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When I adopted my dogs as youngsters, I spent a lot of time analyzing dozens of dog food brands to find the very best one for them. Even though I’m a veterinarian, I was worried when one of the dogs turned out to be a picky eater. I’d stand over her at each mealtime thinking, “Why won’t my dog eat her food??? It’s the best one available!”
The same dog also vomited once or twice a week for the first year or two of her life. It took a lot of diagnostic testing and experimentation before I figured out why my dog was such a fussy eater. She’s still picky, but she rarely vomits these days and I know what kind of food she prefers.
I know how frustrating it is to find something a finicky pup will eat for more than one meal. Let’s talk about some good dog food choices for your picky pup as well as some of the reasons she’s picky in the first place.
Most picky dogs show a preference for some particular kind of food. Often, they’ll eat treats, cat food and human food even when they refuse dog food. You have a decision to make: do you want your dog to eat something or do you want your dog to eat dog food?
A major consideration in making this decision is whether your dog is underweight, normal or overweight. If he’s underweight, he just needs to eat something even if it’s not dry dog food! If he’s normal or overweight, you can try some different options to see if you can find a dog food he will accept.
The best dog food for picky eaters is one that appeals to their preferences without causing physical problems like vomiting and diarrhea. Many dogs would be happy to eat bacon and popcorn for every meal but a diet based solely on those foods would lead to an unhealthy pup sooner or later.
Vet-Recommended Dog Food for Picky Eaters
|Food Product||Why It’s Recommended|
|Orijen Six Fish||Strong taste and aroma of fish, higher fat and protein|
|Natural Balance L.I.D. Duck & Brown Rice Food||Novel flavor, stronger aroma|
|Purina Moist & Meaty||Strong flavor, soft texture good for very picky dogs|
|FreshPet Vital Dog Food||Moist, fresh, novel flavor and texture|
|The Honest Kitchen Human Grade Dehydrated Whole Grain Dog Food||Moist, novel flavor and texture|
|JustFoodForDogs Fresh Frozen Meals||Various novel flavors, moist, soft texture, human food|
|Purina Fortiflora||Strong flavor, probiotics may be beneficial to sensitive GI tracts|
|Purina Beyond Grain-Free Chicken Bone Broth food topper||Liquid, strong savory flavor|
|Purina Fancy Feast Broths||Liquid, strong savory flavor, different varieties available|
|Homemade dog food recipe from BalanceIT.com||Moist, novel flavor, soft texture, human food, can make hundreds of recipe combinations, complete and balanced homemade food|
Is Your Dog’s Food Stale?
Distaste for dry dog food is a common theme amongst persnickety pups.
If your dog falls into this category, the first thing to check is the freshness of your dry dog food. Maybe you’ve never thought about it but dry kibble can get stale and even go rancid.
As a human you might not be able to tell food has gone off by using your nose but believe me, your dog will know!
The best practice is to buy only enough dry dog food to last a couple of weeks. If you have room in your refrigerator, keep it in there to keep it fresh longer.
Dry Dog Food for Picky Eaters
I don’t have any great recommendations for one particular dry dog food product that is well-loved by all picky dogs. You’ll have to try several different kinds of food, but be really careful because you could upset your dog’s gastrointestinal tract by changing food too frequently. It can also make your dog even pickier if you are not careful.
Be careful when introducing these products because they are quite a bit higher in fat than average dry dog food and can cause an upset stomach or even pancreatitis in susceptible dogs.
Your pup might respond favorably to food with a stronger flavor, especially if he only wants to eat cat food or dog treats. These typically have strong flavor enhancers sprayed onto them.
Try one of these:
- Fish based food like Orijen Six Fish
- Duck-based food like Natural Balance L.I.D. Duck & Brown Rice Food
Now I’m going to say something shocking… If you’re really desperate to get your dog to eat dog food, here’s my suggestion of last resort: Purina Moist & Meaty.
The ingredient list will make health enthusiasts shudder, but even the pickiest dogs seem to love this stuff! I suspect it has some strong flavor enhancers sprayed on it. At least it is nutritionally complete and balanced, which is more than I can say of the exclusive deli meat diet many super picky dogs insist on!
Wet Dog Food
Sometimes it’s as easy as switching from dry food to wet dog food. Simply choose the wet food version of whatever you’re feeding now. Try adding a few spoonfuls on top of his dry food. Try warming it slightly and adding warm water.
