What to Do About a Finicky Eater

Most dogs will happily vacuum up whatever is placed in front of them. But some canines go from voracious chow hounds to discriminating nibblers, while others seem to be persnickety about their food all the time. Your four-legged friend wasn't born picky. While the inborn temperament of a dog can vary -- just like its owner's can -- food finickiness in canines is often a sign of illness or an unintentional feeding-related goof. Here's advice on how to prevent appetite problems from arising, and what to do if your dog seems bored with its dinner. 

Creatures of Habit
"If you start off feeding a dog dry food, it will eat it. If you switch to wet food, the dog will prefer that," says Trisha Joyce, DVM, a veterinarian at New York City Veterinary Specialists. "Going back to dry food can then be difficult. The pet may protest, or go on a hunger strike."

If you've been feeding wet food and need to switch to dry, begin by combining the two foods, with one-quarter dry and three-quarters wet. The second day, go to half and half, and so on. You can also add a bit of hot water to dry food to make it more aromatic. Or buy a gravy supplement to make it more palatable.

The Dangers of People Food
"In my experience small dogs tend to be more finicky," Joyce says. "I think this is possibly because they're used to being catered to by their owners. They sit on their laps and eat chicken, and quickly figure out that people food tastes better than dog food."

Unlike dog food, which is specially formulated to meet your pet's nutritional needs, human food alone usually does not provide your dog with its daily protein, vitamin, mineral and other nutritional requirements. And proportion control is a problem. Some dog owners serve too much food, and obesity can become a problem. "Some dogs have an 'off' switch, but most don't," says Joyce. "They'll pretty much eat as much as you give them." Her advice: no table scraps.

Even worse, a dog that has been fed a regular diet of people food may be in big trouble if it becomes sick and completely disinterested in food. "At the hospital," explains Joyce, "we can often tempt a dog that's lost its appetite with people food -- but only if the dog has not eaten that as a regular part of its diet. Otherwise it's not as appealing."

Keep on Schedule
If you feed your dog at the same time each day, it will tend to have the most dependable appetite. Dogs also eat better when kept away from treats, which don't offer much nutritionally, and can interfere with their appetite at meal times. And keep in mind that your dog is a social animal -- it may prefer to eat with the family, and can be fed at the same time as everyone else, if possible.

When to Worry
So, what is the most common cause for a normally ravenous dog to skip a meal? It's the doggie version of the stomach flu. "If your dog skips one or two meals, and has another symptom like diarrhea that comes on abruptly," Joyce says, "it's probably gastroenteritis, an upset stomach, from something it ate."

On the other hand, if a dog that normally has a healthy appetite stops eating for long periods, you should watch for other symptoms such as vomiting, excessive urination or lethargy. If these occur, take your dog to the vet. "Dogs can stop eating because of metabolic disorders -- like liver or kidney disease -- or as a result of something rare, like a brain tumor. But really, it's most likely they just have a tummy ache."