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4 Reasons Your Dog is a Picky Eater (and How to Help)

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For many dogs, feeding time is one of the most exciting moments of the day. Sometimes, all it takes is the sound of kibble hitting the bowl to get a dog salivating and scrambling toward their food. 

But, mealtime isn’t always so simple. Sometimes, a dog just won’t eat, which can be confusing and worrisome for pet parents, who may wonder if their dog is sick or simply displeased with what’s on the menu.

Recipes developed for picky eaters can help tantalize the tastebuds of even the most discriminating dogs. But it’s just as important to get to the bottom of what’s causing your pet’s picky behavior.

That’s why we talked to veterinarian Dr. Bryce Zietz, DVM, to discover the most common causes of poor appetite and picky eating in dogs…and, more importantly, what to do about it.

Why Is My Dog Not Eating?

dog turning nose up to food

When your dog stops eating, it’s easy to assume the worst. But, according to Zietz, dogs may seem selective about their food for a wide variety of reasons. For example, “They may not like certain flavors of foods, or they may have something painful in their mouth that makes them avoid chewing.” 

So how can pet parents tell what’s behind their dog’s poor appetite? It’s always a good idea to consult your veterinarian if you’re concerned about your dog’s pickiness. There are many reasons why a dog might stop eating, and a thorough veterinary evaluation can help diagnose the problem best. 

Here, Zietz outlined four of the most common causes of poor or picky eating in dogs, along with some warning signs to watch out for:

1. Stress

Stress can play a role in your dog’s reluctance to eat. Sometimes, if a dog’s anxiety level is high enough, “all other drives (including hunger) are deprioritized to make sure they are ready to react to a perceived threat,” explains Zietz.

Every dog is different, and some are more susceptible to stressors than others. So, if your dog isn’t eating, first look to see if there’s anything that could be causing them undue stress, such as being left alone, a new member of the family, or a change in environment. Even something simple, like a new food bowl or routine, might be enough to put your dog off their food.   

2. Pain

If your dog is not eating, look for additional signs, such as excessive drooling or behavioral changes that could indicate pain, suggests Zeitz. 

What could be mistaken for pickiness may be a sign of a problem so severe, that “they do not want to suffer through the pain in order to eat,” he says.

Take a look inside your dog’s mouth to ensure they don’t have any obvious foreign objects sticking inside the gums or any sores or masses, suggests Zeitz. However, it may be difficult for the untrained eye to see something like a tooth fracture, in which case a dental exam is needed. 

3. Illness

In addition to mouth pain, there are many illnesses and infections that may cause pain or other side effects so debilitating, that they could interfere with your dog’s appetite, says Zeitz. 

These could range from nausea due to digestive disorders or dietary indiscretions to more serious illnesses like kidney or liver disease. Allergies and food sensitivities can also trigger intestinal distress that could cause a dog not to eat.

Because these causes of poor appetite are so varied (and easy to misinterpret), it’s important to consult with a veterinarian for proper testing and diagnosis if your dog’s picky eating or refusal to eat is accompanied by other symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, or weight loss. 

4. Pickiness

If your dog isn’t eating but is acting normal and your veterinarian has ruled out all the above causes, you may simply have a picky eater on your hands. 

Some dogs (like people) are more particular about their food. Your pet might be bored with their current diet or may have developed an aversion to the way their food tastes, looks, or feels. Additionally, dogs receiving frequent treats or table scraps may become reluctant to eat their regular dog food, in the hopes that a better-tasting treat will be coming along shortly.

Regardless of the reason, finding a solution for picky eating is just as important as resolving the other causes of poor appetite in dogs, to ensure your pet gets the balanced nutrition they need to thrive.

Picky Dog Not Eating Food: How to Help

dog licking lips

Having a picky eater for a dog isn’t something most pet parents are excited about. However, the good news is that there are plenty of methods that can help get your fussy eater back on track and enjoying mealtime again.

Here are some top tactics to try:

Switch up your picky dog’s diet. Sometimes, all it takes for a picky eater is a change in diet. Zeitz recommends switching to a different brand or type of food to pique your picky eater’s palate. However, be sure to transition slowly, gradually adding more and more of the new food over the course of a full week. Switching from one food directly to another too quickly could cause issues like digestive upset and diarrhea.

One option is to look at formulas specifically designed to appeal to picky eaters.

Appeal to all the senses.  Pet parents can try this at home by adding toppers to perk up a dog’s standard fare. Or warm your dog’s food up to make it more aromatic and enticing. “Generally, the more it smells, the more they want it,” says Zeitz.  

For any dietary changes, make sure to incorporate them gradually, over the course of one week, to avoid potential stomach issues that can arise from switching too fast.

Make mealtime fun. Use puzzle feeders or treat toys to make eating more fun and stimulating. If your dog has to work harder for their meal, it can help combat food boredom. Plus, the rhythmic act of licking to reach the food in a difficult-to-get toy may help reduce stress. 

How Long Can a Dog Go Without Eating?

puppy over bowl

It’s important to address picky eating habits quickly to avoid health issues that can arise from persistent poor nutrition. However, how quickly you need to act depends on your dog’s age or stage of life and overall health. Check with your vet if you have any questions or concerns.  

Healthy Adult Dog Won’t Eat

For most adult dogs, if you’ve tried the tactics above for a week and your dog is still not eating well or consistently, then it’s time for a visit to your veterinarian. 

But if you have a puppy, senior dog, or a dog of any age with a known health condition, a week is too long to wait. Contact your veterinarian about your dog’s picky eating as soon as possible. 

Puppy Won’t Eat

Puppies have fewer fat reserves than adult dogs and cannot survive long without food. If your puppy has not eaten in more than 12 hours, “they should be examined in person by your veterinarian to make sure they don’t have any other health concerns or infectious diseases that are common among puppies,” recommends Zeitz. 

Puppies also don’t have the capacity to regulate their glucose as older dogs do, so going without food for longer period could lead to low blood sugar. 

Senior Dog Won’t Eat

While senior dogs have larger fat reserves that enable them to handle longer periods of time without food, the same rule applies, according to Zeitz. 

“The longer dogs go without food, the more work their bodies do to compensate using alternative methods of glucose production (more energy intense),” says Zeitz. This is why we can see senior dogs or those with health issues losing body weight and even muscle quickly after short periods of poor or picky eating. 

The veterinarian will most likely do a blood test to gather information about the inner workings of your pet, says Zeitz. In some cases, this is followed up with an ultrasound or x-ray. However, it may not always be necessary. 

Dog Picky Eater: Tips for Success

The bottom line is if you have a healthy dog who’s refusing to eat food, it’s perfectly fine to try to entice them to eat, once you’ve ruled out other causes of poor appetite, such as stress, pain, or illness. If, after a week of trying, flavorful toppers, puzzle feeders, and even dog food for picky eaters won’t do the trick, consult with your veterinarian to see if further testing or treatment are necessary to restore your pup’s appetite and good health.