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What you can do when your dog is a picky eater and refuses food

What you can do when your dog is a picky eater and refuses food

8-step plan to help your picky dog

There are a growing number of dog lovers faced with dogs who don’t eat, and yet their veterinarians say everything is fine and their dog is healthy.

Dog lovers are not the only ones facing this challenge. Parents around the world are tackling the same issue. Their kids refuse to eat vegetables and healthy food and reach for junk food instead.

Most people connect a good appetite with good health so offering food to our dogs is an act of love and care. Many people mistakenly believe a poor appetite is connected with poor health, which can be a source of great anxiety. That’s why I decided to write this article.

Conditions that could have been missed

If your veterinarian examined your dog, the following lesser-known causes of appetite loss are often missed:

  1. Injury or congestion of the stomach association point of the spine, which is located at the thoracic and lumbar junction (right behind the last rib). If the muscles around this area are tight, the stomach receives less flow, which results in poor stomach motility and low production of digestive juices.
  1. Toxicity of the body may also lead to loss of appetite. Mercury, arsenic, radioactive pollution and countless household chemicals and garden pesticides can cause toxicity. If your dog doesn’t eat, I suggest you use a HairQ test to determine your dog’s toxin levels.
  1. A HairQ test will also help you determine if your dog is suffering from any mineral deficiencies, which can greatly affect digestion.
  1. Similar to people, artificial, synthetic vitamins may cause nausea and loss of appetite. This is one of the reasons I decided to formulate a very different whole-food based, certified organic multivitamin for dogs that is made by using live culture media and therefore doesn’t cause nausea.
  1. Disturbances in intestinal microflora can sometimes be caused by feeding kibble. However, even when you give your dog a probiotic, some dogs are sensitive to dairy or do not respond well to human-based formulas. Dogs have a very different digestive tract and respond the best to non-dairy, canine-specific probiotics
  1. Vaccinosis, the side-effects from vaccines, can sometimes cause lack of appetite that starts within several weeks post-vaccination and may last for a lifetime. If your dog lost their appetite after vaccination you can use the homeopathic remedy Thuja 200C. I have seen this treatment be effective in such cases. 

The most common reason for lack of appetite

But what if your dog got a clean bill of health, you addressed all the possible issues I mentioned and your dog still doesn’t want to eat? 

That is exactly what the rest of this article is about!

If you are a parent, or have friends with children, I’m almost certain you’ve seen kids refusing veggies and other healthy food who dive happily into mac and cheese, pizza, junk food and dessert. 

When children refuse their regular healthy meal, parents often replace it with something tastier and less healthy, and the same happens with dogs.

This simple action leads to the formation of new habits that eventually get recorded in the more primitive, so-called “reptilian brain.” When a habit is established it’s very hard to break, which leads to ongoing challenges with dogs and children alike.

When a dog or a child doesn’t eat, the guardian may subconsciously create one of the following habit loops:

Habit loop 1: Refusing food > new food given > good appetite > dog’s happy > human’s happy

Habit loop 2: Refusing food > food is taken away > the same food is offered at the next feeding time until your dog gets hungry enough to eat the meal > meal eaten > satisfaction follows > repeat until a new healthier habit forms

Naturally, the first habit loop is much easier because it provides instant gratification to the dog and the guardian. The second one is more difficult but yields a long-term, positive outcome more often.

What I’ve learned from picky dogs

While working with many dog lovers during my 29 years of practice, I’ve learned several fears that prevent us from enacting habit loop 2. 

Most people don’t realize dogs can safely fast for seven days without any ill effects. I see people worry their dogs (or children) will starve and become sick or they will not get enough nutrients if they don’t eat. The good news is fasting for a few days can be healthy for a dog. 

Some time ago, I wrote an article about monkey love, which talks about a challenge we dog lovers have. Some people find it an impossible task to resist giving their dogs what they are asking (or barking) for, despite knowing the health consequences.

A good example is a dog that’s addicted to kibble and refuses healthy but more subtle-tasting natural food.  

A person could object that in nature animals choose to eat what they want and intuitively know what’s healthy for them. The reality is a natural diet doesn’t include potato chips, Coke or, in the case of our dogs, kibble. These highly processed and cleverly-formulated foods plug into our dog’s (and kid’s) susceptibility to addictive habits that are hard to shake.

Let’s be honest, if a dog is allowed to eat any food at a buffet dinner, they will go for the roast, but also the chocolate cake, which is toxic for them. 

In today’s ‘denatured’ world, kids and dogs need our guidance and clear boundaries when it comes to choosing food. A species-appropriate raw or cooked diet with vegetables and bones is ideal for dogs, but you are probably asking, ‘how can I get my picky dog to eat this?’

WE MUST HELP THEM CREATE HEALTHY HABITS. 

The bad news is habits are automated, subconscious and highly addictive brain loops that mainly engage the more primitive reptilian parts of the brain. The good news is, once good habits are formed our dogs (and kids) become happier when eating healthier food.

As is the case with bad habits, changing your dog’s (or a child’s) addiction to tasty, unhealthy food is not easy, but the rewards and benefits last a lifetime. 

8-step plan to help your picky dog:

First, ensure that your veterinarian has examined your dog and declared him healthy and that you've addressed the lesser-known causes of appetite loss mentioned above. 

  1. If your dog is young and hasn’t formed the bad habit of being picky, never replace food she or he refuses with another food.
  2. Avoid kibble and unhealthy addictive treats.
  3. Measure your dog’s toxin levels with a HairQ test and do a semi-annual liver detox. A toxic dog is a picky dog. 
  4. Remember that dogs (and kids) don’t have the brain capacity to make responsible choices and resist addictive food. Dogs and children are quite similar and they respond very well to clear, loving and firm boundaries. When the rules are clear, they feel safer and become more emotionally grounded.  
  5. If you are switching your picky dog from kibble to raw, gradually mix in raw or cooked food and try to wean your dog off kibble as soon as possible. Here are the reasons why mixing kibble and a homemade diet on a long-term basis is not a good idea. 
  6. If your dog normally eats fine and becomes picky or refuses food occasionally, you may be overfeeding. The main guide should be your dog’s optimal body weight. Many people overestimate how much dogs should eat
  7. Avoid putting butter, yogurt, bacon or any other flavoring agents in their food. Once a dog gets addicted to them, it’s hard to change the habit. 
  8. If your dog has been declared healthy and you have addressed the lesser-known causes of low appetite, fast your dog for three days and be patient as you try to create new habits.

Implementing this 8-step plan may sound hard. It’s true, you may need to put up with some whining and crying, but when you stay lovingly firm, you may be surprised how much happier and resilient your dog will be on healthier food and with well-established boundaries.  

We all worry about our dogs because we love them. All we need to is be more aware and notice what we feel when our dog refuses to eat. You probably catch yourself worrying. Ask yourself what is the worst-case scenario and if it’s likely to happen. If the answer is no, just enjoy your dog, go for a walk and be clear, kind and decisive.

If your dog is not sick (which you need to rule out with your vet), they can fast for a week. He or she will still love you if you set clear boundaries and feed healthy food. The only side-effect of this protocol is a healthier, happier and longer life for your dog. 

© Dr. Peter Dobias, DVM

About the author

Dr. Peter Dobias, DVM is an Integrative veterinarian, nutritionist and creator of natural supplements for dogs and people. Helping you and your dog prevent disease, treat nutritional deficiencies, and enjoy happier, healthier, and longer lives together.

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