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Pooches & Pussycats With Picky Palates (Feeding Finicky Cats & Dogs)

I bet you know at least one dog or cat who’s picky about their food. It’s pretty common for these guys to turn up their nose at some – or many – of the foods that we offer them. Often this situation is due to how and what they were fed early in their lives. You’ll have a better chance at raising dogs and cats who welcome variety in their diet if you understand what usually causes them to be finicky.

Finicky eating isn’t, in itself, a problem. But if cats or dogs have to change diets at some point in their lives – either for health reasons or because their favorite food is no longer available – the transition to a new food will be easier if they’ll accept a variety of foods. Our pets live longer now than ever, and many of them need to be on special diets in their senior years. That’s been true of several of my cats over the past 5 years.

How to avoid raising finicky cats and dogs

The number one thing you can do to avoid raising picky pets is to offer them a variety of food from the moment they join your family. It’s normal for dogs and cats to have variety in their diet, so most veterinarians encourage us to provide foods with different protein sources, offer both wet foods and dry kibble, and try different textures of foods.

By the time they’re 6 months old, dogs and cats have already established their dietary habits. Most pets who are fed only one type of food during their youth are less likely to accept other diets. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why this is the case, but they suspect it’s either because they don’t recognize certain foods as being food, or that they become habituated (sorta addicted) to that one food.

You can help them by providing variety in:

  • Protein ingredients. You can get high quality pet food with lots of protein sources that have very different flavors, such as venison, duck, rabbit, buffalo, brushtail, and unagi (eel). Natural Balance, Addiction, Raw Advantage, and Nature’s Variety Instinct are some of my favorite the high quality brands of foods with a wide variety of proteins.
  • Types of food. Many people like to feed dry kibble because it’s convenient. It’s also good to offer moist foods from cans or pouches, and well-prepared raw food that is either dehydrated or frozen.
  • Textures of food. Cats are notoriously particular about the texture of their food. (Veterinary pros call this the “mouth feel” factor.) Try feeding your dogs and cats wet foods that contain chunks in gravy, as well as those that are more like pate. Dry kibble is available in a lot of shapes that can feel very different in their mouths. Raw foods also come in different forms from large grounds to pate textures. Knowing whether your pet has food texture preferences will make it easier for you to know which foods they’re likely to enjoy best.

In addition to providing dietary variety, there are environmental details that can prevent cats and dogs from becoming finicky eaters.

Make sure the food in their dish is fresh. If your pets free-feed on kibble throughout the day, it’s best to provide small amounts so that the dishes are empty at the end of the day. In contrast, simply topping-off the food in the dish can leave food sitting at the bottom for days – allowing it to become stale. The best way to make sure you’re feeding the freshest food possible is to buy smaller bags. If your pets are enthusiastic about food when you open a bag but less enthusiastic as you get to the bottom of the bag, the food might be losing its flavor and smell before you offer it to them.

Storing food in plastic tubs can cause food to go rancid very fast if you dump the food out of its package so it’s touching the surface of the plastic container. If you store food in plastic, put the entire package into the plastic container so the food does not touch the plastic and it’ll stay fresher longer.

Avoid using plastic food dishes. Glass, ceramic, or metal are best.

Keep food dishes clean. Provide fresh dishes for food and water at least once a day.

Use dishes that are shallow enough for pets to reach their food without straining their neck too much or having their whiskers touch the sides of the dishes. Also, some pets prefer glass or ceramic dishes to plastic dishes. Another dish detail to watch for is whether the dish moves around as they try to eat. (If it does, try placing the dish on some grippy padded shelf liner.) You can also buy pet food dishes that are made with a grippy plastic bottom.

The location of their dishes can also affect how well pets eat. Some cats and dogs don’t like to eat if their dishes are too close to their bed, noisy appliances, busy areas, litter boxes, or the dishes of the other pets. One of my cats only eats a full meal if he’s placed in a room by himself with the door closed.

Some pets don’t like eating cold food that has been kept in the refrigerator, and some pets refuse to eat food that has been heated in a microwave. My own cats are like this, so when I offer refrigerated food, I pour a little hot water on it to heat it before serving.

You can also enhance a meal’s smell by heating it. Food that smells good makes pets (and humans) enjoy their food more. If their sense of smell is altered, due to aging or illness, they might show less interest in their food.

If a dog or cat becomes picky later in life

Suddenly becoming finicky can be a sign of a serious medical issue, so contact your veterinarian immediately if your pet suddenly stops eating a food they normally like. Aside from serious health problems, there are other reasons that pets can become finicky.

Some dogs and cats have digestive upsets if we make sudden dietary changes. The ideal way to change their diet is to add a small amount of new food to their current food, and gradually – over a seven to ten day period – increase the amount of new food while decreasing the amount of current food. Eventually, they’ll be eating 100% of the new food.

Stress and anxiety can cause some pets to stop eating for a while. Obviously, when this is the case, you’ll have to determine why they’re stressed in order to get them back to their normal eating habits.

Quite a few medicines can cause pets to lose their appetites, so talk with vet if you think that’s an issue for your dog or cat.

There are times when pets simply eat less than others, such as on hot summer days. So a brief, subtle change in the amount of food they eat can be just the natural ebb and flow of their appetite.

Sometimes pets aren’t actually finicky, they’re already full from getting extra bits from someone else in the household, helping themselves to food they find in the garbage, or nibbling throughout the day instead of gobbling their food down all at once. Nibbling is actually ideal for cats because their bodies are designed to eat lots of small, frequent meals.

(Note: I do not accept payment for mentions of products and services that I write about on this site. Nonexclusive use of this article has been granted to other pet industry organizations but Kari Kells retains copyright.)

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