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, but may be suffering from a canine eating disorder. 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."

Meals for Small Mutts

Not all small dogs have the same nutritional needs. Giving your dog a food that is specially formulated for its size and activity level is the easiest way to make sure it's getting complete and balanced nutrition. Here are some ways to ensure that your little dynamo is getting just the right type and amount of food.

A Small Request
Small dogs have small mouths and stomachs. You may therefore want to feed your dog a formula with a small bite size for easy chewing. A nutrient-dense food will help make sure it is absorbing essential nutrients even though its stomach can only accommodate what seems like a small volume of food.

Special Needs
If you have a male dog, has he been neutered? Is he not getting enough exercise? Or do you have a female pooch that is about to have puppies? Special conditions like these dramatically affect your dog's nutritional demands.

Pregnant dogs have awesomely large nutrition requirements (no, not pickles and ice cream). Complete and balanced puppy food can give pregnant and lactating dogs the extra nutrients they need.

Less active dogs, or dogs that have been neutered or spayed, are prone to weight gain. Controlling your dog's weight is an important step toward protecting against complications of excess weight, such as diabetes or joint health problems. If you do use a weight-control food, look for these ingredients:

  • A reduced fat level that still offers essential nutrients for skin and coat health
  • L-carnitine, a key nutrient that helps burn fat and maintain muscle mass during weight loss
  • Special carbohydrate blends that help maintain energy while managing weight
  • Vitamin-rich fish oils for overall health

Selecting a Food
Small adult dogs require foods that offer complete nutrients essential for health and vitality:

  • Vitamin-rich fish oils for a healthy skin, shine and overall health
  • Essential vitamins and minerals to help support the immune system and help maintain good health
  • High-quality animal-based protein sources to help maintain muscles
  • A fiber source to promote intestinal health, enhance nutrient absorption and reduce backyard cleanup
  • Special carbohydrate blend of select healthy grains to help maintain normal blood sugar levels for sustained energy

These ingredients are the keys to adult nutrition whether you feed dry or canned dog food or provide treats

Switching to a Mature Diet
Unlike larger dogs that are considered mature at age five or six, your small dog can remain on an adult diet until age seven. In fact, small-breed dogs tend to live longer and don't experience age-related changes as early as bigger dogs do. But it is critical to make a proactive transition to a specially formulated mature diet so you can help keep your dog healthy and active for years to come.

Five Things About Feeding Your Dog

Do you have a pudgy puppy? Many dogs, like their owners, could stand to shed a few pounds. That extra weight isn't healthy and can lead to serious health problems. And some canines are simply couch potatoes -- which is never what nature intended for our dogs. But how do you trim down and fire up your pudgy pooch?

  1. Visit your veterinarian for advice. Some obesity stems from medical conditions such as hypothyroid. Have your vet check for health problems. If your dog is simply exploiting your heavy-handed feeding practices, your veterinarian can recommend a prescription dog food that will help shed those unwanted pounds, or recommend sensible proportions.
  2. Cut out snacks. That includes the pizza and dinner scraps you've been sneaking under the table.
  3. Have your veterinarian clear your dog for exercise. Start slow -- a daily walk around the block or a short game of fetch -- but do this every day and gradually build up to longer and more strenuous activity. Easy and fun exercises include fetching a ball or Frisbee, creating a small obstacle course and having your dog negotiate it, or short, brisk walks. Remember to start slow and keep cool, especially in hot weather. As your dog becomes more fit, increase his activity. Bicycle with your dog (provided your dog is well-trained to run beside your bike) using a Springer or similar device designed to safely tether your dog to the bike.
  4. Participate in a dog sport or activity. In my book, The Simple Guide to Getting Active with Your Dog (TFH, 2002), I discuss activities and dog sports for your pet. Backpacking with your dog (even in urban areas), agility, flyball, Frisbee, and skijoring are all activities open to all dogs.
  5. Warm up and cool down your dog. Warming up can include a slow walk before beginning an activity or a slow stretch, where you gently move your dog's legs through a full range of motion. Doing this before an after exercise will help keep your pooch limber and fit. So will bringing along extra water so your dog does not become dehydrated.

Dog Feeding Mishaps Corrected

When George Kingsley's seven-year-old pug Sophie began vomiting a couple of times per week after meals, he was quick to ask her veterinarian about the problem. "My vet describes her, politely, as being 'not a delicate eater,' which means she scarfs down her kibble," the Brooklyn, New York, dog owner says. "He suggested giving her each meal in smaller portions so that the food would have time to move through her digestive track. Now I give her half her breakfast when I get up, and the other half 30 minutes or so later, and do the same with dinner."

Portioning solved Sophie's problem with keeping her food down. For this and other sometimes-elusive solutions to common mealtime blunders, Gail Buchwald of the ASPCA offers nine quick and easy fixes.

In multi-pet homes, cat and dog or dog and dog eat side by side.

Multiple pets should have separate eating areas in order to avoid competition over resources and food guarding behaviors. "Create a calm feeding environment. It will help your pets' digestion," says Buchwald.

Some mornings you're out the door by seven, while others you're in bed past nine. Fido is fed soon after your alarm goes off -- whenever that may be.

When you sleep in, feed your furry friend as soon as you wake up. When you're leaving home early, don't pour the kibble until you're just about to leave. "Dogs need to maintain a regular feeding schedule," says Buchwald.

Heaping bowls of food have left your always-hungry pooch without a waistline.

Talk to your veterinarian about a healthy weight for your dog, as well as its ideal caloric intake -- then change your pet's diet accordingly. "There's a huge obesity problem among dogs," says Buchwald. "Vets are seeing more and more of it, along with the weight-related conditions that we see in people, like diabetes and arthritis." To protect your dog's health, whittle its waist. 

