There are two main reasons your dog has become 'picky' about their food: you are overfeeding or overaccommodating their preferences.
Food is love. Sound familiar? In many ways, I agree that feeding a loved one, human or animal, is a nice way to express our love for them. Too much of a good thing, though, can be very harmful.
The average adult human weighs about 150 lbs. Dogs weigh significantly less. For small dogs, the appropriate portion size might seem too small in comparison to our human dinner plate. It's easy to be tempted to give "just a little bit" more or "just one more treat". One more treat can be the equivalent of a large piece of cake for us. How many of those would you find to be appropriate to eat?
There is a pet obesity epidemic. In 2019, Banfield Pet Hospital reported 51% of their adult dog patients were classified as overweight. We know obesity is on the rise in humans, but excluding medical causes of obesity, we are making the choice to overeat or to eat the wrong kinds of foods. Our pets are not going to the supermarket or ordering DoorDash - they are not responsible for their food intake, we are.
If your pet is obese, please speak to your trusted veterinarian to come up with a healthy weight loss plan tailored to your dog. This article is not meant to be used as weight loss advice.
Another human action that leads to picky eating is overaccommodating your dog's food preferences.
Here's what that might look like:
You give your dog a bowl of kibble. They won't eat it (or will only eat a portion of it). You worry they are not eating enough so you try to entice them by adding a little something to it (eggs, cheese, chicken, rice, etc.). This might work for a little while until it doesn't and you add another enticing ingredient. Not enough? You warm it up. Not enough? You add the cheese, the chicken, the broth, some treats, and you warm it up. Now your dog eats his food, which now consists of mostly no-so-healthy foods, and your dog will only eat it warmed up. In some cases, dogs have even shaped their owner's behavior to offer different ingredients every day especially cooked for them (while the owner eats frozen dinners).
What's wrong with this?
If adding just a little bit of one, not-so-terrible ingredient gets your pup eating their whole food portion, I say go for it! The problem is when this isn't enough and you continue to modify their food in an effort to convince them to eat more. This creates a picky eater which is not sustainable. Think about how you would keep this up when you are traveling with your dog, leaving them with a sitter when you leave town, or during a crisis like a natural disaster.
It's also not healthy. Whatever the dog's initial diet was, it has now been modified - not for the purpose of meeting their nutritional needs but for their taste preferences. If we allowed children to eat just cookies because it's what they like, it would result in malnutrition and inevitably damage their gut health and even overall health. Similarly for dogs, choosing ingredients solely based on their taste preferences is setting the foundation for health issues later on.
Please note: In no way am I condemning fresh foods (aka "human" foods). I don't believe a dog's diet should consist of just dog kibble, but that's a different topic.
HOW TO SOLVE PICKY EATING
For dogs that are generally healthy and not underweight, here's the method I've used on many dogs that has worked every single time...
1 - Feed appropriate portions for your dog. 🥣 If you are feeding kibble, look for the feeding guide on the package which will tell you how much to feed based on your dog's current weight. This is a general guideline since dogs, even of the same breed and size, will naturally have different metabolisms and activity levels, but it's a good starting point.
If you are feeding fresh or raw foods from a specific brand, contact the company for a portion size recommendation. Most of these companies will base it on your dog's weight, age, and activity level so it will be pretty accurate.
If you are making your own recipes, I recommend typing them into this website. They will tell you the recommended caloric intake for your dog and recommend supplements to fill in nutritional gaps in your current recipe.
Once you determine what the right amount is per day for your dog, divide that into 2 (or 3) meals and that is what you will now feed your dog at mealtimes.
For the first 3 days, you will not be feeding ANY additional food or treats. After the 3 days, you can feed occasional treats, but be mindful not to spoil your dog's appetite with treats. I recommend breaking treats into small pieces so you are less likely to overdo it. Treats should be about the size of a blueberry. 🫐
2 - Set mealtimes. ⏲️ No more free feeding 24/7. Set specific mealtimes, ideally two meals a day but 3 meals if ok too. Allow your dog access to their food bowl for 15 - 30 minutes. After no more than 30 minutes, pick up their food bowl and discard any uneaten portion.
If your dog didn't eat all or even any of the food you served, resist the urge to do something about it. A skipped meal or two is not starving your dog, it's not cruel. Have you not intentionally skipped a meal here and there when you just didn't feel like eating? Or unintentionally when you were super focused on completing a project? Your dog will be fine.
3 - Stay consistent. 💪 Most dogs will be willing to eat at least some of their food after 24 hours of this new -limited access to food at specific times of the day- routine. I find that it can take up to 3 days for some dogs to fully catch on to their new routine and become more enthusiastic about finishing their entire meal. However, this doesn't mean that they won't try to hold out again in the future in an attempt to get you to go back to your old habits. Stay consistent and remember that a missed meal is okay.
If after 36 hours of using this method your dog still refuses to eat at all, then this is more than just typical picky eating and it's time for veterinary intervention. We are not looking to starve our dogs to get them to eat. 36 hours without food should be sufficient time for a dog to develop some hunger and be willing to eat less preferable foods. Longer than this should not be necessary for a healthy dog. I have never encountered a dog that was unwilling to eat for more than 36 hours unless it was ill.
When To Worry
o Dog will eat soft foods but not hard foods like kibble or dry treats.
If your dog is only picky about hard or very chewy foods, there may be something going on with their jaw, gums, or teeth that is causing pain or discomfort when chewing. Get this checked out by your vet right away!
o Picky eating leads to weight loss
Some dogs truly are really picky - picky enough to starve themselves (which is not normal behavior). This calls for veterinary intervention. There may be a simple solution that can be helpful to your pup such as a flavoring agent or appetite stimulant.
I've seen dogs that end up eating a single food item, like steak because it's the only thing they are willing to eat. This is not ideal long-term and could lead to other medical issues. Veterinarians can offer several options that can safely get your pup eating again and in a healthy way.
o Loss of Appetite
If your dog has not eaten for 24 hours and refuses to eat any food, even treats that they normally enjoy, this is a loss of appetite not just a picky dog. For me, this is always concerning and should be treated as a serious symptom. One meal skipped? No problem, it happens. Two meals skipped? I start checking for loss of appetite and if my pup is not wanting to eat anything at all, I call my vet.
I can't stress this enough - if you are concerned at all about your dog's eating patterns, call your vet. 🩺