When pets become fussy eaters it can mean a world of frustration for pet owners. Pickiness has many causes, but there are some ways that we can tackle the issue when pets don’t want to eat.
It’s important to remember that if your pet refuses to eat for two or three days, they’ve lost weight in a short amount of time, they appear generally unwell or lethargic and/or you’ve tried multiple different strategies to get them to eat, get them checked out by your vet as soon as possible.
So, you’ve got a fussy eater for a pet – what can you do?
1. Timed feeding
Pets actually like a routine! Offer food at set mealtimes, and only provide the pet with a set amount of time to eat the food (generally 15 – 20 minutes maximum) before removing the food. Leaving the food out for too long causes the food to spoil, become stale or lose smell and taste; this can further put pets off their food or cause an aversion to develop which is what we want to avoid in picky pets.
2. Enrichment feeding
The experience of eating is actually the best way to reduce pickiness. For pets, the flavour of the food is far less motivating than is the experience. If pets associate eating with positive experiences, they are usually less picky with what the actual food is and tend to eat more! Try being creative with how you offer foods – use puzzle feeders, hide food in snuffle mats, smear wet food on licking mats, scatter or hide food in rooms through the house, fill Kongs with dry food or get wobblers that the pet has to roll around to eat from. Make it interesting! Try to avoid feeding directly from a bowl as some pets may find this boring. Another idea is taking your dog for a walk before mealtimes, which can help stimulate their appetite and provide some much needed mental stimulation.
Especially where cats are concerned, taste really doesn’t rate when it comes to enjoying food – it’s all about something called ‘mouth feel’! Cats love texture of foods; if your cat isn’t interested or is picky about the food you are offering, try the same food in a different texture formulation! Many high quality brands will create multiple texture profiles for cats to try, such as mousses, paté, stews, gravies, jellies, loaf type wet foods.
Before you change the diet entirely, you may want to consider dressing it up a little! Adding toppers to the pet’s regular diet is a great way to encourage eating their regular diet. As long as you keep the toppers under 10% of the total diet, and you take into account the added calories the topper may add, a sprinkle of a high value treat can be enticing to your pet. Some toppers that can be used are wet foods, cooked meats such as roast chicken or beef, freeze dried treats or fresh fruits or vegetables. Sometimes adding a flavoured probiotic supplement such as FortiFlora, or veterinary fish oils can also be used as a topper. Avoid adding very fatty treats, raw meat or milk based products as toppers as these can cause gastrointestinal upset which may further drive food aversions and pickiness.
The smell of food is one of the ways in which pets experience food. Often improving the smell of the food, or using a stronger smelling product can increase the pets interest in the food and reduce the likelihood of them refusing it. One way to do this is to slightly warm the food to body temperature; if you are feeding a wet diet, you can place it in the microwave briefly and if you are feeding a dry food, you can add a small amount of warm broth or water to the food. If adding a broth, just ensure you use a low salt version and you’ve checked it’s okay with your vet (particularly if your pet has medical conditions).
Keep a close eye on how many treats you are offering. Some pets become full easily and have spoiled their appetite for dinner with too many sweet treats throughout the day! Always ensure the treat ration for the day is restricted to less than 10% of their daily intake, and avoid giving treats around mealtimes. Adding a treat to a meal as a topper however, can be a good idea to entice the pet to eat.
7. ‘Setting the table’
Where’s the bowl? Consider where the food bowl is actually placed – some pets are incredibly picky about where they eat. Some prefer eating up high or in an entirely different room to the litter box, others will refuse to eat if their water bowl is too close! Try to think like your pet, and consider their natural feeding behaviours; would they eat low to the ground? Would they eat privately away from other animals? All of these factors can turn pets off their food.
8. Avoid rapid diet changes
Don’t immediately offer something different if your pet refuses a meal. Some pets become picky after learning the behaviour that if they refuse food and this behaviour is rewarded with something else, they then continue to refuse their food in future. The other issue with rapid diet changes is gastrointestinal issues; a sudden change in diet or introduction of something a pet has never had can cause diarrhea or vomiting. This experience can then cause the pet to develop a food aversion as a response to the negative experience with that food. Any time a new food is to be introduced, slowly mix the new and old food over the period of at least a week – for very fussy pets, it’s a good idea to extend the transition period to two or three weeks to allow them to slowly get used to the new diet and flavours. I also recommend for clients who have notoriously fussy pets to try a diet that carries a money-back guarantee on palatability – what this means, is the diet has been tested to ensure it is highly appealing to pets and enticing to eat, so the company will guarantee your pet will eat it. You can ask your vet team or nutritionists for suggestions on what diets carry these guarantees.
Pets are as unique as humans; they have their own wants, needs and tastes. Just because something has worked for another pet, doesn’t mean it will work for yours. Try to find what food is exciting and interesting to your pet and remember sometimes the answer isn’t as simple as picking a different food – consider the whole dining experience!
Did you find these tips helpful? Have you got a picky pet? Let us know in the comments below what works for your pet!