10 Reasons Why your picky dog isn’t eating

10 Reasons Why your picky dog isn't eating

There many reasons why a pup might not eat their dinner – and depending upon why your pup isn’t eating will tell you what you can do as a pet parent to combat the issue. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen well intentioned pet parents add more and more and more toppers, or constantly change foods to keep their pups eating – only to find out during an appointment that the issue actually steamed from another problem other than the typical “picky” or “bored” behavior.

So let me tell you the 10 reasons why your “picky” dog might not be eating…

1. Too Many Treats/Toppers

Pickiness in dogs can stem from the pup merely getting too many other items to eat throughout the day apart from their food. This can happen during training, or sometimes it's just an accident of giving to many treats.

Did you do a lot of training earlier? Did a family member come by earlier that day that showed their love in “extras” throughout their visit? Are you giving treats throughout the day for every little task? Have you calculated in the calories of your pup’s chew? These extras will add up – and for small dogs in particular – can easily eat into their daily calorie amount. When this happens one of two things happens – either your pet starts to gain weight because they will eat everything, or your pet starts to be more particular about what they do it and shows preference to certain items over others. You can end up with a combination of the two as well.

Most often I see this dog pickiness come out because of simple things – like offering too many dog chews when leaving the home during crate training. For a 10 lb Chihuahua who might get 250 calories per day, a six inch bully stick is 130 calories! If you pup ate only 1 inch a day, they would already be at their 10% treat limit – so any additional training treats would eat into how much food they might eat.

2. The Food Has Spoiled

Did you know that kibbled dog foods start to spoil at as early as 14 days after opening the bag? Picky dogs are more sensitive to these changes in their food and will often start out LOVING a food, but two weeks later no longer want to eat it - because it tastes bad.

Most people who feed fresh food, or canned food to their pups are mindful about spoilage – and realize that food should probably only be kept in the fridge for 3-4 days after opening, cooking or defrosting the product. But did you know the kibble can also spoil? Yep – though kibbled foods that are not open are shelf-stage for 1-3 years, once you open up the bag of pet food you let in the elements – air, moisture and heat. These elements will start to break down certain parts of your pet’s food – the fats added into their diet are particularly sensitive, and can start to go rancid after a period as short as TWO WEEKS. However if the food is stored in an incorrect way (aka out of the original packaging, or in the garage where it might be hot) then the food can actually go bad FASTER than the two week mark. So if you find your pup is going off food every week or so, check how you are storing your pet’s food – it might be going bad and your pet is just letting you know.

3. Negative Association with the Food/Flavor

Dog pickiness can become more apparent when dogs have a negative association with a food. Meaning they were sick - ate their food - and then felt WORSE. Incorrectly these picky dogs will associate the food with the cause of being sick.

Sometimes dogs will have something traumatic happen that is associated with a particular flavor or ingredient in pet food. For example if your pup wasn’t feeling well (think nauseous) because they were sick, and they ate their pet food, then after because they were sick they vomited – they might associate the food with being sick or nauseous. We see this a lot in veterinary medicine with dogs that have Kidney disease, where the condition causes nausea – dogs might go off food thinking that the food is CAUSING the issue. 

4. Anxiety / Stress

Have you ever been so nervous you just couldn't eat? Well that happens to some of our picky pups too. They just can't focus on eating or loose their appetite because they are in the "flight or fight" mode.

Many dogs, when stressed or anxious will go off food, or avoid food. This can often be seen when dogs are placed into a new environment – such as a kennel situation – or while owners are away on vacation. A dog may stop eating just due to stress. Another issue can be fear/anxiety associated with a certain object near the food. I know my friend’s Chihuahua was extremely “picky” until she figured out that her pup was actually terrified of stainless steal bowls – or really any bowl that made a sound while eating. Her pup had been adopted from a shelter situation and had gone through some trauma (he had an old break to his front leg that had not healed correctly) – so it’s possible this was a fear from being on the streets – of cars or other shiny objects. Switching the food to being placed on a paper plate ended up working like a charm – and she has been eating well ever since!

5. Neck Pain

Often pickiness in dogs can be mistaken for avoidance of pain. This is the case with dogs that have cervical spinal pain (or neck pain) that do not want to bend their neck to eat.

This is again something we will see more-so in older pups than younger ones. As dog’s age they can get arthritis in their joints – like their neck! So bending their neck down to eat may hurt. Some dogs will compensate for this by laying down to eat, however the task of laying down can be difficult as well for some of our older pups. In this case not only speaking to your veterinary team about arthritis management (with medications, supplements and alternative therapies) might be a good idea, but also elevating the food and water bowls to make them easier and more accessible might be useful.

6. Your Dog Isn’t Hungry

Some fussy dogs are simply just not hungry! They know when they are full and they just don't want to overeat because they already innately know when they are full.