Other high moisture foods to try:
- Fresh refrigerated food like FreshPet Vital Dog Food
- Re-hydrated foods like those from Honest Kitchen
- Frozen meals (thawed/warmed before feeding) like those from JustFoodforDogs
All of these should be introduced slowly over time as they tend to have a higher fat level than dry dog food, but many dogs can tolerate them just fine as long as they have a chance to get used to them.
Dog Food Toppers
Maybe your dog just needs a little encouragement to eat regular dry kibble. A lot of my clients tell me they use dog food toppers to encourage their dogs to eat dry dog food.
There are a bunch of commercially-made food toppers to entice fussy dogs to eat their dog food. Not all of them are safe for long-term use. Be especially wary of those made from liver as too much liver can result in a vitamin A overdose. Raw products come with another set of risks from bacterial contamination.
I guess Purina has sort of specialized in food toppers for picky pets! Here are the products I recommend:
- Purina Fortiflora (it’s a probiotic but also has ingredients to make it taste great to dogs)
- Purina Beyond Grain Free Chicken Bone Broth food topper
- Purina Fancy Feast Broths (made for cats but dogs like it, too)
Rotisserie Chicken is another popular choice people use as a dog food topper. Some other ideas you might try include grated Parmesan cheese, cottage cheese, and deli-style sliced turkey. The best options will have a low-fat level but a strong flavor that dogs really enjoy.
See my other articles for more tips for picky senior dogs and puppies
Homemade Dog Food for Your Picky Pup
Finally, let’s talk about homemade dog food. If you’re like most dog owners, you’ve probably fed your dog some human food meals from time to time. Most people choose boneless, skinless chicken breast and rice because they’re unlikely to upset a dog’s stomach. It’s fine to feed this combination in the short term over a few days. But chicken and rice are not nutritionally complete for long-term feeding and will cause physical problems in time.
If you’re serious about making a homemade diet for your dog, I recommend creating a recipe using the free software at BalanceIT.com. You must add the Balance IT® powder to make the recipes nutritionally complete and balanced.
I use these recipes and supplements for my own dogs and they love it! Check out my other articles about how to make a recipe for homemade food for your own dogs.
Why Is My Dog Picky? Understanding Dogs’ Food Preferences
Flavor is a sensation that comes from a combination of taste and aroma. Flavor seems to play an important role in the feeding behavior of dogs.
Considering the fact that dogs have a sense of smell that is 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than humans, it’s easy to understand why the smell of food is very important to them. Researchers found that dogs with an experimentally blocked sense of smell had much lower food preferences than dogs with a normal sense of smell (3).
Dogs have a unique set of taste buds that respond to the sweetish flavors in amino acids, umami (savory) flavors and sweet-fruity flavors (5). It makes sense because these are the flavors found in animal meat.
Overall, dogs respond well to fats, meats, “digests” (chemically processed animal proteins) and sugar. They tend to dislike vegetable protein meals, vegetable oils, vitamins and bitter medication (2).
I Eat What My Friends Eat
Many species come to prefer the same food that their same species companions consume. One small study in 2006 found dogs were more likely to choose the same dog food flavored with herbs after observing another dog eating it and smelling the herb on its breath (6).
It might be a good idea to have your dog spend some time around another dog who is not picky about food. Your dog could pick up some good habits and possibly start eating the same food as their friend.
Many dogs are attracted to new foods they haven’t had before (1). That’s why your picky eater gets so excited by his new food but then loses interest in it after a few weeks.
I’ve seen many a dog owner fall into the trap of thinking if they can just find the perfect food, their picky dog will turn over a new leaf and start eating well. On the contrary, frequent food changes can make finicky eating behavior even worse!
Do Dogs Prefer Wet Food Over Dry Dog Food?
After several decades of veterinary practice, my sense is that many dogs prefer wet dog food over dry food. Scientific evidence on this topic is spotty. One study found that dogs preferred wet food (4) while another study found a preference for dry food (7).
Part of the reason some dogs prefer dry dog food might be related to the fact that kibble is usually coated with something called animal digest. Animal digest is a chemically processed solution made from animal-derived food that acts as a flavor enhancer.
I tend to think of these highly processed flavor enhancers as “doggy crack” that can persuade a dog to eat just about anything.
Why Won’t My Dog Eat?
