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Tips for Fussy Eaters: Dogs & Cats

by Lauren Samet

Have you got a dog or cat that’s a fussy eater, or want to prevent them from becoming one in the future? Here are some handy hints on how to help your pet appreciate their food!

Is Your Pet a Fussy Eater?

It may be odd to think about a dog or cat ever being a fussy eater, but it can be common in smaller breeds of dog or in pets that are prone to stomach upsets. 

Sometimes, pets can maintain their weight and live healthily on very little food – in these cases then it’s likely they are simply adapting their appetite to their energy requirements. Having a self-regulating appetite is often beneficial for smaller, less active or older dogs and cats, as it means they avoid becoming overweight. 

However, if your pet suddenly becomes fussier, loses interest in its food or is becoming visibly less healthy, it’s important to rule out illness or a medical condition (including dental issues). For younger dogs, especially, don’t rule out the possibility that they have ingested something they shouldn’t have, which may cause poisoning or nausea. If the change in appetite is sudden or unusual, visit a vet to seek further advice.

Why is My Pet Refusing to Eat?

If a condition requiring veterinary treatment has been ruled out, there may be a few other reasons for a lack of appetite.

There may be a change in your pet’s daily routine that is causing upset, stress or anxiety. If your pet is stressed or anxious it may be experiencing high levels of adrenaline or other internal signals, which can play havoc with appetite. Stress and anxiety can cause an animal’s ‘fight or flight’ response to kick in. This response overrides the parasympathetic nervous system’s normal ‘rest and digest’ behaviours, associated with being relaxed and seeking food. 

If you think stress may be the cause to your dog or cat’s lack of appetite then review the possible causes and limit their influence. Some stressors are unavoidable – fireworks on fireworks night, for example – but taking steps to manage their impact can help reduce their effect.  Some causes of stress are much harder to pin down; speaking to an animal behaviourist can help diagnose any deeper issues. 

Hierarchy issues with other pets around feeding time can also cause fussiness. If you keep more than one dog or cat – or recently acquired another type of pet – you may notice that one is more dominant around feeding time than the other. The more submissive party is often less bothered about visiting their food bowl or retreats quickly if they sense any problems from the more dominant animal. 

If you think this is having an impact on your pet’s appetite then try feeding your animals in different rooms. Sometimes a visual barrier can be successful, although even simply eating on different sides of a room may be enough to reinvigorate fussy eaters. Remember to observe your pets whilst they eat to ensure they are both comfortable with whatever set up you organise for them. 

Fussiness may be a result of aging or loss of pleasure from eating, due to sensory decline or aversion. Just like us, as animals age, their senses can decline, which can include taste as well as sight and hearing. Different types of food can appeal to different sensory perceptions, so try different varieties to see which suit your older dog or cat better and encourages them to eat. Palatability is affected not just by flavour but by smell, texture, kibble size and even the temperature of food – remember that what might not smell nice to us may be really appealing to an older pet! 

Remember to be observant of aversions, intolerances or allergies in your pets. Aversion to a certain type of food, possibly due to associations with bad experiences (like becoming ill after eating a certain flavour of food) may leave your furry friend ‘put off’ by specific foods. This could also be caused by bodily reactions to foods, although these factors are not as common as you may think.

Your pet may have a fear of new foods. When introducing a new type to a pet’s diet it can be worth doing it gradually over a period of 4-7 days to acclimatise them to new tastes or textures. This is good advice generally for a change to the diet because it gives the gut and the microflora it houses time to adjust.

Tips For Encouraging a Fussy Eater to Eat:

Look at the Food You’re Giving Them

The issue may be with the food you’re presenting your pets with. If you’re feeding them dry kibble then moistening it with some warm water can make it easier to chew and sometimes can help enhance the flavours. Trying a different flavour or type of food can also be useful if you have a fussy pet – many owners choose to add a spoonful of wet food to their pet’s dry diet to make it more appetising for them.

Really fussy pets may prefer a warm meal to a cold one; warming food can enhance the smell and taste of some foods. Remember not to make food too hot (especially when using a microwave) and always test the temperature, mixing and allowing it to cool more if needed. Equally, if you keep pet food in the fridge, try serving at room temperature as some pets may not like cold food.

