By The Farmer's Dog | March 3, 2020

While every dog is different—in appearance, in weight, in personality, and quirks—we think of all dogs as having one thing in common: a love for food. However, a good, consistently hearty appetite is not universal.

Some dogs inhale everything you put in front of (or frankly—anywhere near) them. But for owners of picky eaters, mealtime can be extremely frustrating to deal with. And it’s likely not much fun for the eater either, which is why it’s important to take the time to find a solution. Picky eating isn’t always a major cause for concern, but mealtime should be one of the best bits of a dog’s day. And at its worst, picky eating can be a sign of an underlying medical issue or environmental stressor. So, let’s examine the potential causes of food-related fussiness, and what you can do to help.

Is picky eating a sign of a serious issue?

There are many factors that can contribute to a lack of enthusiasm around mealtime, but picky eating can be a sign of a significant health problem, so contact your veterinarian if this is a new or worsening behavior for your dog, or it’s associated with other symptoms.

“If a pet is refusing to eat, there might be an underlying medical reason,” says Mason Romero, DVM, and veterinary advisor for Better Pet. “Rarely will a pet just refuse to eat just to refuse. Generally, there is something they will eat.” The list of potential medical causes of picky eating is long, and can range from serious illnesses like cancer, kidney or liver issues, and pyometra (an infection of a female dog’s reproductive tract) to dental complications, pain, or gastrointestinal disorders.

There are some conditions that can give your dog the appearance of pickiness, even if they actually do want to eat. Food intolerances can cause dogs discomfort for hours after eating, and may lead to hesitant eating or digestive problems such as gas, vomiting, and diarrhea. Similar symptoms can be seen with food allergies, although excessive scratching due to chronic itchiness is more common.
Another reason your dog may be displaying signs of picky eating is the presence of an oral injury or disease. If you’ve noticed your dog becoming increasingly tentative with their food, one of the first steps to take is to check that their mouth, tongue, and gums look healthy. If they look sensitive, tender, or painful, it could be causing the dog’s lack of enthusiasm for food. Poor dental hygiene over time, or playing with something like a stick or a toy with sharp edges, can often be the culprit. If you suspect any of these to be the cause, a trip to the vet is in order before you can begin to get your dog back on track with food.

Picky eating can also result from changes at home, anxiety, and other stressors. Just like humans, some dogs express emotions through changes in eating habits. If a dog’s food is constantly changing, served in an unfamiliar environment, or if there is harassment from other pets, you might notice changes in the dog’s eating behavior. Ensuring a picky eater feels safe and comfortable will keep them open-minded to trying to eat.

So, how do you determine what’s what?

The biggest indicator of whether the issue is behavioral or health-related is if the pickiness is a change in your dog’s relationship with food, rather than a consistent pattern. If your pup has always been picky about their diet but their health is good overall, it might indicate that pickiness is a character trait, similar to human tastes and ingredient preferences.

However, if your dog suddenly becomes finicky about their food, that is more concerning from a medical standpoint. In puppies, who have fewer reserves, abrupt pickiness about food generally warrants a vet visit within 24 hours (sooner if your pup isn’t eating or drinking at all). If an adult dog’s appetite does not return to normal after 48 hours, you should contact your veterinarian.

What are the health issues that can result from picky eating?

Even if picky eating is not caused by a health problem, it can still lead to some frustrating or potentially serious complications. “The most common health issues I have seen in practice are malnutrition, gastrointestinal upset, and weight loss,” says Dr. Romero.

Dogs are unlike humans in that they do not need varied meals each day. What’s actually best for a dog’s nutrition—and gastrointestinal tract—is consistency. Abrupt changes in a dog’s diet can reinforce pickiness and result in vomiting, diarrhea, and sometimes pancreatitis, which may manifest in symptoms such as abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, dehydration, weakness, lethargy, and fever.

“Unfortunately, when a pet owner has a picky eater, they resort to anything and everything to get the pet to eat,” Dr. Romero says. “As humans, we tend to eat something different for every meal and are usually OK. Most dogs cannot tolerate constant diet changes. Often, pet owners will resort to constantly changing the diet, which can lead to gastrointestinal upset.”

In an effort to entice picky dogs to eat, owners may resort to mixing different kinds of foods, and home-prepared foods, but Dr. Romero says “cooking their food can lead to weight gain or malnutrition if not done properly.”

