By Siddh Trivedi*
Many pet parents complain that their dogs are fussy eaters. Some even complain that their dogs don’t eat unless they feed them with their own hands!
When you offer your dog too many food options, it becomes an endless process. For instance, he might eat a certain food one day, but refuse to eat it the next day. Also, after a while, he might get bored of eating even his most favourite foods.
Hence, we can see that pet parents play a major role in spoiling a dog’s eating habits.
Some of the most common mistakes of pet parents:
Keeping food available all the time
Before we talk about this, let us take a dog’s natural habitat into consideration. Stray dogs must grab food immediately once it is available, or stay hungry. If they don’t consume it right away, they lose it to other animals, or even ants for that matter.
Now think of it this way – if the food that you left on your plate was lying on your dining table for another 2 hours, would you feel like eating it? As humans, we associate food that is lying around to be stale, cold, and generally non-tempting. Same is the case with dogs.
When your dog knows that his food is going to lie there for him to eat whenever he likes, he won’t have any sense of urgency to eat it. Also, when food is lying around, it implies that nobody wants it, so he won’t want it either!
Offering unhealthy food options to tempt the dog to eat
Sometimes, in an attempt to get their dog to eat, pet parents add sugar to their food, or offer ice cream, etc. even though they know it isn’t good for the dog. They are afraid that the dog will stay hungry.
The only answer to this is to be mindful of the fact that the dog has a survival instinct. We as humans need not worry about it. He will ultimately eat because his survival depends upon it.
Treating the dog like a human/baby – anthropomorphism
For most pet parents, the dog is a baby or child. So like a child, they offer too many food options, or in some cases spoil him with treats.
All these acts hamper the dog’s sense of scarcity and urgency when it comes to the availability of food, and this kills his food drive. It also leads to obesity and other lifestyle disorders in dogs. Also, dogs start throwing tantrums and develop food fads.
Just like we do for children, we must train dogs to eat food that we offer as it is healthy for them.
They will always be tempted by unhealthy foods.
Now that we know the mistakes that we make as pet parents, let us consider some points to fix them:
Train your dog to eat within a certain time frame
Even when they are puppies, they realize very quickly that if they avoid or delay eating for a while, they will be rewarded with the addition of a yummy treat to their food, in some cases sugar, paneer, cheese, etc. They know that if they eat right away, they miss out on this.
So what you need to do is start taking the food away if the dog hasn’t consumed it. He has to feel a sense of loss or insecurity about the availability of food, which will encourage him to eat it quickly once served.
If your dog doesn’t eat, do not keep offering him his food
If your dog hasn’t eaten his food and you have picked it up after 15–20 minutes as discussed in the earlier point, you MUST NOT offer it again after 1–2 hours. It should be offered to him only at the next meal time.
For instance, if his meal timings are 10:00 am and 7:00 pm, the food that he hasn’t eaten at 10:00 am should be offered only at 7:00 pm and not earlier. You must control your emotions and not try to feed him again after sometime.
Also, setting this pattern will help maintain his food drive and keep up his excitement about food. This pattern resembles his life in nature, where food is not available at will.
Avoid overfeeding your dog
Most pet parents tend to overfeed their dogs as a means of expressing their love and pampering. Sometimes, even lean & fit dogs are perceived as ‘thin’ or ‘weak’ by their pet parents, who then feed them more food than they need to fatten them up.
Also, as a pet parent, you need to reassess your ideas about the quantity of food that your dog requires each day. This varies from breed to breed. For instance, your dog’s daily food requirement might be 500gms, but you feel he should eat 1kg. Naturally, he won’t finish his food. If the food is extra tasty, he might consume say 100gms extra, but not more.
Just like we see in humans, overconsumption of food by dogs can result in a series of health problems.
Also, to maintain your dog’s overall health and food drive, you should offer him 20–30gms lesser food than he normally consumes or has the capacity to consume. Create only a minor food deficit. This keeps him physically & mentally healthy and he will also look forward to the next meal more.
