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.