Food is a primary reinforcer to dogs and cats because it is biologically important. Dogs and cats are programmed to want, need, and desire food because without it – they would starve. However, many pets exhibit picky eating behavior which can make feeding time stressful for both the pet and pet parent.
In psychological terms, a primary reinforcer occurs naturally and does not require any effort to learn that they are needed. Therefore, picky eating behavior is not natural to pets because of their biological requirement to consume food to sustain life. There are a different variables to consider when a pet displays picky eating behavior:
Illness, dental disease, and recent vaccinations can affect appetite.
Negative experiences with food can cause dogs and cats to avoid certain foods.
Feline Imprinting Behavior
Cats have a unique food imprinting behavior which serves as a survival mechanism.
A puppy’s mouth becomes very sensitive during teething and may not want to eat.
Sex hormones in male and female pets can affect the willingness to eat.
Anxiety & Fear
Appetite decreases in times of high stress and fear.
Picky eating behavior can be inadvertently taught to pets.
Picky behavior is stressful for everyone involved, but a plan can be put in place once it is identified why the pet is displaying picky eating behavior. Overcoming pickiness does take some adjustments and work to teach the pet to become more adventurous with food:
Close The Treat & Snack Buffet
Remove access to treats and snacks because they decrease appetite.
Consistent Feeding Routine
Feed meals on a consistent feeding schedule to promote the sensation of hunger.
Provide daily exercise to increase calorie burn and encourage pets to eat to refuel their body.
Enrichment activities that channel natural behaviors in dogs and cats makes mealtime more fun!
Teaching games can be used to create a positive experience with food to promote eating.
There are many variables that can contribute to picky eating behavior, but overcoming the problem can be accomplished with the right protocols to teach the dog or cat how to accept new foods. These steps can help overcome picky eating behavior! However, it does take some patience and consistency from the pet parent to teach the dog or cat how to become more adventurous with food.
Causes of Picky Eating Behavior
By nature, dogs and cats are naturally motivated to consume food because it is a necessity to survive. However some pets may begin to display picky eating behavior and understanding the many possibilities that cause picky eating behavior helps provide a clear path to overcome this issue.
The first course of action to take when a pet is displaying picky eating behavior is to rule out medical conditions. Many medical conditions could cause a behavior change in dogs and cats, such as:
Medical issues can range from gastrointestinal upset (e.g. Nausea , vomiting, diarrhea, etc.) to chronic disease. (e.g. Cancer, liver or kidney disease, etc.)
Mouth injuries are another reason why pets may not want to eat. These issues can range from fractured teeth to gum disease.
Inappetance is a common symptom associated with recent vaccinations and it is advised to discuss these symptoms with the pet’s veterinarian.
It is recommended to rule out any medical issues if a pet suddenly stops eating regularly. If there is a medical condition or a physical injury resulting in a lack of appetite, the solution to resolving the problematic behavior is pretty straightforward in accordance with the diagnosis.
All species, including humans, possess a biological trait that is designed to protect the body from ingesting foods that have been harmful in past experiences. If the animal becomes very sick after consuming a food source, the subconscious identifies the food as dangerous and the animal will avoid the food in the future – this is known as food aversion.
In terms of dogs and cats, the ingredients fed in their diet can cause digestive upset. If the pet becomes very ill from the food they ate, they may begin to avoid the food all together. Food aversion is a safety mechanism to avoid consuming food that consistently causes illness.
Additionally, the smell of certain foods can bring up negative emotions if the pet had a bad experience when the food was presented. These negative emotions will decrease appetite similarly to how food aversion from sickness does.
Feline Imprinting Behavior
Cats are slightly different in their eating behavior as their food imprinting behavior is often mistaken as picky eating behavior. All cats have food imprinting behavior which is a survival mechanism that develops at a very young age. This behavior is when the cat only views one type of food source as the safe food source and new options are considered dangerous.
If a cat has been consuming one diet type for a long period of time, it is very likely the cat has imprinted on that food. In these instances, the cat is not being picky. However, the cat simply does not view the new food as safe.
Puppy teething phase begins around 14 weeks of age and continues until the puppy is around 25 weeks of age. The puppy will exhibit teething behavior for a minimum of 10 weeks between the age of 3 to 6 months.
It is very common for puppies to avoid eating their raw meaty bones during this time because their mouth is in pain. Some puppies may develop an aversion to chewing large pieces of food because it causes discomfort to their mouth. If this happens, it is best to provide smashed raw meaty bones (use a meat tenderizer), ground raw meaty bones, or a bone meal supplement until the puppy’s mouth is no longer sensitive from teething.