What to feed a picky eater?

When dealing with a true picky eater, all you want is a solution. What’s the secret sauce to getting a picky eater to eat?

The simple-sounding, but not-always-easy task is to determine what foods your dog likes. Your dog may just be unenthused by their food. You may scoff at the idea of a species that will happily eat feces and garbage having “opinions” about food, but there are countless tales of pups whose owners thought they were “grazers,” only to be amazed at how quickly they wolfed down their food once it was something they genuinely enjoyed.

Healthy dogs are rarely nibblers—this behavior is almost always caused by a lack of interest in the food they’re being provided. The process of finding something a dog enjoys can be tricky, however. After all, constantly changing a dog’s diet is one of the very things that can exacerbate picky eating.

One option is to try making simple foods, like rice and boiled white meat chicken with no bones and no skin—the go-to for dogs with upset stomachs—at home. You can safely offer this for a few days to see if your dog’s appetite improves, but if you do opt to cook your pet’s food at home over the long run, Dr. Romero recommends consulting a professional.

Research has shown that the vast majority of dog food recipes available online or in books are not nutritionally complete and balanced. It’s worth noting here that most dogs’ default food, kibble, is highly processed and made using extremely harsh cooking methods to make less-than-savory ingredients safe, and then further dehydrated to make it shelf-stable for longer. By contrast, fresh food is more palatable, and easier for dogs to eat and digest.

To take the work, and guesswork, out of the process, fresh-food delivery services can be a meaningful alternative. The Farmer’s Dog is formulated with picky eaters in mind, and because it uses fresh ingredients, no harmful additives, and is nutritionally balanced, it can provide good nutrition for even the pickiest of eaters.

What can dog owners do to help their pups eat better?

Some aspects of picky eating can be health-related, but in cases where it is mostly behavioral, there are tricks pet owners can use to train their dog to eat better.

Setting strict feeding times shows your dog when it’s time to eat and that their time to eat is a finite window. If your dog is a picky eater, free feeding is not an effective option. “I definitely advocate for setting strict mealtimes and not free feeding pets. Dogs will learn that the meal is going to be offered at a specific time of the day,” says Dr. Romero.

Apart from feeding your dog at the same times every day, you should also consider taking away uneaten food after a certain amount of time—20 to 30 minutes or so is appropriate. That way, your dog understands that when food is offered, it’s time to eat it. Otherwise, the food goes away.

Minimizing treats is another key part of retraining your picky eater. If a dog is being overfed with treats, they are more likely to feel full and therefore avoid the food bowl.

“Another common mistake is feeding pets treats throughout the day,” explains Dr. Romero. “I only recommend treats when they are being used for training purposes. Giving treats routinely throughout the day can lead to the pet feeling satiated and result in the pet not wanting to eat their breakfast or dinner.” Treats are also notorious for being high in calories and even if your dog isn’t eating their main meals, excessive treat-giving could cause weight gain and nutritional imbalance. “They may even get to where they only want the treats, which is certainly not a well-balanced meal,” Dr. Romero adds. “If we give pets the opportunity to get hungry, they are less likely to be picky.”

Lastly, be sure you’re feeding your dog the right amount to maintain their weight (read more about weight maintenance here.)

What causes true picky eating? And what can be done about it?

If you’ve ruled out a health-related cause, it’s reassuring to know that picky eating just based on personality does occur. Among small breed dogs especially, picky eating is fairly prevalent, but even the most food motivated larger breeds, like Labradors, can be picky.
In fact, some of the most famous notoriously picky eaters include the Basenji, Siberian Husky, and Yorkie breeds. On the other hand, some dogs learn to be picky, typically due to their owner’s unintentionally counterproductive feeding behaviors. Humans can cause their canine companions to be picky with their food by giving them too many treats, overfeeding table scraps, consistently constantly changing their food, or by failing to address stress.

The bottom line

Once you’ve eliminated health-related issues as the cause of perceived pickiness, it’s worthwhile to take the extra steps to get your dog excited about food. Ensure your dog is not getting too full from treats, spoiled with human food, or distracted by environmental factors. And if they’re still less than eager during dinner, you can always try switching to a fresher, more nutrient-dense dog food that’s closer in taste and texture to the human food they do enjoy. You might be amazed at how introducing fresh ingredients can change the picky-eating game.

This article was vetted by a vet.
Reviewed by Jennifer Coates, DVM.