If your pet is used to table scraps and still seems interested in your food but doesn’t show any interest in theirs, then they may be holding out for ‘better’ options. To avoid this stop feeding them scraps from the table, they will soon learn that their bowl of food is worth eating and it will also allow them to build up more of an appetite between meals.

Lastly, remember to ensure their food is fresh and within its sell-by date. Sometimes your pet may be trying to tell you something about the quality of its dinner!

Look at How You’re Feeding Them

There may be some parts of dinner time that makes your pets uneasy and less likely to eat. Make sure their food bowl is away from distractions such as busy doorways, litter trays and other pets’ bowls. If your pet is nervous or eats slowly, they may appreciate a quiet area where they can concentrate on their food. Some pets also have a preference to some bowl materials over others, for example, they may prefer a plastic bowl over a metal one so their collar cannot clink on the edge. For smaller dogs and cats, a dish may also be preferable to a bowl.

Timing is important when feeding your pets. For dogs, avoid leaving food out all day as having constant access to food will mean there is less anticipation and no time to build up an appetite for scheduled meals. Give a fussy dog access to food for 20 minutes and if he/she doesn’t eat it all then take it away – they may just not be hungry. Resist the temptation to give them treats between meals and soon your pet will learn to eat its food when it’s provided. If your dog is not a fan of large meals then it might be better to feed them three times a day rather than once or twice. Cats, on the other hand, do better eating little and often, or on a more adlib basis. For cats, therefore, it may be better to keep food down for them throughout the day, so long as it remains fresh.

For very anxious or convalescing pets, it may be necessary to stimulate their appetite by encouraging them to eat from your hand initially. Try and still feed them pet food, but they may need some encouragement with some meat or fish before they go back to their own food. Oily fish such as sardines and pilchards are particularly attractive to ill or nervous pets, due to the potency of their smell, and they have the added benefit of being high in essential fatty acids.

How to Reduce the Risk of a Puppy or Kitten Turning into a Fussy Eater

Just like feeding children, it’s important to encourage variety in a young pet’s diet, allowing them to try different flavours, formats and textures of food. This can help dissuade them from developing a preference to one type of food. It really is worth the effort, especially with notoriously fussy small dog and cat breeds. 

It’s not just owners that can benefit from this; pets appreciate variety in their diet and different ingredients bring different nutrients to support their health. Expanding their tastes when they are young can help introduce their digestive systems to new ingredients and build up their ability to adapt to different diets.

To switch up to your puppy or kitten’s diet, make changes gradually over a few days to allow their digestive systems to adapt; doing so in increments of about 20% each day (e.g. day 1: 20% new, 80% old; day 2: 40% new, 60% old, and so on). Remember that some animals may need a bit longer to adjust than others. 

Is Your Dog or Cat a Fussy Drinker?

Have you noticed your cat or dog drinking from puddles outside, instead of their recently-filled water bowl? This might be to do with the chlorine in the tap water, which helps make drinking water safe for humans. Cats, in particular, who can be especially fussy already, can even be turned off wet food if the water contained in it is not to their taste. If your pet does appear to have an issue with its water intake, make sure you speak to a vet and check there are no other medical issues causing the fussiness.

If you think your pet is not getting enough water in its diet then here are a few tips to try:

•    Place a second water bowl in another room.
•    Try different bowl types – some pets prefer plastic to metal and vice versa. 
•    Keep water bowls away from litter trays. For obvious reasons, cats don’t like to eat and drink near to their toilet. 
•    Include wet food in the diet. As most wet dog and cat foods are 70% to 85% water, this can be an easy way to increase water intake. 
•    For cats who are very fussy drinkers (or recovering from sickness or injury), the PFMA recommend adding some of the water from a can of tuna to drinking water, to encourage drinking. 

Vitapaws DigestAid for Cats and DigestAid for Dogs

Whether you have a fussy eater or a pet with a sensitive stomach, Vitapaws DigestiAid Plus for Cats and VitaPaws DigestiAid Plus for Dogs can be a useful addition to their diet. It combines friendly bacteria with beneficial fibre and digestive enzymes in one daily sprinkle capsule. DigestiAid is the perfect format for fussy eaters as it can be sprinkled over food and mixed in, rather than being fed in a tablet form.