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Dogs Who Won’t Eat – Myths and Facts About Picky Eaters

So what’s the deal with dogs who won’t eat? Well, it’s complicated. When I first went public via my personal social media channels with information about Clover’s recent tummy troubles and the now-constant challenge of getting her to eat, I got a lot of advice. No surprise, I suppose. Some of it was better than others. Most of it involved strategies I’d already tried. Certain bits of advice prompted a veterinary nutritionist pal to send me a private note basically saying she was having a hard time NOT commenting about all the bad advice people were posting. So, I asked her a few questions about dogs who won’t eat in hopes of sorting out myths from facts when it comes to dogs who are picky eaters.

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For those who are interested, here is what we feed our dogs:

Purina Pro Plan Sport (dry dog food) – higher protein, higher fat for active dogs

For fun, we sometimes ad Merrick Grammy’s Pot Pie or Merrick Cowboy Cookout or Merrick Pappy’s Potroast. Honestly, the names crack me up, but our dogs do really like it as a meal topper.

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What People Say About Dogs Who Won’t Eat

Dogs won’t starve themselves. She’ll eat eventually. 

Veterinary nutritionist’s answer: For a healthy dog, this is probably true. But if she got to the point that she was consistently losing weight, I’d be concerned that something is going on, whether it be medical or psychological.

Border collies do that sometimes. She’ll start eating again. Don’t worry.

Veterinary nutritionist’s answer: Maybe. I don’t think of Collies in general as being as food motivated as other breeds.

Canned food is like junk food. Don’t feed it exclusively for a long time.

Veterinary nutritionist’s answer: Canned food is just as nutritionally appropriate as dry food. It’s used less for bigger dogs mainly because of cost and tradition, not because of any nutritional reasons (although it does tend to be high fat, so not good for dogs that don’t do well with high fat).

Kibble is better for a dog’s bones / teeth.

Veterinary nutritionist’s answer: Bones, no – canned food has no more or less of minerals like calcium and phosphorus that make up bone than any other type of food.  Teeth – maybe. Some kibble has additives on the outside of the kibble that help reduce tartar. Some studies have shown worse tarter in dogs that eat only canned, but I am not comfortable saying that every canned diet is worse for teeth than every dry.

Kibble is hard to digest.

Veterinary nutritionist’s answer: Not if it’s high quality (I mean real high quality, not perceived high quality!). Digestibility does vary with ingredients, amount of fiber, etc. There is no way to predict digestibility from the ingredient list, however. Some canned and homemade foods are probably a bit more digestible than the average kibble, but that difference only matters for some dogs that are particularly sensitive.

Put yogurt / broth / canned food / (you name it) on top to encourage her to eat.

Veterinary nutritionist’s answer: You can do this.

Don’t bait the food with tasty things to encourage her to eat. It just makes her pickier.

Veterinary nutritionist’s answer: It might! I think it’s most likely to cause increased pickiness if you keep switching it up or offer it plain, then doctor it only if she won’t eat it. If you doctor from the beginning, then she doesn’t get a reward for refusing to eat when you start adding all kinds of things on.

Use “tough love” strategies. Present food in small quantities at normal meal times, if she won’t eat or is hesitant at all, pick it up and try again at the next normal mealtime.

Veterinary nutritionist’s answer: Totally reasonable for an otherwise healthy dog when you know it isn’t something wrong with the food itself.

Switching food often makes for picky eaters.

Veterinary nutritionist’s answer: It can. I think it’s less dangerous to switch BEFORE your dog “gets tired” of a food than after, when you are rewarding refusing food with something new and yummy.

She is training YOU by being picky.

Veterinary nutritionist’s answer: I see this all the time.

Raw is the answer (to everything).

