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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Ask the Vet: Finicky Eaters

by Dr. Julie Buzby
courtesy TWM News via
Dear Dr. Julie,

My Lab/Sharpei mix was adopted in February after 8 months there. Apparently she had eating issues while living there. It took about 2 months to get her eating somewhat better at home. What finally worked was mixing her canned food with tuna.

Following a vacation when she stayed with family, her eating habits have worsened, but she will eat human food when offered it. Any suggestions for improving her diet and eating habits?

Dear Reader,
First and foremost, we need to determine if this is a medical problem or a behavioral issue.  Although your dog’s history suggests that her poor appetite correlates with stress, there are several medical explanations that we need to consider.  The fact that she will readily eat table foods doesn’t rule out a medical cause.

I strongly recommend that you start with a visit to your veterinarian, but we’ll walk through a cyber vet visit via this blog post!

Step One: A thorough history

-What diets (and protein sources) have you tried?
-Is she gaining or losing weight? 
-Does she get any treats or table scraps?
-Does she have access to food from neighbors, other family members, or other pets?
-Does she have other gastrointestinal (GI) signs, like vomiting or diarrhea?
-How is her activity level?
-Describe her general personality.  Is she a nervous dog?

Step Two:  A complete physical exam

Your dog should be examined from nose to tail, to include a thorough oral exam, abdominal palpation, rectal exam, and assessment of body condition score.  If your dog is thin, I am going to be more concerned that this is a medical issue than if she is ideal or overweight. 

Step Three: Diagnostic tests

A complete blood count (CBC), chemistry, and urinalysis will serve as our “minimum data base”.  If these are normal, that doesn’t rule out chronic GI disease, so we’ll also send out bloodwork for a “GI panel”.  This will help in the diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease and pancreatic disorders.

If that is also unremarkable, I’d run a baseline cortisol to rule out atypical Addison’s disease and recommend an abdominal ultrasound.  If all diagnostic results were within normal limits, I would presumptively diagnose an underlying behavioral issue.

Step Four:  Treatment

1.    Be encouraged that your situation should improve as your dog continues to settle into your home.  Try to think about life from her perspective and remove any “stressors”, especially changes to her daily schedule. 

2.    Probiotics, which help normalize the flora in the GI tract, may be beneficial for your dog.  Purina’s FortiFlora, Iams Prostora, or the human products Culturelle, Align, and VSL#3 are all consistently good quality.

3.    Though I typically recommend feeding twice daily, it’s possible that your picky eater might do better eating once per day.  Do not feed free choice ̶ where the food is always available.

4.    Try tough love.  Offer food 2-3 times per day for about 20 minutes per feeding. After 20 minutes, if your dog is not eating, pick up the food until the next meal. I'd also ignore your picky eater for 20 minutes before meals and then lavish praise and attention when she is actually eating.

5.    Sometimes finicky eaters do better with limited ingredient or hypoallergenic diets.

6.    Feed the highest quality diet you can afford.  Palatability can be affected by changing the consistency, texture, and temperature of the food. 

7.    Since she has an affinity for human foods, you could always consider home cooking.  I would only endorse this long term if you were to consult a veterinary nutritionist to custom formulate a balanced recipe for your dog.  Check out and

Dr. Julie Buzby is a homeschooling mom of seven, American Veterinary Chiropractic Association and International Veterinary Acupuncture Society certified holistic veterinarian, and passionate advocate for canine mobility. She can be found at Twitter @DrBuzby and on You'll also find more of Dr. Julie's posts at our Ask the Vet Archives page.

You may also enjoy reading her recent articles:

Dr. Julie's opinion or advice does not replace an actual exam with a veterinarian.

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Brittany Smith said...

My dog had the same issue. I know what to do now, Thanks for sharing this great information!

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