Another important habit that you must change is to avoid giving him treats at random times during the day. This is another appetite spoiler. Also, discourage visitors from offering him food.
Here are a few more points that you need to keep in mind to maintain your dog’s food drive:
Does your dog get excited for his meals?
Normally, when you pick up your dog’s bowl and he realizes that he is about to receive a meal, does he get excited?
If yes, this is a sign of a healthy & happy dog with a good food drive. If your dog doesn’t react or comes to you slowly when you offer him food, it means that he has a low food drive. In this case, you need to change his food habits as we discussed earlier in this article.
Introducing a new food/changing his diet
If you want to try giving your dog new food, or change the brand of dog food, you must not do this all of a sudden. The dog needs to get acquainted to the new taste and his body needs to get used to it too. Most dogs don’t accept a new taste immediately.
Give him a small quantity of the new food, preferably at the start of the meal. The remaining meal should be his regular meal. Slowly, you can increase its quantity. This way, his taste buds get acquainted with the new taste and he will digest it better. Initially, many dogs tend to suffer from an upset stomach when there are changes in their food.
Fasting once a week
Just like humans, fasting once a week for dogs is necessary too. Fasting helps clean his digestive system and give it much-needed rest. This will ensure that it runs smoothly, and, at the same time, the dog will realize importance of food.
Dogs below 6 months of age should not fast at all. Dogs from 6 months–1 year should skip one meal once a week. You can choose any day of the week as per your convenience. Dogs aged 1 year and above can be made to skip meals for an entire day.
This act might sound cruel to you know, but trust me, it is not. If on the day of the fast your dog is visibly hungry, you can give him a soup made from mixed boiled vegetables with a pinch of turmeric. This should be given only once throughout the day.
Changes in a dog’s food drive with age
As puppies, dogs have a very high food drive. However, it changes, rather reduces, with age. Most pet parents will agree that when their dogs were puppies, they were very excited about receiving food, but this excitement seems to have died down as the dog grew up.
Some of the factors responsible for this are the ones discussed earlier in this article – lack of sense of urgency, food lying around, too many treats, overfeeding, etc.
Another factor that reduces a dog’s food drive is lack of exercise. He needs to have regular exercise as he grows up, for instance, longer walks or any other form of physical activity such as running, playing etc.
Availability of clean drinking water
Clean drinking water should always be available for your dog to consume whenever he wants.
Dehydration is another factor that spoils a dog’s appetite. Also, if he has access only to limited amounts of water, he will overconsume it when it is available. Thus, his stomach will be temporarily full during his meal times – another negative impact on his food drive. Hence, his water bowl should be adequately filled 24/7.
Maintain a balanced diet
A dog needs to consume a balanced diet with all the necessary nutrients. It differs from breed to breed, so you might require consultation to determine the same. This goes a long way in maintaining a dog’s food drive and overall health & fitness.
Medical conditions causing drastic appetite changes in dogs
Sometimes, underlying health conditions cause changes in a dog’s food drive.
If you are convinced that this is not a result of any food fads, you must consult your vet, who might recommend blood tests for hypothyroidism, tick fever, old age, or any comorbidity.
Last but not the least, building up a dog’s lost food drive takes time and patience. It will not happen overnight. Creating a food deficit, weekly fasting, taking unconsumed food away after 15–20 minutes etc., need to be practiced for a long duration before they show the necessary results.
Many pet parents tend to give up or feel bad for their dog, due to which they go back to their old ways. Please don’t do this. Don’t take pity on your dog. Be mindful of the fact that what you are doing is actually good for him. Always keep the big picture in mind and continue to progress slowly and steadily. After all, the results will be highly rewarding for you and your dog.
If the dog’s food drive is poor, he will be unhealthy and miserable. However, if his food drive is built up and he is excited during meal times, he will lead a healthy & happy life.
*Author is an animal trainer and behaviour specialist. He has over a decade of experience in training dogs of all ages and different breeds, as well as deep understanding of their behavioural patterns. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.