the dog in the food log.
Feeding appropriate treats is okay for healthy dogs with no eating behavior problems, but is NOT okay to give junk food to sick or picky-eater dogs. Dogs do not know about nutrition. They are opportunistic eaters by nature. If offered something that tastes or smells better than their regular food, they’ll choose the junk food option. And when already full of junk food, who is going to eat that healthy stuff?
With the right schedule and diet in place, you can space food enough that the dog is hungry enough to eat when food is offered. Treats can fit into a healthy diet, but they ARE part of the diet, and need to be scheduled and chosen correctly.
Some dogs eat better after mild exercise. This should be something the dog enjoys and that gets the dog into an alert state. Alert dogs eat better than sleepy dogs. It should not be stressful or involve heavy exertion. After the dog eats a full meal (half the daily rations), avoid strenuous exercise.
Resist the temptation to overfeed because the dog will take it in right then. Feeding too much at once will often result in getting less food into the dog overall.
Here are some activities to try for stimulating a dog’s appetite, depending on the dog’s health and training (where food is used, make it the dog’s correct food, so the meal is getting fed rather than “spoiling the dog’s dinner”!):
- Play with a toy that dispenses food.
- Interact with the dog in some clicker training using the correct food for the dog.
- Do something with the dog that you both enjoy, such as a trick.
- Practice with the dog on training a task, such as coming when called. If you choose a retrieving task, make it brief.
- Set up a for the dog. Keep it brief and do it only in cool conditions, because the goal is to get more calories into the dog than the dog burns in the game!
- Take a walk (not a run) on leash. Don’t let the dog overexert. You can mix feeding into a walk if you use food for training, such as attention work.
The Spay/Neuter Connection
Some dogs will eat much better if spayed or neutered. Doing this relieves the dog of physical, social, mental and emotional stresses that often interfere with eating.
It is important for owners to fit the amount of food to the dog’s activity level, and not to just feed all the dog will eat. This is a species that will eat, well, anything, depending on the particular dog.
Dogs are not good judges of what they should eat or how much of it. We must regulate that for them. Any change in the dog’s life can change what is the right amount of food. Spay/neuter timing often coincides with a dog’s maturing and needing less food. Dogs don’t get fat from being altered, but they can get fat because owners don’t monitor food and weight.
Stimulating a Dog to Eat
Some dogs are visually oriented and will react particularly to what they see at feeding times. Other dogs may be more affected by how the food smells and by other smells in the environment. Observe your dog carefully to note what seems to help get the eating behavior you’re seeking.
Set the scene for a positive experience with food. If there is a location, dish, word or gesture from you that has been associated with the dog refusing food, change it. If one of these things has been associated with eating well, use it!
Since your dog can’t understand “I’m going to feed you at 3 o’clock”—and thus be building up expectation for that food—we have to feed every time 3 o’clock comes around for the dog to recognize that pattern. Watch your dog’s responses to see what patterns work and what patterns don’t. For example, your dog may eat better in the quiet house before someone else gets in from school or work. Conversely, your dog might eat better when that person comes home, or a half hour later, or two hours later. If you’re having trouble recognizing patterns, keep notes for awhile of what happened and in what order and whether the dog ate well or not.
Some dogs eat better if they can see another dog, but others are too intimidated and need more privacy. Don’t use another dog to “compete” for the food. You be the one to institute separations between the dogs, never leaving it up to the dogs to push each other away from the food.
Food fights can extend into other areas, so don’t do anything to open the door to that. But, with “Picky” safely separated from the other dog, you can let the other dog finish the last little bit of Picky’s food. You can also start the other dog eating before you start Picky, or feed treats from your hand, letting Picky see that the other dog likes the food.
Here are some body movements to try:
- Hold the dish for the dog to eat in your hand at a level the dog seems to prefer—usually just below the dog’s nose level.
- Feed the dog from your fingertips or the palm of your hand.
- If the food can be formed into balls, try that.
- Drop bits of food on the floor.
- Let the dog drop food on the floor to eat.
- Feed from whatever kind of dish the dog seems to prefer: plate, bowl, tray, bucket, etc.
- Let the dog carry the food around to eat.
- Feed the dog all alone, or stay with the dog.
- Experiment to see what behavior from you helps get the dog to eat, and with what timing: sit or stand, lean on the wall, look away, bounce around or be still, talk or be silent.
- Figure out what distracts the dog. Avoid distraction when the dog is eating if it would cause the dog to stop eating and pay attention to the distraction. If the dog is not eating, you may want to use that or some other distraction to interrupt the dog’s focus and direct it back to eating.
- In every possible way, attract the dog toward you rather than pursuing the dog.
Move toward Goals
If this is a healthy dog or can be healthy again, there are many advantages to building good eating habits. It leaves you more time and energy for other things, aids the dog’s health, makes medications easier to give, helps you observe changes in appetite as a health symptom and provides a fantastic behavior modification learning experience for you!
Typical goals would include the dog eating healthy food, out of a dish, on schedule or when offered, and without the human having to wait attendance and provide a floor show. To achieve this, use the stimulation you need to get that good eating, but no more. Work toward using less verbal encouragement and less body movement at meals and moving away gradually so you won’t always have to stand by as the dog eats. Get the dog eating well first, and then start adjusting things a little at a time.
If, sadly, your dog is terminally ill, you may not want to worry so much about weaning the dog off dependence on you to eat. This may be the time to just pamper the dog. But still, beware of narrowing what you have to do to get the dog to eat to the extreme that you run out of options for making things more appealing.
Enjoy feeding your dog and learning more about how to get a dog to eat. If you can convert a picky eater into a good eater, most other dog training will be easy!