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Fussy Dogs – How Can I help them Try New (Healthy) Food?

Article at a Glance

Fussy eaters can certainly be a challenge for their owners! And it is no joy for the dog either, as all dogs should love their food. In this article we will look at:

  • What is a fussy eater?
  • Why are some dogs very fussy with their food? 
  • What can you do about it?

What do we Mean By a Fussy eater?

In this article, we are defining fussy eaters as dogs who show little or no enthusiasm to a specific food when the bowl is put down. 

Other reasons why dogs may not eat their food may include:

  1. There is a medical reason – your dog may be ill / have an injury or infection that is stopping them eating. If refusing food is a new issue for your dog, or long-standing, always have your dog checked by a vet to ensure there is not a medical reason for refusing food. 
  2. Some dogs have learnt that, if they refuse their food, then their parent will keep putting different foods down, this does not help at all, and can cause more stress to your dog. 
  3. Some medications will  suppress appetite. If your dog is on prescribed medication and has a poor appetite, then this should be discussed ASAP with your vet. 

Why do some dogs Not Love their Food? 

There are so many reasons why a dog may be fussy with their food, we will cover the main ones here.

  1. Stress – choosing the correct feeding location, often away from other dogs, or children, is really important. Some dogs, especially nervous dogs, can find it very stressful eating in a busy location. In the wild dogs are used to having their food taken by more dominant members of the pack, so dogs need a quiet, relaxed area to eat, where they feel safe to concentrate on eating without distraction. In the wild, when a dog is eating they are very vulnerable, as their attention is on the food not any potential danger in their surroundings. I have seen many dogs feeding issues resolved very quickly by changing the feeding location to a clean, quiet area where they feel safe. In addition, if the owner is stressed when they put the dogs feed down, your dog will pick up on this and may refuse to eat. Dogs will not eat when they are stressed. That is why it is often better for owners to leave the room and let their dog have some quiet time when they are eating. 
  2. Food Intolerances / Inappropriate Food Fed: dogs know what is good for them and what is not! Yes some dogs will consume all sorts of things humans do not approve of, but a dog’s sense of smell is way more sensitive than humans: dogs have a staggering 278 million sensory receptors, with 872 genes that code specific olfactory receptors. In comparison, humans have only approximately 5 million receptors, with 339 coding genes [1]. When a dog is presented with food that is either rancid (this happens with lots of kibbles, unbeknown to humans) or food that their smell is telling them is not good for them, they can smell it is not right, and may refuse or be reluctant. 
  3. Microbiome: much is now known about the microbiome. The microbiome starts in our mouth. When any animal is fed food that does not suit them, has some illnesses, or has medication, including chemical wormers etc., this will affect the delicate balance of the microbiome. The microbiome in our mouths, and those of our dogs, is instrumental in food choices! When, for example, high sugar or carbohydrate foods are fed, this causes inappropriate bacteria to thrive which in turn causes cravings for more high sugar / high carbohydrate foods [2]. When the microbiome is out of balance, this can cause inflammation in the digestive tract, and gums, and can dramatically affect a dog’s appetite. Changing to a healthier food that promotes a natural microbiome will really help, although it will take time for this transition. See transition Guide. Changing food slowly, will allow time for the microbiome to rebalance. As this occurs, your dog will start to crave it’s healthy food. 
  4. Variety: no animal, including us or our dogs, are evolved to eat the same food every day! Variety is key, for physical and mental health, and to prevent boredom. I am sure we can all identify with eating our favorite meal too often, until we eventually go off it! The same is true for dogs. Dogs should (unless there is a medical reason for not doing so) have a good variety of protein sources in their diet. Variety keeps your dog interested in its food. 

Summary of Tips to Encourage Enthusiastic Eating!

  1. Ensure your dog has a quiet safe place to eat, where they can relax without being disturbed. If needed, leave them so they do not feel they are being ‘watched’;
  2. Feed the best quality food that you can afford, in as unprocessed a form as possible. Learning how to home prepare food is fun! 
  3. Decide what food you are feeding your dog that day and stick to it. Feed a good quality food full of nutrition.
  4. Call your dog enthusiastically when it is food time, put the food bowl down for them and give them an instruction which can be anything really to tell them it is time to eat ‘Dinner time!’. Then leave them alone!
  5. Never leave food down all day – any not eaten should be taken up, and not put back down until the next feed time. Grazing not only encourages fussy eating but also puts stress on the pancreas. For slow eating dogs, they may need to be given a bit longer to eat, but once they stop showing an interest take the bowl away (and store in the fridge for later use if appropriate). 
  6. Change foods slowly, to allow time for your dog’s microbiome to adjust. As they get more in balance they will crave the healthy food. It takes time, just as humans get addicted to junk food so do dogs.
  7. Ignore them when they refuse food and praise when they eat it.
  8. Do not feed them or give them tit-bits until their next meal (except perhaps a bedtime biscuit if that is part of their routine!)
  9. At the next meal time, follow the same routine, food down, give the instruction, give them the set time and if the food is not all eatern, take it away and do not re-offer the food. Offer fresh food at every meal time. 

Listening to your dog’s feedback is important, but also understanding changes take time. You will soon find your dog understands the routine and takes the opportunity to eat in their ‘feeding window’. Questioning WHY your dog is not enjoying their food is crucial. 



[1] Help Your Dog Heal Itself, Caroline Ingraham 2nd Edition


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