Your dog licks its bowl, so why waste water washing it?

When feeding wet food, the bowl should be washed after every meal. With dry food, washing every other day should be sufficient. And don't forget the water dish (clean with soap and water once a day). "Dirty bowls harbor bacteria," reminds Buchwald.

Every time Rover pleads with those big brown eyes, you melt and give him what he wants: a treat.

Give pieces of treats rather than entire biscuits, or substitute a canine-friendly vegetable (e.g., a green bean) for a cookie. "Treats should make up less than five percent of a dog's daily caloric intake," advises Buchwald.

Your post-breakfast walk occurs immediately after the morning meal, and often includes a brief jog.

You can't run on the treadmill after eating, and neither should your dog. Wait 30 minutes between mealtime and exercise.

The pet store is out of your dog's favorite kibble, so you simply purchase something else and begin using it that very night.

Be sure to shop for your pet's food when you've still got a week's supply left. If you need to change, make the switch gradually over the course of one week. "Start out with a quarter cup of the new food and three-quarters cup of the old for one or two days, seeing how your dog tolerates it. If everything goes smoothly, move on to 50-50 for a couple days, and then a quarter cup of the old food mixed in with three-quarters of the new," advises Buchwald.

Spot's only meal is in the morning.

Like people, pooches need to eat more than once a day. Daily breakfast and dinner are ideal. "Dogs are diurnal, like us. They're up with the sun, and ready for sleep at night, and they need nutrition throughout the day."

Who could resist that face begging at the dinner table? Leftovers from your plate always find their way into your dog's mouth.

Create a no-table-scraps policy and stick with it. "What we eat is not healthy for our dogs," says Buchwald. Aside from contributing to obesity, people food can cause stomach upset or even death for our best friends. The list of forbidden foods is long, and it's difficult to avoid them all. A no-go rule is your best antidote to this problem.

Of course, dog feeding isn't an exact science. Become familiar with your dog's food-related behaviors, as well as, ahem, "output." Changes in Fido's gustatory patterns can clue you in that the menu, or its delivery, warrant further examination. Your dog's stomach will thank you for it.

Photo: Corbis Images

From Finicky Fido to Chowhound Charlie

No matter how hungry your dog may be at mealtime, you'll notice that a quick sniff of the food will almost always precede the chow down. Like a connoisseur inhaling the bouquet of a fine wine before the first sip, your dog is deciding if what you've laid out for the meal is worth eating.

Dogs reportedly have about one sixth the number of taste buds that we humans do, but their sense of smell is far more sophisticated than ours. "The tissue in their brain used for smelling is bigger and actually weighs more than the same tissue in human brain," says Dr. Nancy Scanlon, DVM, at the Sherman Oaks Veterinary Clinic in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Moisture on your dog's nose helps to dissolve molecules in the air around the food, which are then inhaled, making contact with the nerves inside the nose. The nerve impulses travel instantly from the nose directly to the brain and, at this point, your discriminating doggy can immediately determine if this food is familiar, fresh, rotten, sweet or salty -- and whether or not it should be eaten.

But dogs are not easily fooled. Once your dog starts eating, the sense of taste takes over. If a food has been artificially altered so that it smells like beef but is actually soybean mush, your dog will not continue to eat if the flavor is not to its liking.

What flavors do dogs like?
One study found that dogs prefer meat to any cereal foods. They like canned meat more than fresh meat, and cooked meat better than raw. And while dogs have a taste for sweetness, they can quickly detect -- and will avoid -- food with a bitter taste.

Some dog owners may feel that their pets need a variety or certain intensity of flavors to keep them interested. Not so, say experts. "Dogs don't need a lot of flavors," says Scanlon. There is no need to switch foods, she says, unless you need to coax your dog to eat, for instance, when it's sick. Most dogs love, and will accept, flavorful treats, but these should only be used when you're training your dog or at other special times, but not as a meal replacement.

Picky eater problems
Most of us know dogs that will eat just about anything. These tend to be bigger dogs, strays or dogs that were bred to be hunters. "But for the picky guys, the fresher (the food) the better," says Scanlon, who adds that small, thin dogs, such as whippets or grey hounds, tend to be pickier eaters. Canned food or a combination of canned and dry may be best for these dogs.

If you constantly change your dog's food, or frequently give your dog scraps of human food, you could actually create a picky eater, says Dr. Kimberly Bolduc, DVM at Willowood Acres Veterinary Clinic in Romulus, Mich. Keep your dog on a consistent diet and refrain from offering human food, which can be dangerous to a dog's health.

If your dog has lost interest in its food, for some reason, here are a few tips to try to make it more palatable:

1. Warm the food in the microwave for a minute or two, making sure it doesn't get too hot. Most dogs prefer moderately warm to cold food. Warming has the added advantage of heightening the food's aroma, making it all the more enticing to your dog.

2. Add a little bit of fat-free chicken or beef broth to the food. The added hint of moisture, taste and nutrition can sometimes pep up your pup's interest. It can also help to keep the food moist if you microwave it, per the first tip. You can additionally achieve the warming effect by heating the broth itself, but not the dog food, before stirring the two together.

3. Combine wet with dry dog food. Canned food can be more satisfying to some dogs, so try adding a tablespoon or two of canned food to the bowl of dry food, mixing it together completely.

4. Try adding a small amount of a specially formulated dog food sauce to your dog's dry food. These new sauces are designed just for dogs, so look for them at your local pet food store or other pet food retailer.