Believe it or not some days your pet will be less hungry than others. Now some dogs never seem to have this happen and will literally eat until they burst at all points in time – HOWEVER – there is a subset of dogs that are very “in-tune” with their fullness ques and know when they just don’t need to eat. These dogs basically self-regulate their weights based on activity level and other factors. If you have a dog like this – CELEBRATE – because keeping your pup at a healthy weight for their lifetime has been shown to increase your pup’s life for UP TO 1-3 years depending upon the breed.

7. Acid Reflux

Particular dogs will over-produce stomach acid which can cause acid reflux, they "finicky pups" will often refuse to eat early the morning or if too much time has passed between meals. Simply offering meals closer together usually helps with this issue.

Certain medical conditions, or gastrointestinal issues can cause acid reflux, and when this happens a dog may come into a meal already nauseous and not feeling well. The pup may not want to eat, or may only nibble at the food at first. It’s always a good idea to speak with your veterinarian about your different options for managing this issue – classic clinical signs may be vomiting white/yellow bile prior to meals, or in the middle of the night. Depending on the case medications may be needed, but something just offering small, frequent meals does the trick!

8. Nausea associated with another disease/condition

Many different diseases and conditions can make dog's go off food because they are nauseous. These dogs may or may not have been good eaters before. And though many of these diseases are associated with older dogs, they can occur at any age.

There are many, many, many different diseases that can cause chronic nausea if un-diagnosed or untreated/managed – Kidney Disease, Liver Disease, Pancreatitis, Irritable Bowel Disease, certain types of Cancer. If you notice your dog is regularly – meaning every day to every month – seems like they are going off their food, it’s always a good idea to speak with your veterinary team to see if you should do a further workup to see if there is something else going on – and your pup’s “picky” nature is just the first sign! With many of these diseases, the sooner we know about them, the more chance we have at effective treatment and management of the condition.

9. Dental Disease

If you have a toy breed or small breed dog - be on the look out for textural preference. Small breed dogs are prone to dental disease which can cause pain, and difficulty eating - which can easily be mistaken for pickiness in a dog.

Tooth pain is probably one of the most common reasons we will see an older pup start to become “picky”. Often these are smaller pups, who have owners who have either ended up homecooking, or feeding entirely canned diets because their pup wouldn’t eat dry food anymore – which isn’t a bad thing – however, this preference towards cooked or canned foods later in life can be because it hurts to chew harder foods. So if your pup was on dry food, and then slowly started to not want to eat it, speak to your veterinary team to see if your pup could use a dental cleaning! Sometimes visually teeth may look absolutely normal, but there are huge pockets of infection underneath the gum-line causing pain and discomfort, and unfortunately our pups can’t tell us they hurt – all they can do is try their pet to avoid the discomfort.

10. Too Many Distractions

Do you have puppy that is just so excited with the world that they don't have time to eat?

Oh how we love our puppies! Some pups get sooo excited by all the things going on around them that they just can’t focus long enough on their food to eat. The world is their playtime, and there focus just isn’t on food. And that’s OK – but what we can do as a pup parent is to provide a distraction free environment for them to eat in. This may be a separate room or a kennel. But how I think of this is equating the dog to being a toddler. If the toddler’s favorite TV show is on in the middle of dinnertime – you better bet the entire time you are eating dinner the toddler is asking, wiggling, or moving into the other room to watch their favorite show. So of course as the parent what we do is turn off the TV – distraction removed – and provide dinner in a quiet, calm environment.

So do any of these examples sound like your picky pup? Or does your pup maybe fit several of these descriptions? Yes it is possible that your pup could have a preference to a certain type of protein, or diet composition, or even texture – however – it’s always a good idea to consider all the possibilities and rule out more serious issues prior to just moving from trying one food after another. I know from experience that sometimes navigating the “picky pup” can actually be a bit complicated – I honestly thought my pup Ash was picky at first too – until I realized that he actually just wasn’t feeling well. I feel like when your pup doesn’t eat the first thing you want to do is top the food with something or add something to get them to eat. But instead I want to challenge you to think first – “why is my dog not eating?” – because the answer to that question might give you more of a clue what to do going forward.

I’d love to hear from you – 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!

About the Author: Nikki is a Registered Veterinary Technician (Veterinary Nurse) and Dog Mom with over a decade of experience with dogs and cats. Since graduation from college (BS Biology, Dip. Animal Nutrition, AS Animal Science) she has adopted two mixed breed dogs – Ranger and Ash, and has focused her time learning about pet food and nutrition.

Nikki shares information on a range of dog nutrition topics: from how to create a homemade complete and balanced dog food recipes, to how to choose a dog food. Nikki strives to give dog parents the information they need in order to make the best nutrition decisions for their pup!

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