Feeding your pet is a tricky thing. I doubt that many caring pet parents feed their pets too little on purpose — but feed them too much, and they risk becoming overweight. You want the best for your pet, so naturally you want to feed them the best food that you can. Sometimes, though, giving in to demands for the “good stuff” can turn your pet into a picky eater. Or, your pet's newly developed "pickiness" could be code for an underlying condition.
Picky eaters are difficult cases for veterinarians and pet parents. And, though it seems contrary to common sense, picky eaters can actually be overweight as well, as they tend to hold out for the tastiest food, which often happens to be unhealthy.
But let’s get one thing straight: picky eaters still eat. If your dog or cat usually eats with gusto but suddenly starts skipping meals, this is probably not a “picky eater” type of problem. Anorexia, or going off of food, is a symptom that could mean a serious illness is brewing (something Petplan pet insurance founders and pet parents Chris and Natasha Ashton are very familiar with! Their Birman cat, Bodey, once racked up a $5,000 vet bill for anorexia). This is particularly important in:
- Puppies and kittens: Very young animals have little to no reserve in the tank. Skipping even one meal can be trouble.
- Small breed dogs: Small dogs also have little reserve, and anorexia should be closely monitored.
- Geriatric pets: Older dogs and cats may have several reasons for not eating, including pain. I consider pain in our pets to be an emergency that should be addressed as soon as possible.
- Cats: Cats (especially overweight cats) are prone to a condition called hepatic lipidosis, when they suddenly stop eating. This is a serious illness which can be life-threatening.
Anytime your pet stops eating, you should consult your veterinarian immediately.
Knowing what and how much to feed your picky eater is a challenge. This is where your veterinarian can help. He or she can work with you to develop a diet and plan that will work best for both of you. Remember, just like us, different pets have different metabolisms, so some will put weight on easily, while others don’t gain an ounce.
To start, be honest with your veterinarian about what you really feed your dog or cat, including any and all “people food” and treats. Once you have figured out healthy foods to feed and how much to feed, try these tips for getting your picky eater to eat again:
- Start with a schedule and stick with it. Usually twice-a-day feedings work best.
- Don’t expect that your pet will eat the new diet on the first day. You will likely need to do a little mixing and matching. Keeping a food log will help you track your pet’s likes and dislikes.
- Dom't give your pet unhealthy foods. Your pet is an opportunistic feeder and doesn’t understand that unhealthy foods are unhealthy – they just think they're tasty! Of course they will hold out for the tasty food! Every time you give in, you reinforce the fact that if they refuse their healthy food, you will give them the good stuff.
- Experiment with what makes your pet comfortable during meal times. Does she like to eat with company (either human or furry housemate) or alone? Does she like to eat from a bowl a plate or maybe even a tray? Anything you can do to encourage your picky eater to establish mealtime routines is good!
- Experiment with food temperature. Some pets will prefer their food warmed, cooled or even frozen.
- Try really smelly foods, like deli meats, canned fish or even meat-flavored baby foods. You can mix these in with your pet’s normal diet to entice her into eating.
- Try mixing a little peanut butter in with your pet’s food. Just double check that it is a brand that doesn't contain the sugar substitute xylitol, which is toxic to dogs.
- Try petting your cat at the food bowl. Gentle strokes can stimulate the appetite.
- Consider alternative therapies, such as homeopathy, Reiki and acupuncture.
Picky eaters frustrate owners and veterinarians alike. Stick to your guns – just as it takes time to develop good habits, it takes time to get rid of bad ones. But feeding your dog or cat healthy, appropriate pet food can lengthen her lifespan and add to the wellbeing of you both!