Fussy Dog Feeding Tips

How to help your picky eater

Last Updated 1 FEBRUARY 2023

This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Katelyn Bailey BVSc Hons

Is it difficult to find something that your dog won't turn their nose up at, or has your pooch become less interested in their food for no particular reason?

Fussy eating is quite common and can be a very frustrating issue for pet owners to deal with. Read on for more information about what causes fussy eating as well as some of the Vet Squad's top tips for managing dogs with picky appetites.


Breeds predisposed to fussy eating

While most dogs will have food preferences, small breeds tend to be fussier eaters than larger breeds. In the Vet Squad's experience the following breeds in particular can be a little pickier with their food:

First thing's first: rule out underlying medical issues

First of all, it's important to ensure that a picky appetite is not actually a loss of appetite. A loss of appetite can occur due to illnesses that cause nausea, discomfort or pain, including but not limited to gastrointestinal, joint, cardiac, respiratory, renal and dental issues. If your dog is showing other signs along with a reduced interest in food, or if their 'fussy' behaviour is out of character, a vet check is recommended to rule out any medical causes. In most cases appetite improves when the underlying condition is treated or appropriately managed.

Signs that may indicate an underlying health issue:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Drooling
  • Lethargy/reduction in activity
  • Bad breath
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Change in drinking habits
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent lip licking
  • Lameness or stiffness
  • Coughing

Why are some dogs fussy eaters?

While there are many reasons why a dog may be a picky eater, some of the most common are:

1. Specific personal preference

Like us, most dogs have personal preferences and may favour a certain texture, flavour and/or consistency when it comes to their food. Some dogs will take this to the extreme and refuse anything else. These dogs often eat their preferred foods with no issues but repeatedly turn their nose up at other foods.

2. Learned behaviour

Some dogs become fussier over time because they learn to wait for something better. Often owners inadvertently create this issue by giving in and offering their pet a higher-value treat if they don't eat their usual food. Feeding tasty 'human' food and changing diets too regularly can also contribute to this problem.

3. Not enough variety

While some dogs are perfectly happy to remain on the same food for life, others initially eat their food well but become bored of it after a while. These dogs will gradually show less interest in their usual food in favour of something new.

4. Anxiety

Anxiety is a common reason for a dog to be fussy with its food. Periods of change or adjustment, such as moving house or a new family member (two- or four-legged) can affect appetite. Lack of privacy when eating and noisy eating environments can trigger anxiety. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety can become reluctant to eat before or after their owners leave the house. These dogs may have a fluctuating, 'on and off' appetite, or suddenly go off their food when a stressor occurs.

5. They're not food motivated

Some dogs naturally prefer to graze on their food throughout the day rather than eat it all at once and this eating pattern can be mistaken for a picky appetite. Likewise, dogs that are attention-motivated rather than food-motivated can be misidentified as fussy eaters.

How to manage fussy eating

An effective management approach will depend on the underlying cause of your pet's fussy eating. You may need to play around with a few different suggestions to find the ones that work for you and your dog.

It's important to be persistent and consistent with your approach to feeding. Make sure everyone in the household is on board and decide how long to persist with a certain food- remember that offering too much variety right from the start can inadvertently train some fussy eaters to hold out for "yummier" food each time. We recommend committing to one type of diet for at least a few weeks and allowing your dog some time to adjust to it before making any further changes.

Always make sure to have a period of transition when introducing a food as this reduces the risk of gastrointestinal upset and increases the chance that the pet will accept the food.

Tips for creating a regular meal routine

Most fussy eaters will benefit from a regular, consistent meal routine. Anxious dogs, as well as dogs going through a big change such as recent adoption, absent owners or moving house, can easily be unsettled. For these pets, making mealtime as peaceful and predictable as possible is essential.

