Dogs and food: feeding issues

Occasionally, someone will come to me concerned that their dog isn’t finishing their food. If your dog has suddenly stopped eating, that’s a major concern and a trip to the vet. But if your dog has never been much of an eater, there might be some things going on.

First off, check out your dog’s weight. Most dogs who aren’t eating do so because they’re self-regulating: if they’re chubby (even just a little chubby), they’ll often go off their food or eat listlessly because they simply don’t need it.

Of course, this means you have to tell if your dog is chubby! If you can see a dimple at the base of their tail (a large dimple), they’re probably at least a little chubby. It’s the fat deposits around that spot that create the dimple. Today, for instance, I saw a dog at a pretty good weight who was a smidgen chubby. Not enough that I felt the need to say, “Put this dog on a diet!” but just enough to see that dimple, and know that the fact that he wasn’t finishing his dinner probably had more to do with being a little overweight than a major problem.

So, how to tell your dog’s weight? First off, you should be able to see the shape of their ribcage. Second, if you pet firmly, you should be able to feel individual ribs. (Some breeds of dogs don’t really have waists — like corgis or bassets — but you should still be able to feel ribs.)

Here is a pretty little chart to help you out:

dog weight chartIf your dog is chubby and not eating well, don’t worry about it. If the feeding guide on the food package tells you your dog should be eating more, keeping in mind they’re averaging most (if not all) breeds, and they don’t know your dog’s metabolism and exercise level! (They’re also trying to sell food.)

Also, keep in mind dog treats. If you’re in a training class, you’re giving a lot of extra treats. If you have a small dog, the “few” treats you give might be the size of their head! Take a look at what your dog is eating in relation to their body, and think about it in relative proportion to your body. I couldn’t eat a meal the size of my head!

If you aren’t giving treats and you think, “My dog is chubby, but they seem hungry!” then you should know that dogs are capable of eating pounds of food at once. They scavenge and gorge when they’re able to find food in the wild, then go for days without eating. A sense of feeling full would be a hindrance in that! They also don’t necessarily feel hunger like we do, but they can keep eating, and just like us, they eat for taste. Trust me: your dog isn’t hungry.

Now, what if your dog isn’t overweight and is still a picky eater? First, double check with the vet. This is sign one of worms, and a sign of other problems. But if the vet says, “Nope, everything is fine!” and your dog is still a picky eater, there’s some things you can do.

First, try mixing a little canned food or pumpkin with your dog’s food. (Pumpkin is an intestinal regulator: if your dog’s stool is loose it’ll firm it up, and if it’s too firm it’ll soften it. But better, it’s sweet!) You can also try adding some chicken broth or canned meat of any kind. Obviously, if you do this and your dog doesn’t eat it, throw it out!

Another trick, if you have access to other dogs, is to feed them around dogs. Seeing other dogs eat (or being threatened by having another dog steal their food) will often trigger an eating response. As well, feed your dog when you’re eating, and let them eat near you: dogs eat together, and sometimes that will trigger an eating response, too.

While you’re tempting your dog, there’s a behavioral trick you can use. Give your pup five minutes to eat, and then pick the food up. Don’t feed her again until the next meal, then do the same thing. Most dogs who are uninterested in food can go for about twenty-four hours just nibbling at their food; I’ve seen them go as long as forty-eight before they start actually eating the food when you put it down. (Don’t give them treats; they need to be hungry!)

What’s happening is that you’re creating a scarcity complex. People react to this, too: If someone tells you, “buy this, there are only five left!” your desire to buy it increases. The same thing happens with dogs: if you say, “You only get this for a limited time!” the dogs go, “Holy crap! Better eat it now!” You have to wait for the dogs to get hungry enough to care, but it’ll happen — and then your problem will be resolved. At that point, you can start cutting back on the extra treats in the food to tempt them to eat, and they should keep eating.

Finally, Lily was one of these types of dogs. Now, it didn’t bother me because she self-regulated, but then I switched her to raw food. She LOVED it, and ate rapidly for taste. When I switched her back to kibble after about a year (because she, unlike some, needed the grain and because kibble was easier), she continued to snarf her food. Now, after about five years, she’s slowing down again… but she’s still eating fast enough!

Try these, and I think things will start to improve!

Jenna

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