Understanding: Is Your Dog a Picky Eater?

Let them play with their food…and other pro tips from veterinary nutritionist Dr. Lindsey Bullen.

Cooking for a picky eater can be vexing. Worse, watching them suspiciously fork food around their plate can bring the most patient person to a slow boil. Good thing your dog will eat anything…right? When your pup turns their nose up to their dinner, what’s annoying becomes alarming. We asked Dr. Lindsey Bullen, DVM, and board-certified veterinary nutritionist at BluePearl Pet Hospital what to do when your dog is not eating (and how to get a dog to eat).

Newly Adopted Dogs

There are few events in life more joyous than New Dog Day. For you, that is. For your new pup? The jury may be out, at least at first. It’s not uncommon for a dog who you’ve just brought home to be nervous and show little interest in food. “It’s incredibly traumatic for a puppy or adult dog to be taken away from an environment they’re familiar with and plunged into a situation where everything is new,” says Dr. Bullen. “Their safety net is gone, and when they’re in ‘fight or flight’ mode, the last thing many of them are thinking about is food. So they may need a little time to adjust before they feel comfortable enough to eat.”

If stress isn’t the issue, your pup’s pickiness could be related to the type of food you’re feeding them. Ideally, you’d know what your dog had been eating previously (at the shelter, breeder’s, or foster’s home) and be able to transition to a new food slowly. When that’s not the case, they could be put off by the new form, flavor, or formula of the food. In that case, you might have to try different dog food diets to find one they like. “If you have a really young puppy, it’s also possible they weren’t weaned properly and don’t know how to eat solid food. Your veterinarian will be able to give you tips on how to introduce solid food into their diet.”

Lastly, your new friend could have an underlying health issue that’s causing a loss of appetite. “Maybe there was a stomach bug going around the shelter, or your puppy has a case of parvovirus. Look for concurrent signs that indicate illness, such as vomiting, diarrhea, or lethargy. If any of these are happening — especially if your dog is throwing up and not eating — call your vet right away to determine if your dog needs to be seen.”

Dogs Who Stop Eating

If your dog has been eating normally and suddenly stops, there might be something acute going on. Possible causes include an obstruction in their digestive tract, a case of garbage gut, or an infection. Once again, look for signs of illness that might indicate an issue that needs medical attention.

“Pain is another big reason dogs don’t eat,” warns Dr. Bullen. “For example, some older pets might be experiencing neck pain. Elevating their food dish so they don’t have to lean over can make eating more comfortable for them.” There are also chronic diseases that can affect a dog’s appetite or nutritional needs. Routine lab work to establish baselines and a good relationship with your veterinarian will diagnose and manage any long-term health issues.

Tips for Picky Eaters

It’s hard to look at a species that snacks on poop and think of them as having discerning palates, but some dogs do. Still, it’s best not to assume your dog needs or wants to eat a lot of different foods.

“I don’t recommend offering special toppers or regularly switching up their food right out of the gate. The more involved we make their feeding routine, the greater the chance for errors down the road. Plus, some dogs will learn to hold out for ‘the good stuff,’ which can ultimately make getting them to eat more challenging. And unlike cats, dogs don’t necessarily need a lot of variety in their diet. In fact, for dogs who are more prone to developing food allergies, changing their protein source can be very hard for them. So if your dog is healthy and eating well, there’s no reason to rotate their diet or over-complicate mealtime.”

In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if you’re struggling to get your dog to eat at all, that’s a different story. In that instance, your pup may need some extra enticement. Luckily, there are a lot of healthy options for making their meals more appealing. Dr. Bullen suggests:

  • Apple Sauce
  • Baby Food
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Plain pureed meats (no garlic, salt, etc. added)
  • Canned pumplin
  • Commercially-ade dog food toppers

“One go-to product I suggest to my patients is Purina Fortiflora. It’s a probiotic packet that contains hydrolyzed animal digest and most dogs find it very palatable.” I mean, what’s not to love about animal digest?

Aside from the food itself, there are some other tricks you can try to get your dog to eat. For example, warming up their food will release flavors and aromas — just be sure not to make it too hot. You can also try different methods of feeding. Some dogs like to eat from bowls, while others prefer plates or interactive dog food puzzle toys. Dr. Bullen recommends avoiding dishes made of metal (they can impart a metallic taste) or plastic (they can retain smells and flavors). If all that fails, appetite stimulants are available. Your vet can talk to you about short-and long-term medication options.

Let’s Talk Timelines

It goes without saying that dogs need to eat to survive. So, at what point does a lack of appetite turn into a critical issue? “The GI tract is the largest part of the immune system, and it’s critical to a dog’s health that it’s functioning properly. If your adult dog goes two to three days without eating, it absolutely warrants further investigation by a veterinarian. And if that loss of appetite coincides with vomiting, diarrhea, or other signs of illness that last more than 24-36 hours, they need to be seen by a vet.”

Puppies are on a shorter timeline. Young dogs need to eat multiple times a day. So even if no other symptoms are present, if they go more than 24 hours without eating, it’s time for a trip to the vet.

Stick with It

Bottom line: working through food challenges with your dog can be nerve-wracking. Some issues will resolve quickly, while others may take trial and error. But with patience and a knowledgeable veterinary team by your side, you’ll get there. And your pup will love you for it, which is pretty much all any of us want.