  • Maintain a quiet, safe space for your dog to eat (for example, low noise, no strong odours, no other pets trying to eat their food or bother them while they're eating).
  • Make sure meals are given at around the same time each day in the same location so your dog knows when to expect food.
  • To encourage them to eat in one sitting, place the bowl down for a short period eg. 15-20 minutes, then remove it if the food hasn't been eaten. You can then re-offer the food in another 30-60 minutes while your dog is still getting used to this process, or at the next meal time. Dogs quickly learn that the food won't always be there and they are to eat it when it's offered. Always ensure the food is fresh.
  • While teaching your dog to accept their current food it is usually necessary to cut everything else from their diet including human foods and high value treats. If you continue to feed these, it's likely your dog will adopt the 'wait for better options' approach rather than give their current food a chance. If you are wanting to train them during this time, you can either use their normal kibble or small amounts of training treats (provided they are not on a special diet).

Tips for making meal times more exciting

As already discussed, some dogs can get bored over time of the taste or texture of their usual food. Some of this boredom may also be due to the method in which they're fed. For some pets the act of eating out of a bowl becomes boring and repetitive. In the wild, dogs would forage and hunt for their food, but in domestic life it is placed in front of them and so they miss out on the challenge of finding it for themselves.

Puzzle feeders are a great idea for any dog and help make meal time more interesting. They provide engagement and enrichment that may be lacking in standard 'food in bowl' feeding rituals. You can put their normal kibble in a puzzle feeder, and lick-mats are great options for wet food.

Slow Feeder Bowls

Interactive feeders

Feeding mats

Tips for making your dog's current food more palatable

Some dogs need a little time and help to learn that their food is actually tastier than they first thought! It's worth trying out some of the following tips using your dog's current food before switching to a different type.

  • Most (not all) dogs respond better to wet food initially, so try to offer a wet food first- especially for young puppies that have recently been weaned
  • Add warm water to wet food or gently heat wet food up in the microwave to enhance smell and taste - just make sure it's not too hot when fed
  • Blend wet food to make it gravy-based then soak the kibble in this mixture
  • Mix wet and dry food together (or try feeding them separately if you are currently mixing them together). If your pet dislikes dry food, add only a small amount of dry food to wet food at first, then gradually increase the amount of dry food over time. You can reverse this process if your dog likes dry food but not wet.
  • Moisten dry food with warm water to make it more palatable and easier to eat

Consider adding meal toppers

Meal toppers are formulated to be highly palatable so are a great option for fussy eaters. A small amount of the topper is mixed in with a complete and balanced dry or wet food to improve its taste and texture. It's important to note that meal toppers are not suitable as a sole diet.

    Meal toppers that can be prepared at home include:

  • No-salt chicken broth
  • Dog yoghurt (or plain, lactose-free yoghurt with no artificial sweeteners)
  • Plain, cooked chicken (no skin)
  • Plain, cooked lean meat (remove any fat)
  • Plain, cooked egg
  • Salmon/tuna/sardines in springwater
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Honey

Tips for selecting a new food

If you find that your pup is still not eating their current food after trying the above tips and persisting for several weeks, it may be time to select a new one to try. With so many different options on the market these days it can be difficult to know where to start, and the following points can help to guide your decision.

  • Firstly, if your pet is on a prescription diet, discuss alternative options with your veterinarian. In most cases a similar option will be available in another brand or flavour
  • If you have noticed that your dog has preferred a certain flavour or texture in the past try to find a new food with similar characteristics
  • If you have not noticed a pattern with your dog's previous preferences, you could try a brand new flavour such as fish, kangaroo or turkey
  • Stick to a premium brand- these tend to be more palatable and have more targeted nutrition than supermarket brands
  • Some dogs may prefer a naturally preserved diet that is freeze- or air-dried. Because these foods are naturally and gently preserved they tend to retain more flavour. As an added bonus most of them are also more nutrient dense compared to standard kibble, which is a good feature for chronic fussy eaters.

For further guidance or specific food suggestions for your fussy eater, feel free to contact our Vet Squad via live chat, Vet Pet Plan or email..

Further Reading

How to introduce a new food to your pet

Premium Pet Food

Bone Broth for Pets

Wet Food vs Dry Dog Food

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