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.

Does Your Dog Need Vitamins?

Providing your dog with vitamins, minerals and other nutritional components is important to your pet's health and well-being. The best way to do so is by feeding it a high-quality, complete and balanced diet. Often you may be tempted, for a number of reasons, to supplement your pet's diet with table scraps or other nutritional supplements.

It is actually better for your dog if you forego supplementing its food, however. Here's why:

Risks of Supplementing
It is important for concerned pet owners like you to realize that quality dog foods are carefully formulated to meet the caloric needs of your pet. In addition, quality dog food provides the essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals specific to the nutritional requirements of your dog. Quality foods are complete and balanced for a specific life stage or lifestyle. By adding table scraps or other supplements, the delicate nutrient balance can be disrupted.

The interaction between different minerals is very complex. Research has shown that not only are the individual levels of minerals in a diet important, but so is the proper balance. An excess of one mineral may affect the absorption of a second. This could lead to a deficiency in that second mineral.

One common supplement is feeding additional meat. However, because meat contains 20 to 40 times more phosphorus than calcium, adding meat to a balanced diet will upset the calcium to phosphorus (or Ca:P) ratio, which is important for proper bone development and maintenance. This may prompt your dog's body to absorb calcium from the bones in order to reach the right balance. Ca:P ratio should range between 1.1 and 1.4 parts of calcium for each 1 part of phosphorus.

Excess amounts of calcium have been associated with several bone diseases that affect growing puppies. If you own a large-breed puppy, for example, you may believe it requires extra calcium for proper development of bones. However, adding yogurt, cottage cheese, or calcium tablets to the pup's diet will only upset the body's delicate mineral balance. Remember that large-breed puppies will consume more food and receive the calcium their bodies need by eating the recommended portions. The best way to support a normal growth rate is to feed growing dogs adequate, but not excessive, amounts of food that are part of a balanced diet, using a portion-controlled regimen.

Complete and Balanced Food
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulates the pet food industry and has established certain nutritional requirements for dogs and cats. These requirements are published annually in the AAFCO Manual. Only pet foods that have met the strict testing criteria established by AAFCO can carry the "complete and balanced" statement on the label. Check to make sure your dog's food has it.

So, while supplementing begins with good intentions, it is often unnecessary and it can upset the delicately balanced nutritional requirements of your dog.

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.

How Much Protein

Have you heard that too much protein is bad for your dog? Or have you heard that dog food doesn't have enough protein? When you look at the labels on various dog foods, some are high protein, while others are lower protein. Some say they have 30 percent protein, some 26 percent, 22 percent or 18 percent. How much protein does your dog really need?

Protein is a nutrient that provides four calories of energy per gram. It's a building block for muscles, organs, bones and connective tissue. It makes up blood cells, antibodies, hair and enzymes. The body that oversees pet nutrition, the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), requires that all dog foods have a minimum of 18 percent protein in adult dog food and 22 percent protein in puppy food when all water is removed from the food. But is this what your dog needs? The answer is, it depends.

Active dogs (sled dogs, police dogs, field or hunting dogs, herding dogs) need more protein. These super fit dogs are physically working for several hours each day.  They usually require 25 percent or more protein in their diet to build muscle and repair injuries. Puppies too, need higher protein because they're growing.

But isn't too much protein bad for a dog? Again, it depends. Thousands of sled dogs are routinely fed high-protein diets without a problem, but these dogs metabolize all that protein in their work. They're lean and healthy and lead long lives; sometimes 15 years and older. When considering your dog's protein needs, consider his physical condition and activity level.

If your dog isn't active and not getting much exercise, a food with 18 percent protein might just be fine. Another sign of inactivity is excess weight.  (If you have trouble feeling your pup's ribs through too much padding, then it is probably overweight.)  The important thing to remember is that age, activity level, fitness and health problems should all be taken into account. If you have a senior dog that doesn't run around much, then lower protein is right. If he's still hunting or pulling sleds, he can benefit from a higher protein diet.

While it was once believed that older dogs routinely needed lower protein diets to avoid stress to their kidneys, veterinary nutritionists have done an about-face on this. Older dogs with kidney problems do, indeed, need a low-protein food. But older dogs with healthy kidneys may actually need more protein as they age, because muscle mass tends to diminish with age and the seniors need the extra protein to maintain their muscles.

Protein is essential for your dog, but remember that how much depends largely on your dog's age, activity level and fitness. Talk to your veterinarian about what's right for your dog.