How To Get your Picky Dog to Eat

There is an entire subset of dogs that are picky – they may like food one day, but not the next. The typical picky dog may rotate through many different types of food or toppers in order to keep things interesting. Personally I have seen more picky Chihuahua’s, finicky Huskies,  selective Shi Tzus, fussy Yorkies and choosy Doodles than any other breeds. However the truly picky dog can be rather rare – most pups actually have other reasons why they might not want to eat. So if you are unsure if your pup is picky or if there is something else going on, make sure to check out my article on the 10 reasons why your picky dog won’t eat first!

There are two different factors that come into play when getting our picky pups to eat – first is diet selection, and second is diet presentation. If you try to give a poorly selected diet to a fussy eater – they won’t be interested – they will turn their nose up because they don’t like the taste. And if you poorly present a tasty diet you can actually teach your pup to be a picky eater. Meaning that “pickiness” can be a learned behavior.

What does the Research Tell us About Dog Diet Preferences?

Well the first thing you need to know about dogs is that their strongest sense is their sense of smell. Dogs have 300 million olfactory sensors, which is 50 times as many as people do! In contrast dogs have about 5 times less receptors for taste than people, making them less discriminating than a person. 

However, the cool thing is dog’s actually have an organ located within the top of their mouth that connects their sense of taste with their sense of smell! This allows dogs to actually differentiate foods based on smell, while eating – which is something people cannot do. So truly a dog’s heart isn’t so much in their stomach as in their nose. 

Another thing you need to realize about a dog’s sense of taste is that not only is it less discriminating than people, it also has different preferences. In a series of observational research studies done on stray dogs in India they found that dogs prefer meat over carbohydrates, and the smell of meat matters MORE than the actual food contents. In another research study looking at taste preferences in dogs they took this further and found that dogs prefer certain textures of meat – ground in comparison to cubed and moist to dry. It also found that dogs tend to prefer cooked to raw meats.

Summary of Dog Taste Preferences to use to make better choices for our picky pups.

What is the best dog food for a picky eater?

When choosing a dog food for a picky eater it is not only important to consider your pup’s lifestyle, age, medical conditions, breed, etc – but also to look at their preferences. Each dog will have different preferences on what types of meats they might like over others, which research has shown is largely dictated by both what their mother ate while pregnant/lactating, and what they are exposed to in puppy-hood. So how are we to choose the right food? Well there are four things you can look for in your pup’s food that will increase the overall palatability or “tastiness” of the diet.

CHOOSE FOODS THAT CONTAIN ORGAN MEATS

When dealing with pickiness in dogs it's so important to play to their likes - and one things dog's LOVE is things that are stinky! Organ Meats definitely fit that bill, and can entice any picky pup to eat.

Now I’m not sure if you have ever had the pleasure to smell cooking liver, gizzard, or heart – but every time I’ve cooked one of these in the house I always get odd looks from friends and family that visit. And in all honestly – I think it smells like something died in my crockpot, but my dogs LOVE organ meats. And organ meats are probably the number one thing that I look for in a dog food – be that a wet food, topper, or treat for a picky eater.

This is because organ meats are both nutrient dense, and because their “smelly” nature speaks to a dog’s nose. We know both the preference and importance of organ meats for our dog’s by just looking at their wild relatives (the wolf) who often consume organ meats FIRST before eating muscle meats.

LOOK FOR DOG FOODS WITH LOTS OF MEAT

Dogs naturally have a preference towards meat based products - so our ideal diet for a picky pup would be one with a high meat content.

In several scientific papers dog’s have shown a strong preference to meat-based products over products that have carbohydrate or vegetable based. So if you have a picky pup, gravitate towards a higher meat based product. Naturally these products (for the most part) are going to be found in products with a higher moisture content – like canned, gently cooked, or raw. There are some dehydrated high meat products on the market now as well. Products that are higher in meat will have meat listed high on the ingredients label, and will contain over 30% protein on a dry matter basis. However when checking out the food label watch out for carbohydrate “protein boosters” these are things like peas, chickpeas, lentils, soy, or even corn – which will increase the protein value of the food, but not necessarily be the meat-based protein we want to entice our picky pups.

