Many of our dogs will eat anything they can get their paws on if given the chance (Labradors – I’m looking at you!). So, what does it mean if your dog refuses to eat their regular pet food and is only interested in treats? From picky eaters to underlying medical conditions, this article will discuss some of the common reasons for this behavior and what you can do about it.
Reasons why your dog won’t eat their food
The first and most important reason why your dog might not be eating their food is due to an underlying illness or injury. Even if this seems unlikely, it is important to have a veterinarian examine your dog to rule out a health problem. Loss of appetite is a non-specific sign, meaning it can be caused by many different diseases but some of the most common include:
- Dental disease or other causes of sore teeth, mouth, or gums
- Gastrointestinal (gut) disease
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas and associated illness)
- Diseases affecting major organs such as the liver or kidneys
If your dog’s change in appetite is due to illness, you may notice other signs that something isn’t quite right like drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, or a sore tummy. These signs may help your veterinarian when investigating the cause of the problem.
Stress is another possible cause for changes to your dog’s appetite or eating behavior. There are many scenarios, some of which may not seem overly stressful to us, that can really affect your pet. These include loud noises (such as fireworks or nearby building works), moving house, traveling in the car, a new pet, a new baby or family member, recent parties, or visits to the vet.
Some of these situations are temporary and your pet’s appetite should return as the stressful situation resolves. For long-term situations, however, (such as a new pet or family member) it’s best to contact your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist for advice on how best to help your dog adjust.
The food tastes bad
Spoiled or moldy food is another reason your dog might be avoiding their regular pet food and choosing treats. Dogs have an incredible sense of smell and may recognize that something isn’t quite right with their food and that it may be unsafe to eat. Check the food’s expiry date and examine it for any mold, unusual odors. You should also make sure your current storage system keeps the food dry and inaccessible to rats or mice. Even if you can’t see anything unusual, it may be worth considering trying a fresh batch.
Dogs are intelligent and many of them are quick to realize that if they don’t eat what’s offered to them first, their owner will then offer something tastier – such as a treat or table scraps. Unfortunately, this is simply encouraging and rewarding picky eating behavior!
Why your dog is only eating their treats
Let’s be honest – everyone loves treats and dogs are no different! They’re designed to be tasty and given in small amounts to reward good behavior. Treats include anything from commercial dog treats to table scraps to fresh vegetables – in other words, anything that is fed in addition to a complete and balanced dog food.
As previously discussed, many owners will inadvertently encourage picky eaters by offering treats if their dog doesn’t show enthusiasm towards their regular dog food. However, it’s also true that some dogs may have a strong preference for the texture or flavor of their food.
For these dogs, it’s helpful to work out what they like and try to stick to these formulations. It’s also important to make sure that this preference isn’t due to an underlying medical problem. For example, a dog with a sore mouth preferring to eat canned or soft foods.
In households with multiple family members, also consider the possibility that someone else may have already fed the dog or been slipping them treats all day! They may not be hungry when dinner time rolls around! If your dog turns up their nose at their dinner, it’s also worth checking the bin or for access to any other food items.
If your dog has eaten something inedible, fatty, or any toxic food items such as onions, garlic, chocolate, foods containing artificial sweetener (xylitol), macadamia nuts, or grapes, contact your veterinarian immediately.
How to get your dog to start eating again
There are many tips and tricks to encourage your dog’s appetite, however, the most important step is identifying and managing the underlying cause for your dog’s change in appetite. A visit to your veterinarian to try and rule out an underlying medical problem should be your first step. They will examine your dog thoroughly and if they are concerned, may recommend diagnostic tests such as bloodwork, urine testing, x-rays, ultrasound exam, and examination of the mouth under sedation or anesthetic.
Remember to discuss any situations or changes at home that your dog might be finding stressful. Identifying the trigger will help your veterinarian formulate a successful behavior modification plan and lifestyle adjustments that will be unique to your dog’s situation (for example, firework fear).
Stopping picky eating behavior
If you suspect the reason your dog is ignoring their food and only eating treats is that they’re a picky eater – it’s time for a little bit of tough love! Offer the pet food you want to feed your dog and leave it out for 15-30 minutes. If your dog doesn’t eat it, take the food away and repeat this process at the next scheduled mealtime. Dry food works best for this method as it stays fresh much longer than canned or wet food once opened.
Though this might seem mean, don’t worry you aren’t starving them! Most dogs will soon realize what’s happening and begin to eat within a day or two. While it’s perfectly safe to use this method on a healthy dog, dogs with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, should never go without their scheduled meals.
If these methods are unsuccessful, there are some other tips and tricks that can encourage dogs to eat their regular food:
- Limit treats and make sure none of your other family members are sneaking them!
- Try food with a different flavor or texture but go slow! Trying lots of different foods or sudden changes in diet may upset your dog’s tummy. Gradually introduce new foods in small amounts.
- Try adding a little wet or canned food on top of dry food
- Gently warm up wet food or try adding a little bit of broth
How to stop it happening again
Dogs enjoy routine, so make sure they’re fed twice daily, with consistent scheduled mealtimes. The environment in which you feed should also be cleaned regularly, including food and water bowls, and be free from any stressful situations – like other pets trying to steal their food! You can also make mealtimes positive by using fun food puzzles and rewarding your dog with praise and attention after they finish eating.
Treats should always be kept to a minimum and make up no more than 10% of your dog’s daily calorie intake. Your veterinarian can help you with this and also recommend low-calorie alternatives to keep your dog at a healthy weight. It’s important to make sure the whole family is on board with this, and remember that small children may slip food off their plates without you noticing.
If your dog is skipping dinner in favor of a tempting treat, it might not just be because they’re a picky eater. Underlying medical conditions and stress can also contribute to a reduced appetite and it’s always best to discuss any changes in eating behavior with your veterinarian.