Veterinary nutritionist’s answer: Often the palatability is good due to high fat and high meat content, but then *you* get Listeria or Salmonella and then you’re the one who won’t/can’t eat.

~~~

Now, I’ll be honest. Some of her answers about dogs who won’t eat surprised me. I’m particularly NOT fond of this one:

She is training YOU by being picky.

Veterinary nutritionist’s answer: I see this all the time.

Because, to me, it seems to fall into that trap of saying dogs act in manipulative ways. To me, this sounds like Clover is trying to TRICK me on PURPOSE, which I truly don’t believe.

That said, dogs are very smart. They pay attention to every little thing and often things we don’t even realize become cues for certain behaviors. My best example is when our late Lilly figured out the difference between pants with zippers and pants without zippers. You see, pants WITH zippers meant we were going somewhere fun. Pants WITHOUT meant we were staying home. Get it?

Dogs figure this stuff out, so I can see how we might accidentally teach our dogs to be picky. Personally, I just don’t like the insinuation that Clover is trying to FOOL me. And, often the tone of these comments is more like, “Poor, poor, Roxanne … she doth not know.” Like I’m naive or something.

In this case, this Dog Mom knew best. When a dog who has been a really good eater for nearly a year, suddenly stops wanting to eat. Something is up.

As we learned recently, Clover is — in fact — not eating for a reason. A false pregnancy is making her feel barfy.

So, in our example, Clover was NOT trying to pull one over on me. She wasn’t being a stinker, just to get her own way. She truly is feeling poorly and is having a hard time eating.

Is Clover Eating Any Better?

Yes and no. Some days are better than others. Sometimes, she’ll happily eat plain kibble out of a bowl. Sometimes, she eats just a little bit at a time — if I toss handfuls on her Go to Place Mat in the kitchen (as a reward for staying put while I cook). Sometimes, she’ll completely skip breakfast, but eat a normal dinner. It just depends.

We probably have a few more weeks of this, as her False Pregnancy runs out the pretend puppy gestation clock (probably sometime the second week in September).

dogs who won't eat - myths and facts

But, honestly, other than the eating issues (and continuing to sleep / “hide” in new places since hitting puberty), she is doing OK.

  • Her weight is still down, but holding steady at 33.3 pounds, according to our bathroom scale.
  • She’s walking at least 3 miles most days.
  • She’s taking agility classes on Thursdays. (I hope to shoot some video to share soon.)

For now, I’m letting her eat Ginko’s new “senior” dog food because it’s the only one she shows any interest in. I’ve asked both our veterinarian and our friends / sponsors at Purina, and they say it’s fine for a young adult (still kind of a puppy) to eat this food.

Once she is eating better, consistently, I hope to move her to a performance formula (higher protein, higher fat).

And, when she absolutely WON’T / CAN’T eat kibble, then I give her some canned food an hour or so later.

***

Holler with any questions.

P.S. Temps were in the 30s here this morning. Feels like summer is O-V-E-R.

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

this is for my dog - November 16, 2015

“Veterinary nutritionist’s answer: It can. I think it’s less dangerous to switch BEFORE your dog “gets tired” of a food than after, when you are rewarding refusing food with something new and yummy.”

I definitely agree with this post….we were taught to tread carefully with our dog at not rewarding behaviours! Thank you for the insightful post with answers from a professional!

Jenn - November 16, 2015

We just had a veterinarian come to our home to try and advise us on what to do with our girl Sadie. My car is in the shop so I haven’t been able to take her in, but I’ve been seriously concerned about her not eating this week. Chicken broth with her kibble helped a little bit, but we’ve got to take her in for some blood tests. Thank you for the advice!

Pamela - August 21, 2015

Thank you for putting your reporter’s hat on for a response. This was really interesting and gave me a lot to think about.

I was hoping to transition Honey to The Honest Kitchen as we moved aboard the boat. It’s high quality and easy to store since it’s dehydrated. But she gets tired of it after about 3 days.

I tried a few of the things your readers suggested too. But I think what’s going on is that it’s a much higher volume of food than she’s used to eating (about 2 c per serving as opposed to 1/2 pound of Fresh Pet or 1 c of kibble). She’s never been so food motivated that she’ll go nuts getting every last morsel (witness the collection of kibble found under every piece of low furniture when we moved). So after about ten minutes of slurping THK soup, she get bored. Or tired.

Unlike Clover, she’s not facing any physiological issues that are changing her digestion.

So we’re 4 days from moving aboard and I still haven’t found an ideal feeding plan.

Anyway, a long answer to say that as your vet nutritionist implied, not eating is more complicated an any pat answer. And the answers are going to be different for every dog.

Hoping Clover gets through her “pregnancy” without too many issues.

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