When dog owners tell me their dog is a finicky eater, my first question is whether the dog is just picky of actually has an illness. I look for other symptoms including vomiting, excessive belching or farting, rumbly tummy, and stool abnormalities like diarrhea, mucus in the stool, frequent defecation, and constipation. Weight loss is another big red flag.
Depending on the answers to these questions, I’ll recommend doing some baseline diagnostic testing including blood work, urinalysis and radiographs.
A few of the common diseases that cause a dog’s appetite to suffer include
- Severe periodontal disease
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Heart disease
The appropriate diagnostic tests should be able to identify all of these problems. Once your dog gets the right treatment, his appetite should improve even if he has one of these diseases.
If all of our tests come back normal, there are some other considerations that could explain why a dog is a picky eater.
It could be that a dog who seems picky is actually just not hungry. Many fussy eaters are overfed and overweight.
Ask your veterinarian to assess your dog’s body condition score. If your pup is overweight, improving their eating behavior might just be a matter of cutting back on food by 10 to 20% until their appetite improves.
Medication Side Effects
What kind of medications and supplements is your dog taking?
Practically any substance taken orally has the potential to cause gastrointestinal upset. One of the biggest culprits is antibiotics. And you might not notice the problem right away. It could take a week or two before your dog’s appetite is affected.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are a fantastic help for dogs with arthritis and pain, but NSAIDs are notorious for causing stomach irritation.
If your dog is taking I drug like Rimadyl, consult your vet about how it could affect his appetite. Some dogs do better on different NSAIDs, and some just can’t tolerate them at all.
Food intolerance is difficult to identify and define. And it’s not exactly the same as food allergy which causes an acute reaction like vomiting or severe diarrhea.
Food intolerance in dogs is akin to a person saying they love eating barbecue but it always upsets their stomach.
The best way to identify a food intolerance is by feeding your dog a very limited ingredient diet for at least a couple of weeks to see if their appetite and symptoms improve.
Try to use protein and carbohydrates sources that are bland and that you believe your dog tolerates well. A couple of popular choices are plain chicken breast and rice, whitefish and sweet potato, or ground turkey and pasta.
Please remember if you’re going to feed a homemade diet long-term, make a recipe at BalanceIT.com and add the recommended supplement!
You can also find limited ingredient dog food in most pet food stores. These are not appropriate for a food allergy trial but might be helpful for dogs that have food intolerances.
Natural Balance makes a good line of limited ingredient dog food that comes in kibble and canned versions.
Now we’re getting into a grey area.
Some people say the cause of a dogs’ picky eating is that they’re just spoiled. That might be true in some cases but I think dogs have their reasons for wanting certain types of food.
And I don’t think it’s wrong to cater to food preferences as long as the dog’s diet is complete and balanced and doesn’t cause digestive upset.
When my picky dog was young, it took me a long time to figure out that she not only didn’t like eating dry dog food but it also made her throw up. She did a little better on canned dog food, but when I started making homemade dog food she did so much better.
She stopped vomiting and her appetite improved a lot. I decided making her food was a small price to pay to keep her healthy and happy.
Don’t be afraid to try some different feeding methods with your dog and see what appeals to them most. You just need to go very slowly or you could cause additional problems.
Pay attention to your dog’s behavior and identify how they act when they like a certain food vs. how they act when they don’t like something.
You might be surprised how easy it is to tell what a dog is thinking if you just sit quietly and watch them!
Fear and anxiety can certainly affect a dog’s appetite. If your dog is showing symptoms of anxiety–like hiding, shaking and panting excessively talk to your vet treatment options. Sometimes medication is helpful, other times just making some small changes in your home routine is all that’s needed.
I have to throw in another tidbit of info based on experience. If you’ve been putting medication in your dog’s food, stop it! I’ve seen dogs become picky all of a sudden and come to find out it’s because they didn’t appreciate the pills hidden in their food. Figure out another way to give your dog his pills!
Some small breed dogs have a tendency to be picky eaters. I often wonder if it’s because they have low-grade, chronic pancreatitis. But it could also stem from an inherited tendency to be extra cautious about food.
Another interesting theory is that small dogs have been living with humans and have enjoyed a steady supply of highly nutritious food for hundreds of years now. Maybe small and toy breed dogs like Chihuahuas have evolved to have a more discerning appetite. These little guys know that more food is always available and that they don’t need to gorge themselves on whatever is set in front of them.
