Is your pet a fussy eater?

Fussy dogs and cats can drive us crazy. We might try 50 different foods, we beg and cajole… but sometimes nothing seems to work.

While most dogs and cats eat well – even too well, considering more than 50% are considered overweight or obese by their veterinarians – there are always some that just don’t have a good appetite. Many cats, along with dog breeds like huskies and great Danes, can be famously fussy eaters.

If you have a picky eater, keep in mind that the ideal body condition for any animal is what most of us would consider a little too thin. But research has shown that animals of many species (including humans!) live longer and have fewer chronic diseases if they stay slim.

However, if your dog or cat’s appetite has recently decreased (whether suddenly or gradually), a veterinary visit is in order. While a day or two of fasting is normal for many animals, there are numerous health issues that can cause anorexia (not eating) or inappetance (eating less). These include infections; dental disease; gastrointestinal, heart, kidney or liver disorders; cancer; certain hormone abnormalities; many medications; recent vaccination; pain; and stress – to name just a few.

Food preferences

First, let’s look at what influences which foods our animals prefer to eat:

  • Food preferences are formed early in life, but weaning onto a varied diet produces adults with broad food preferences.
  • Kittens prefer the same diet their mothers ate; and many adult cats will refuse any new food.
  • Adult cats self-select a diet containing 52% protein, 36% to 46% fat, and 2% to 12% carbohydrate.
  • Puppies are influenced by early experience, but dogs are generally more willing to try new foods.
  • Adult dogs self-select a diet containing 30% energy from protein, 63% energy from fat, and 7% energy from carbohydrate. (However, dogs who are not accustomed to a high fat diet may develop pancreatitis if fat consumption is abruptly increased).

Providing your dog or cat with a low carb, high moisture diet may give you the best chance of turning her into a happy, healthy eater. Feeding a variety of foods right from the start reduces the chance that your animal will become finicky, and avoid both the “monotony” and “novelty” effects (see sidebar on page 32). It can also help avoid the development of food allergies, which tend to occur in animals fed the same food for a long time.

Tips and tricks

If your vet has given your dog or cat a clean bill of health, there are quite a few tricks that can help you overcome her pickiness. (These tips can also help you transition her to new foods.)

  • An animal who is hungry at mealtime is more likely to eat what is offered, so don’t use perpetually full bowls or feeders that allow 24/7 snacking. Individual feeding at timed meals will give you the best results, as well as allow you to assess how much your fussy eater is really eating – especially important in multi-animal households.
  • Stick to a regular meal schedule, so she learns to anticipate food at those times.
  • Never feed your dog or cat from the table; this only encourages “holding out” for something tastier.
  • Try a different brand or flavor of food. The “novelty” effect may help stimulate her appetite.
  • If feeding wet, raw or homemade food, warm it by adding a little hot water. Warmth increases the food’s odor, which stimulates appetite. (Never microwave pet food; it can create hot spots that will burn your animal’s mouth – which definitely won’t help!)
  • Feed smaller amounts more frequently; this is especially helpful for cats, who naturally eat multiple small meals per day.
  • Move the food bowl; it may be in a location that your dog or cat just doesn’t want to hang out in. Put it a good distance away from water bowls and, of course, litter boxes.
  • Increase your companion’s exercise level; it will increase hunger.
  • Top the food with plain meat baby food (chicken, turkey, lamb, ham) – just make sure it doesn’t contain onion or garlic powder.
  • Mix lightly browned, unseasoned meat into the food, or use as a topping.
  • Sprinkle grated or powdered cheese on top of the food.
  • For wet, raw or homemade food, sprinkle a handful of your dog or cat’s favorite kibbles or treats on top. Or, crush the kibbles or treats into crumbs, make bite-sized meatballs of the wet food, and roll the meatballs in the crumbs. Bear in mind that “bite-sized” for a cat or small dog is pretty darn tiny.
  • Give treats only after your animal has eaten a good meal.
  • Use “tough love”– if your dog or cat hasn’t eaten her meal in 10 or 15 minutes, pick it up and put it away, then offer the exact same food at the next mealtime.

Caution: While hunger is a great appetite stimulant, don’t try to starve your animal into submission, especially a cat. If a cat doesn’t eat, or eats too little, for even a few days, a life-threatening liver disease called hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver) may develop.

The monotony and novelty effects

Not sure why your pet is such a fussy eater? Here are two other reasons why your cat or dog might be turned off his food:

The “monotony effect” is seen when animals gradually decrease consumption of a familiar food.

The “novelty effect” is when dogs or cats enthusiastically eat a new food the first few times it is offered, but reject it after a few meals (usually right after you buy a 50-pound bag or whole case of it!).

Turning around a fussy eater requires patience and ingenuity, but it’s nearly always possible with time and persistence.


Jean Hofve, DVM, earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University. In addition to conventional veterinary training, she studied veterinary homeopathy, homotoxicology, Reiki, and other holistic modalities. She has researched pet food and feline nutrition for nearly two decades, and is an expert on holistic pet health and the commercial pet food industry. She is an official advisor to AAFCO, the organization that sets pet food rules and standards in the U.S. and Canada. Dr. Hofve co-authored the book Holistic Cat Care.