Visiting Veterinarian : Picky eaters
If your family is like mine, over the holidays all pretense of healthy eating has gone out the window. Overwhelmed by an abundance of sweets, childrens' whining, and our own profligacy, we have now resorted to the theory that by eating cheesecake for breakfast, jellybeans at lunch, and chocolate with dinner, maybe we'll have more restraint once the holiday food is all finished. Ha.
Not surprisingly, there have been repercussions. Weight gain, wildly fluctuating blood sugar, followed by wildly erratic behavior - and children who turn up their noses at normal, healthy meals. "What's this?" they protest, poking at dinner like it's road kill. "Meatloaf? Broccoli? Yuck! Where's the pizza and ice cream?"
Let's talk about picky eaters, the canine variety. Dogs are no different than people when it comes to appetite. Some will clean their plates, whatever you're serving, while others refuse the finest delicacies. If you have a healthy Labrador retriever, you probably don't need to read this column (other than to make fun of people with little dogs) but if you own a toy breed, an elderly pet, or one with medical problems, you may struggle with getting your dog to eat an adequate, balanced diet. "I leave food out all the time for Persnickety, my Pekingese," you say. "I figure if she's hungry enough, she'll eat, but she just ignores it." Right.
Feeding "free choice" works fine for many individuals, but is not advised for picky eaters. Although it may seem counterintuitive, Persnickety will actually consume more calories if fed regular meals at set times, and nothing in between. Small dogs should be fed at least two to three times daily. Geriatric and ailing animals also benefit from multiple small meals.
Here's what you do. Put out an appropriate portion of food for 15 or 20 minutes. Then take it away. Period. Be consistent. Limit snacks and treats. Mom was right. Cookies spoil your appetite for dinner. A set feeding schedule will help regulate Persnickety's gastrointestinal tract so she gets hungry, eats, and has bowel movements in a predictable way. This is good for dog and owner alike. It's especially helpful when housebreaking puppies.
"Okay, but what if I offer meal after meal and she keeps refusing to eat?" you ask. Good question. Missed meals and/or inadequate daily caloric intake can have serious consequences, especially in teensy dogs. If Gargantuan, the Great Pyrenees, skips breakfast, it's no big deal, but Tiny, the teacup poodle, is prone to hypoglycemia. That's low blood sugar. Refusing even one or two meals may drop blood sugar low enough to cause visible weakness, even seizures.
Puppies are particularly susceptible. Many owners resort to feeding "people food" in a well-intentioned effort to get Persnickety eating. It's generally okay to dress up the dog chow with a smidgen of something tasty but not too rich. A spoonful of lean, cooked hamburger or cottage cheese, for example. But you may end up with a dog who picks out the burger and leaves the rest. Feeding solely home-cooked food is not a good idea unless you consult a veterinary nutritionist to help you formulate your menus. I have seen animals with serious nutritional deficiencies as a result of inadequate homemade diets. Of course, we want Tiny to enjoy her food, so experiment with different brands and flavors. Most dogs find canned food more palatable than dry. If you've been feeding only kibble, check with your veterinarian and consider gradually introducing canned food. Frequent or rapid changes may lead to an upset stomach and some dogs will become even more finicky if offered too many choices, so go easy. Pay attention to which foods get the best response and aim for a daily diet that is at least 50 percent commercial dog food.
"I've found a food that Tiny likes," you report, "but she still doesn't eat enough on a regular basis. What now?" Begin by checking out the ambience. You wouldn't enjoy eating in a noisy, crowded restaurant, seated at a table next to the trash, with your meal served on a dirty plate. Neither does Tiny.
Create an environment conducive to fine doggy dining. Start with a nice, clean bowl of her own. No sharing. Next, find a peaceful spot away from other animals where she can be totally relaxed. Make sure there are no annoying odors like the garbage can or litterbox that might put her off her food.
Now think about timing. Perhaps Tiny is too excited to eat right when you get home from work. Maybe she's too easily distracted when the kids are running around. Find the best times to keep her mind on her meal.
If Tiny refuses to eat despite a five-star atmosphere, try getting started by hand feeding. Roll food into little balls. Drop bits on the floor or offer it in the palm of your hand. Play around with what works and what doesn't. Another idea is to try a little exercise before meals. We're not talking the Appalachian trail, but a pleasant stroll around the block or a brief game of backyard ball may stimulate her appetite. Once you find a routine that works, stick with it.
Keep in mind that not every picky eater is just being picky. Loss of appetite may indicate medical problems, anything from a minor toothache to life-threatening gastric torsion. You know your pet best. If your dog reliably Hoovers down every scrap of food in sight, then you need to pay attention if he suddenly refuses to eat. On the other hand, if he typically takes a lot of coaxing to finish dinner, missing one meal shouldn't alarm you as long as there are no other signs of illness. When in doubt, check with your veterinarian. And now I'm going to just go finish that last box of Chilmark Chocolates...and the Italian cookies...and the gingerbread...and...help! Someone... help! Too... much... food....