As long as a dog is maintaining their weight and doesn’t have symptoms of malnutrition, I tell my clients not to worry too much about their dog being a picky eater. Just learn to roll with it, figure out what your dog wants and keep an eye out for symptoms and signs of malnutrition.
Will a Picky Dog Starve Itself?
The biggest worry of dog owners is that their picky dog will starve to death. It takes a long time for a dog to starve to death but their quality of life may be better eating regularly.
As long as your dog is drinking water, doesn’t have symptoms of illness and is maintaining their weight, they are probably getting enough nutrition.
I wrote an entire article about how long dogs can go without eating. Go check it out if you want to know the specifics, but I’ll tell you that as long as a dog has water and shelter they can go without eating for a lot longer than you probably think.
There are some old studies that reported dogs who went 4 weeks without eating and had no apparent ill health effects!
When Should You Worry About Your Dog Not Eating
So, when should you start worrying about your picky eater not eating? The answer depends on several things.
If your dog is otherwise healthy, has no symptoms of disease (vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss end) and is acting normal, there is no need to hit the panic button if he misses a meal or two. Pay close attention and make sure he is drinking, especially if you live in a hot climate.
If your dog has vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss or any other unusual symptoms, that’s a different story. You should seek veterinary care if your symptomatic dog refuses food for 24 hours.
The best dog food for picky eaters is one that appeals to their taste, is nutritionally complete and balanced and does not cause any new health problems. Overfeeding, food preferences, chronic disease and anxiety are common reasons for dogs to be finicky about food.
A veterinary exam and consultation can help rule out serious disease as a cause for finicky feeding behavior. Proper treatment of disease should improve your pup’s appetite.
Figuring out how to get your picky pooch to eat regularly requires patience and ingenuity. Try different textures and flavors of food systematically. Have your dog eat with a non-picky companion dog. Make sure he’s not anxious and don’t give up!
All Dog Food & Nutrition Articles on NPHQ
- Can I Give My Dog Human Probiotics
- How & Why My Clients Use Fish Oil for Dogs Allergies
- Is Turmeric Good for Dogs? What the Science Says
- Best Commercial Dog Food for Pancreatitis (Vet’s Picks)
- 5 Ingredients Easy Liver Dog Training Treats Recipe
- My 15 Year Old Dog Stopped Eating [What Can I Do?]
- How Long Can a Dog Go Without Eating
- Are Blueberries Bad for Dogs? (a Vet Answers)
- Doctor, Please Tell Me How to Get My Dog to Drink Water!
- 2 Vet-Approved Recipes: Homemade Food for Senior Dogs
- 4 Vet-Approved Recipes for Homemade Dog Food for Small Dogs
- Save Money with Vet-Approved Affordable Healthy Dog Food
- Best Vet-Approved Low Carb Dog Food Options
- Vet-Recommended Dog Food for Allergies (Prescription & OTC)
- Vet-Recommended Dog Food for Bad Teeth
- Best Dog Food for Picky Eaters: 10 Surprising Vet’s Picks
- Vet-Recommended Best Dog Food for Puppies
- Vet-Recommended Best Dog Food for Urinary Health (Rx & OTC)
- Are the Best Recipes for Homemade Dog Food Safe?
- Vet-Recommended Best Weight Management Dog Food
- Ask a Vet: Cat Treats for Dogs–Which Ones Are Safest?
- Ferrell, F. (1984). Effects of restricted dietary flavor experience before weaning on postweaning food preference in puppies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 8(2), 191-198.
- Hand MS, Thatcher CD, Remillard RL, Roudebush P, eds. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 4th ed. Marceline, MO: Mark Morris Institute.
- Houpt KA, Hintz HF, Shepherd P. The role of olfaction in canine food preferences. Chem Senses. 1978;3:281–90.
- Houpt, K. A., & Smith, S. L. (1981). Taste preferences and their relation to obesity in dogs and cats. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 22(4), 77.
- John W. S. Bradshaw, The Evolutionary Basis for the Feeding Behavior of Domestic Dogs (Canis familiaris) and Cats (Felis catus), The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 136, Issue 7, 1 July 2006, Pages 1927S–1931S.
- Lupfer-Johnson, G., & Ross, J. (2007). Dogs acquire food preferences from interacting with recently fed conspecifics. Behavioural processes, 74(1), 104-106.
- Vondran, J. C. (2013). A two pan feeding trial with companion dogs: considerations for future testing (Doctoral dissertation, Kansas State University).