FIND DOG FOODS HIGH IN FAT

Fats tend to be high in calories and be highly palatable - perfect for our picky pup.

Generally for both people and our dog’s fats are enticing – they contain a higher amount of calories, and definitely enhance the overall “tastiness” of a food item. Most pet foods will contain a moderate amount of fat, however if you have a picky pup, you might want to look for diets containing MORE fat, these diets would have over 20% fat on a dry matter basis. You will have to be careful though, because with more fat means that the food can potentially go RANCID faster. Make sure to purchase kibble bags you can finish within two weeks, or store your kibble in your deep freeze. This will prevent those fats from breaking down over time.

GRAVITATE TOWARDS FOODS HIGHER IN MOISTURE

Dogs actually have taste buds devoted to WATER - so to combat our dog's pickiness we can choose a high  moisture diet.

Higher moisture foods not only tend to be more palatable – but they also play to the dog’s final and unique taste bud – WATER. Many dogs will eat a high moisture diet over a kibble, freeze dried or dehydrated diet purely because of this added moisture content. And research has actually backed this up by finding that stray dogs showed a preference to eating bread soaked in water over plain dry bread.

Now what can we do to help encourage our picky dogs to eat?

Choosing the right food or item is only half the battle with picky dogs, you also need to present it in a way that is enticing. Sometimes the presentation can be the difference between dinner being eaten and dinner being refused. And remember – there are many reasons why pup’s might not want to eat, so make sure to talk to your veterinary team if something has changed or gotten worse with your pup’s overall eating pattern.

CREATE A SAFE SPACE

Creating a safe space for your pup to have their meals on a schedule is ideal for our fussy eaters. This can really make or break mealtime.

This is probably one of the most important things you can do for your pup. Make mealtime a routine in the same place, at the same time. There are very very rare occasions where I would recommend a dog be free-fed. Most dogs do well if offered food to eat for 15 minutes, then having the food removed and put away. For dogs that were previously free fed, on the weekend by offering them food four times per day – maybe 6a, 12n, 4p, and right before bed. Put the food down for 15 minutes, if the pet isn’t interested remove it and offer it again later. If you’d like to offer every hour to start – you definitely can – but the goal is to slowly get them used to there being meal times rather than a buffet. Food should also be portioned correctly for the size of pet and the feeding – not just offered ad lib. These timed feedings will eventually encourage to eat at specific times. 

Specific timing of meals allows you to create a safe space to eat. A safe space to eat may be a separate area away from the household – maybe a kennel or bathroom – where they can eat without distractions, and away from people/other pets. Or it could mean that they eat when you during dinnertime – right in the kitchen! It completely depends on your pup’s preferences – some pets are social eaters, others are more isolated eaters.

ADD A TOPPER

Adding a topper to your pup's food is probably the "go to" for any fincky dog owner, however HOW you add the topper is important.

This is probably the most common “go to” for pup parents out there. You top the food with SOMETHING, ANYTHING that they will eat. Which is fine – however how you present the topped food is important. What I don’t want you to do is put down the food, your dog looks at your with sad big eyes, and then you pull it up and add some shredded chicken. What your dog has done in this situation is train you to add on extra’s by waiting it out. If this is you I’d like to challenge you to stand your ground to the puppy dog eyes, and offer the toppered food first (ideally topped with a complete and balanced diet – not just shredded chicken!) – wait for 15 minutes, then pull up the food and wait at least 30 minutes before offering it again.

I like equating this behavior to a toddler at dinnertime. You place a meal in front of them, with chicken, broccoli, and rice – and they look at you like your crazy – push it away, probably throw a tantrum (way more dramatic than our pups). Well if you as a parent go into the cupboard and pull out their favorite food – let’s say the LOVE watermelon – and place it one the plate – what have your taught them? You have shown them that if they scream, yell and pitch a fit at dinner they get what they want. Thus you better believe that toddler is going to do the same thing over and over to get that watermelon. Now let’s say you just put the watermelon on the plate with everything else – and the toddler still pitched a fit – you KNOW they love watermelon. Would you go find something else to give them – maybe some of those brownies? – of course not. You would say – “Are you not hungry right now honey? That’s okay, how about you sit for a bit and drink some water, then we can go play and you can eat later.”

