Dr Freya Javeri

Pet parents are less likely to beam with pride when they talk of their pets’ selective tastes if they realised just how detrimental fussy eating habits are to their health.

In all my years of living with dogs and treating them, I’ve come to realisse that greedy dogs are the happiest and far more likely to live longer, healthier lives!

Why fussy eaters suffer?
Early in my practice I made a surprising observation – many overweight dogs are fussy eaters! One of the main reasons, I found, was that pet parents give up trying to feed their pets a healthy diet and end up giving them whatever they will eat. Many times it turns out to be a terribly unbalanced diet with high carbs, fat, and less protein. And an unbalanced diet leads to various forms of nutritional deficiencies. Obesity brings with itself an increased risk of cardiac and orthopedic problems.
The justification that your pet “doesn’t like the taste” of something or only likes what you eat is baseless. A dog’s taste buds are not well developed like ours. They are attracted to food by smell and texture. It is natural that your pet will be curious about what you eat. That doesn’t justify feeding them from the dining table or switching to unhealthy home cooked food. And no, dogs don’t get “bored” of eating the same food throughout their life.
One of the first signs of illness is a reluctance to eat. If any of my dogs were to eat slowly or leave behind even one kibble of dog food in their bowl, my first instinct would be to do a full clinical examination and then diagnostic tests. With a fussy dog it becomes almost impossible for the pet parent to realize that their pet’s reluctance to eat is a sign of disease and not just his normal fussy behavior. These are the patients whose treatment is delayed until more serious symptoms are seen. Any delay in treatment not only prolongs your pet’s suffering, it may even be the difference between treatment success and treatment failure! One of the reasons we like our patients to get into the habit of eating dog food is so that in future if they fall ill and require supportive nutrition, they will accept prescription diets

Could it be a sign of illness?
Ask your veterinarian the question ‘My dog doesn’t eat – what could the problem be?’ only if you want to spend the weekend listening to the answer! The list of conditions that cause a pet to eat less is a million miles long! Being fussy about food could be either a behavioral problem or a signal that there is some underlying disease. It’s wiser, and more humane, to first rule out all possibility of illness before attempting behavior modification training. Your veterinarian will seek your pet’s thorough history and then run extensive diagnostics to rule out the possibility of disease process causing a lack of appetite.

Behaviour modification
Once it has been established that your pet’s reluctance to eat is a behavioral issue, you will need to start the process of training. Just follow three simple rules daily, consistently, and your pet should begin to eat well.

  • Stick to same food timings. This means absolutely no treats or food between meals. Two meals a day are adequate for adult dogs. Pups may need 3-4 meals daily.
  •  Offer food for a maximum of five minutes. If your pet doesn’t eat within that time, take his dish away and offer no food or treats till his next meal time. If he walks away from his bowl in less than five minutes, take his bowl away as soon as he leaves it. If you are feeding dry kibbles, you may keep the food aside in an airtight container and offer it again at the next meal time. If you are feeding moist food, you should discard the uneaten food.
  •  Absolutely no feeding by hand and no fussing over your pet until after he has finished eating his meal.
    Be firm and ensure that everyone in your household follows the same instructions. Remember that this is what is best for your pet in the long run. There’s no pride or joy in living with a fussy pet or one that only eats from your hand! A happy, well-adjusted dog should eat like, well…. like a dog!

    (Dr Freya Javeri is a practicing veterinarian, dog show judge and animal behaviourist. She is a council member of the Indian National Kennel Club and co-founder of Wagging Tails Dog Training Academy).