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. Despite this, 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. Therefore, it’s important to consider several different variables when a pet displays picky eating behavior:
Picky behavior is stressful for everyone involved, but a plan can be put in place once the reason for the picky eating behavior is identified. Overcoming pickiness will take some adjustments and work to teach the pet to become more adventurous with food:
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 will take patience and consistency from the pet parent.
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:
It is recommended to rule out any medical issues when a pet is not eating regularly. This is especially important if the pet was previously eating regularly and then stopped suddenly. If there is an illness 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 that food was presented. These negative emotions will decrease appetite in a similar fashion to food aversion from sickness.
When a pet develops a food aversion due to sickness or bad experiences, positive training methods will be required in order to overcome the behavior.
Feline Imprinting Behavior
Cats are slightly different in their eating behavior than dogs. 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. Food Imprinting is when a cat only views their current food source as safe. New foods are not viewed as edible and are considered potentially 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. It can take a very long time to overcome food imprinting. Offering new foods next to safe foods for prolonged periods can help the cat to see that the new food is safe.
The puppy teething phase begins around 14 weeks of age and continues until the puppy is around 25 weeks of age. Puppies 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 a food aversion to chewing large pieces of food because it causes discomfort. 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 that are suitable for adult dogs.
Older puppies will enter into the adolescent developmental period where their bodies are going through psychological and hormonal changes. This often brings upon picky eating behavior. These hormonal and psychological changes make males want to roam and mate, and females to begin their heat cycles.
Outside of adolescence, mature and intact dogs may still exhibit picky eating behavior. It is common for female dogs to avoid their food during their heat cycle. Male dogs may refuse their food if a female in heat is nearby because of the desire to mate with the female.
Anxiety & Fear
Unfortunately, dogs can often choke on almost anything. Pet parents are always encouraged to watch their dogs eat so that they can step in if the dog begins to choke. However, watching or hovering over a dog while they eat may spark intimidation or social pressure 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. In multi-pet households, it is recommended to fully separate the pets at feeding time. Even when several pets get along well, some can exhibit picky behavior due to social pressure when their housemates are present or watching.
Stress, anxiety, and fear can also be a factor in decreasing appetite in dogs and cats. Environmental changes, such as moving or a storm, can cause a dog or cat to be under stress and their appetite can decrease as a result.
Many owners panic when their pet refuses a meal and immediately resort to food changes or toppers to coax their pet to eat. It is possible to create a picky eater when modifications are made to every meal the pet refuses. The pet will learn that it can refuse food until something tastier is provided. Picky eating behavior is reinforced in these instances by the pet parent.
Overcome Picky Eating Behavior
Once the multiple variables to picky eating behavior are identified, the next step is to create a daily protocol to overcome the problem. It may be as simple as treating a medical condition appropriately or separating multiple pets at meals. Although when pick eating has become a learned habit, it can be more work to address. 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. Treats are also made to be more palatable so pets tend to favor them if offered frequently. For a human example, consider children preferring salty snacks and candy over vegetables.
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 the meals that are offered.
It is also recommended to re-evaluate a picky pet’s feeding amounts. Overfeeding is a common factor that can contribute to picky eating behavior, because the pet can afford to be choosy when calories are in excess. Overfeeding can be due to an error in feeding calculations, or the fact that the individual pet happens to have a slower metabolism than average.
Consistent Feeding Routine
Dogs and cats begin to anticipate food at random times throughout the day if the feeding schedule is inconsistent or if food is always available. It is recommended to create a feeding routine and stick with the routine every day without deviation. Maintaining a strict and consistent feeding schedule will teach the pet it is time to eat when food is presented and that there will not be any more food offered until the next feeding time.
Present the meal for a 15 minute period and remove the food if the dog has not eaten or begun eating within this time. Do not offer any other foods or toppers if the dog has refused to eat the meal. At the next feeding time, offer the same meal that was refused previously. Repeat this process until the dog eats the food – this is called the tough love feeding method. This method is not recommended for pets with certain medical conditions, puppies, or cats.
The tough love method is extremely effective at curbing learned picky eating behavior. However, when it is utilized for the first time it may take longer than a day or two for the dog to understand. Since the pet parent has modified their meals in the past, most dogs will wait to see if their meal will be modified.
One of the easiest ways to stimulate appetite is through physical exercise! The act of exercise burns 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.
Dogs and cats can sometimes become bored with their meals when the same food is fed in the same way daily. 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 and/or puzzle toys, or scattering food in an outdoor environment to simulate hunting behavior. These methods provide a mentally enriching eating experience and help promote a positive experience of eating their food.
Teaching dogs how to love their food can often be accomplished through training games. Get the dog excited by running around to engage the dog in play, then toss a piece of food and encourage the dog to get it. Running towards the tossed food to simulate a race will often get the dog more excited and interested in eating the 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 a picky dog eats something they usually could care less about, celebrate that action so they are rewarded for doing something good! This will condition their brain into thinking that 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. Feeling stress or frustration with a picky dog during this process can cause the dog to associate this as negative behavior.
There are several factors to consider when picky eating behavior is displayed such as medical conditions, food aversion, feline imprinting behavior, puppy teething, hormones, and learned behavior. Always rule out medical conditions before trying other options to overcome picky behavior.
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 help overcome picky eating behavior.