Once their adult teeth have arrived, it is ok to begin feeding whole raw meaty bones again and introduce denser raw meaty bones suitable for adult dogs.
Puppies enter into the adolescent developmental period where their bodies are going through psychological and hormonal changes which often brings upon picky eating behavior. These hormonal and psychological changes make males want to roam and mate, and females begin their heat cycles.
Outside of adolescence, intact male and female dogs may still exhibit picky eating behavior. It is common for female dogs to avoid their food during their heat cycle. Male dogs within a radius of a female in heat may avoid their food because of the desire to mate with the nearby female in season.
Anxiety & Fear
Pet parents are encouraged to always watch their dog eat in the event the pet begins to choke and so that way the pet parent can quickly step in. Watching or hovering over the dog while they eat may spark intimidation or social pressure on them because they do not feel confident enough to eat in front of their pet parent. Therefore, giving them space, but still watching them at a distance is highly recommended.
Stress, anxiety, and fear will also be a factor in decreasing appetite in dogs and cats. Additionally, environmental changes, such as moving or a storm, can cause a dog or cat to be under stress and their appetite decreases as a result.
As a pet parent, it is possible to create a picky eater within a dog or cat. If modifications are made to every meal the dog or cat refuses, the pet will learn that it can refuse food until their ideal meal is provided. Picky eating behavior is only reinforced in these instances.
Overcome Picky Eating Behavior
Once the multiple variables to picky eating behavior is identified, the next step is to create a daily protocol to overcome the problem. There are multiple ways to motivate dogs and cats to accept new food through various activities and enrichment.
Close the Treat & Snack Buffet
The first step to overcoming picky eating behavior is to abandon the idea of giving daily treats and snacks. Treats and snacks will spoil the pet’s appetite because they are going to decrease the sensation of feeling full and they are made to be more palatable so pets tend to favor them if offered frequently.
Picky dogs and cats should only eat their scheduled meal(s) for the day. Maintaining a strict feeding schedule will allow the stomach to completely empty and the sensation of feeling hungry will help encourage the pet to eat foods that are offered.
Consistent Feeding Routine
Dogs and cats begin to anticipate food at random times throughout the day if there are inconsistent feeding schedules or if food is always available. It is highly recommended to create a feeding routine and stick with the feeding routine every day without any deviation. Maintaining a strict and consistent feeding schedule will begin to show the pet it is time to eat when food is presented and there will not be any more food offered until the next feeding time – this is called the tough love feeding method.
Present the meal for 15 minutes to be eaten and remove the food if the pet has not eaten or begun eating within this time frame. Do not offer any other foods if the dog has refused to eat the meal. At the next feeding time, offer the same meal that was refused at the meal time before. Repeat this process until the dog eats the food. However, this is not recommended for pets with medical conditions, puppies, or cats.
One of the easiest ways to stimulate appetite is through physical exercise! The act of exercise promotes the burn of calories and this promotes the sensation of being hungry because the body needs to refuel. Exercise options include walking, running, swimming, fetch, and other fun ways to get them active.
Sometimes dogs and cats become bored with their meals and providing their diet in a mentally enriching way is a method to overcome picky eating behavior. Dogs and cats are predatory animals and enjoy participating in acts that channel their natural instincts – hunting, shredding, and chewing.
Options include stuffing food into raw trachea or puzzle toys. Additionally, scattering food in an outdoor environment to simulate hunting behavior. All of these methods to provide a mentally enriching eating experience and help promote a positive experience with eating their food.
Teaching dogs how to love their food can be accomplished through training games. Get the dog excited by running around, engage the dog in play, and toss a piece of food to encourage the dog to get it. Running towards the tossed food to simulate a race often gets the dog more excited and interested in eating the tossed food. Provide a lot of excitement and celebration when the dog eats the food item! (Obviously this is best done outside to avoid contamination in the home.)
If the dog is picky and they eat something they usually could care less for, celebrate that action so they are rewarded for doing something good! This will condition the brain into thinking what they are being offered is actually amazing!
It is important to remember to have a clear headspace when going into this form of training and not to portray stress or frustration with a picky dog during this process because they will associate this as negative behavior.
“DON'T CATER TO PICKY EATERS.”
Ronny LeJeune, CertCN, CPDT-KA, CCC
There are factors to consider when picky eating behavior is displayed such as medical conditions, food aversion, feline imprinting behavior, puppy teething, hormones, as well as learned behavior. Always rule out medical conditions if the dog or cat shows pickiness before trying other options to overcome picky behavior.
However, do not cater to the pet’s picky behavior if there are no medical issues! Providing daily physical exercise, mental enrichment, and training games are all methods to overcome picky eating behavior.