Help! My Pet Is a Picky Eater

By: Deborah E. Linder, D.V.M., M.S., D.A.C.V.N., petfoodology.org

From pet food options to mealtime strategies, here's help encouraging a dog or cat that's a picky eater to lick the food bowl clean.

Just like people, some pets may be hardwired to turn their noses up at the foods they're "supposed" to be eating—such as the dog or cat food you bought specifically for them at the pet store. As an animal owner, it can be frustrating to see your pet reject a bowl of food, but having a picky palate might just be part of your pet's personality. Rest assured, though: fussy eaters are pretty common. Fortunately, there are ways to make mealtimes easier if your cat or dog is a picky eater.

Related: Why Does My Cat Eat Weird Things?

1. First, Rule Out Illness, Pain or Stress

Before blaming your pet for being fussy, rule out any health problems. Contact your vet if picky eating is a new behavior, or if your pet is losing weight, as it may be the first sign of an illness or dental problems. If he normally finishes his bowl of food but is suddenly ignoring it, watch for other unusual behavior, such as lethargy, vomiting or modified bathroom habits—particularly if you haven't changed his food recently. Some pets will also stop eating in response to a stressful situation, such as a new pet or moving to a new home. Rule out these options before addressing the specifics of your pet's diet.

2. Track Your Pet's Preferences

Keep tabs on what your pet likes. Does she prefer new flavors or what's familiar? Consider texture, too. Dry pet food comes in a variety of different shapes, such as doughnuts, stars and pyramids. Size may also be a factor; some cats or small dogs may find larger kibble difficult to chew, while larger breeds may prefer heartier-sized food (or vice versa). Wet food offers a similarly wide array of options to choose from, including food in stew format, pureed into paté, shaped into loaves, shredded or left in chunks. You might also try simply adding a little water to dry food to soften the texture. Some stores or brands may offer a money-back guarantee if your pet doesn't like the food you bought; if you know your pet is a fussy eater, it's worth asking.

3. Consider How and When You Feed Your Pet

Sticking to a regular schedule can help your dog or cat regulate his digestive system—and may have the effect of making him start to anticipate and look forward to feeding time. Take a look at where you feed him, too; if your pet feels he has to compete with other pets being fed at the same time, he may decide that fighting the others off isn't worth the hassle. The same concept applies if you're feeding your dog or cat in a noisy or exceptionally busy area, which may cause unnecessary stress during meals.

4. Be Smart About Treats

Pet nutritionists have varying opinions about adding people food to a pet's dish to entice him or her to eat. If you do top off dry meals with a little people food—like chicken or cottage cheese—be sure to keep whatever you add to less than 10 percent of your pet's total daily calories (most need around 250 per day). For perspective, 2 tablespoons chopped chicken breast or low-fat, no-salt-added cottage cheese each have 25 calories. And be sure to add people food before your pet has a chance to refuse her own food, rather than offering it as a reward for turning her nose up the first time. You might also consider mixing a few treats into her food, or mixing a bit of wet food into dry food to make it more appealing. Again: be mindful of calories!

5. Don't Stress Out

If you constantly worry about your pet's eating habits, that stress may also transfer to your pet, making her less likely to eat. Try a timed automatic feeder or put the food and your pet in a quiet, separate room where she can eat alone. She may simply prefer eating on her own schedule and at her own pace.

Additional reporting by Lindsay Warner.

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