Dogs actually have the same level of intelligence as a toddler – they can and will bend you to their will to get what they want – though usually in a much less dramatic fashion. So what I want you to think is instead of adding, and adding, and adding to the bowl – instead if they have enjoyed it before – offer, if they refuse – try again later. Later you can offer something different or the same thing, but you never change what is in the bowl right after they refuse.

CREATE A GRAVY

Creating a gravy using a high moisture diet to top our dried or dehydrated meals is another common way to entice our picky pups to eat.

This is probably one of the most popular ways boarding facilities will get pup’s to continue eating while away from their owners if they seem stressed. They will take a small amount of a canned food, add a small amount of water to create a thick gravy. Then they toss the kibble in it. I have also seen some facilities use different oils like coconut, fish, beef fat, butter, etc in a similar way. Some people will also use Bone Broth instead of water to create these gravys to add additional nutrients. The underlying thing that you are doing is adding flavor to the food – you are coating, or rehydrating the kibble/dehydrated/freeze dried food with a liquid flavor enhancer.

If you do choose to go this route there are two additional considerations. First is that adding on additional fats to a diet is not necessarily going to go over well for all pups – some dogs will get loose stools on higher fat diets, and if you are already feeding a diet high in fat, this extra “boost” could push things over the edge. Second is that fat contains a lot of calories – most oils will be 100 kcal+ per tbsp, which can be alot for a little dog and may actually cause them to be MORE picky because they are getting all the calories they need from their topper. Third is if you use bone broth – CHECK THE LABEL – if you are not making it yourself. Avoid products with added salt, sugar, garlic, onion, etc – specially if you are purchasing a human product from the grocery store – these products will contain a lot of those items and could make your pet ill.

My favorite way to create the “Gravy” is going to be by using a complete and balanced – canned, terapacked, dehydrated powdered or a fresh food. This way you don’t have to worry about your gravy upsetting the overall balance of your pup’s diet, and you can just calculate in the calories. Because remember – any additions need to be less than 10% of the calories in your pup’s overall diet.

ADD HEAT

The last thing you can do to convince your pup to eat is to add heat - adding heat to your dog's meal will create an enticing smell that can motivate even the pickiest pup to eat.

This is probably my last resort to get a dog to eat something – mostly because any diet when it is made to be complete and balanced IS NOT MADE to be reheated. Certain vitamins are very sensitive to heat, and will degrade significantly when heated, which could cause potential deficiencies over time (vitamin C and vitamin E). Other nutrients like fats can become rancid if you add heat into the mix. Most manufacturers will actually add these items after the cooking process once the food has cooled in order to make sure they nutrients don’t deteriorate, and maintain their nutritional value.

So reheating shouldn’t be your “go to” to get your pet to eat, but if you do find yourself doing this often there are ways to do it safely. First is to homecook for your pup. What you can do is batch cook your pet’s food without the vitamin/mineral supplement. Reheat just to room temperature – then add the fats and vitamin/mineral supplements right before serving. Some vitamin/mineral supplements have actually been manufactured to handle being re-heated one time. I know balanceIT ‘s Canine Plus is one of those brands, and could be potentially very useful in this situation.

Another way to get around the reheating issue, is to instead of reheating allow the food to come to room temperature, then add on a heated “gravy” as described above – this will give off the aroma you are looking for by heating the food, but instead you are doing it on a very small portion of the diet (rather than the entire thing), lessening the potential risk associated with heating of the food.

So what have you done in the past to keep your picky pup eating? Do you have your own “magic method” to convince your pup it’s time to eat? I’d love to hear from you and your experiences! Make sure to join the conversation on Instagram to ask questions, find answers and connect with other pet parents. I’d love to have you as part of our community of pet lovers.

I hope you and your pup/s have a wonderful day, until next time my Canine Health Nuts!

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