**This article featured on allaboutdogfood.co.uk the UKs top canine nutrition site. It was reviewed and endorsed by the website’s creator, David Jackson, who stated: “It’s a great article and raises some interesting issues that I don’t think many have considered before.”
This post applies to dogs and cats, so read on if your pet doesn’t eat all of their food in one sitting (that includes cats who graze at their crunchies).
It’s a bit of an epic long post. But for a complex subject that is often under considered, it’s hard to keep this sort of thing brief. There’s a lot of info to consider.
But before I go on, remember that we are only talking about fussiness here. If your pet’s apetite is suppressed due to medication or a diagnosed health problem (such as pancreatitis or an enzyme deficiency/EPI), the advice given below won’t apply.
As a pet carer and trainer I see too many animals who are on diets that do not suit them- and their carers may not even be aware of it.
Diet is EVERYTHING! It plays a huge role in the behaviour and health of all living beings because every function and process in our body depends on nutrition to fuel it.
When seeing behaviour cases I take extensive history on each dog, asking enough in depth questions to fill a 12 page form. Two of those questions are:
” What is your dogs attitude towards food?”
“Does your dog eat all of their food in one sitting?”
Would you believe that every case that says ‘no’ to the second question is fed a diet high in grain/cereals and animal derivatives? They are always being fed a dry food diet (kibble) and more often than not the brands they are being fed is ROYAL CANIN or IAMS.
We also care for a lot of cats on the pet care side of the business and if I had £1 for every stale bowl of unwanted IAMS I threw in the bin I’d be a very rich lady.
Too often pets who don’t eat their food in one go are labelled as ‘fussy’ or ‘picky’. So, here’s my take on fussy eaters….who are more often than not, anything BUT fussy!
IF THEY AREN’T FUSSY, WHY AREN’T THEY EATING THEIR FOOD?
My theory on the vast majority of ‘fussy’ eaters is that these dogs have an intollerance to something in their food.
Dry food fed animals are traditionally fed the same thing day in and day out. When fed every day over time an ingredient that can cause a mild aggravation to the digestive system can eventually start to cause a lot of discomfort. Anyone whose had Irritable Bowl Syndrome (me!) can vouch for how uncomfortable gut issues can be.
A personal comparison: gluten and I aren’t great friends. I can tolerate a sandwich every few days, but have to go careful with how often I eat bread/baked goods because if I eat them too much I wont feel great! (I’ll spare you the details!)
So, just like me and my love/hate relationship with bread- a dog/cat eventually starts to associate eating with a feeling of discomfort and refuses their food in the hope something more suitable might come along.
As a practioner of Applied Zoopharmacognosy I have also witnessed dog’s amazing ability to select (and turn down) non-food plant based remedies to regulate their health, and I also see this with my own dogs feeding habits.
Kanita will turn her nose up at Raw when her stools are too hard, which I interpret as saying ‘no’ to the bone content. And she’ll happily eat Denzel’s Kangaroo meat (wet dog food by Akela). I’ve also seen her turn her nose up at Salmon (raw food) after a few meals, which I assume is down to the level of Omega 3s and 6s in the food and her knowing she’s reached her optimum.
On the rare occasion she’s been a bit ‘off’ she’s turned her nose up at raw altogether and only eats wet (Akela food). I interpret as her instinctively knowing her system isn’t strong enough to handle the low levels of bacteria that go hand in hand with raw feeding. (My recently deceased dog Leto stopped eating raw when he became more ill too and was moved onto quality wet food).
Rather than make them go without, when my dogs don’t eat their meal, I consider why and go and find something that they will eat.
IF THEY AREN’T BEING FUSSY, WHY DO THEY PICK (GRAZE) AT THEIR FOOD?
Quite simply- because nothing else becomes available and survival needs (needing to eat something to live) prioritises over personal preference.
Back to me and bread. I can choose to not eat bread, but if I’m having a mega busy day of back to back consults and the only shop I pop into for lunch has nothing but a white bread vegetarian sandwich- I’ll begrudgingly eat a stupid white bread sandwich knowing full well of how it will affect me.
When I’m not so busy with work (and not so disorganised by not making a packed lunch) I am able to choose certain locations for my meal to bypass symptoms of food intollerance. But our dogs don’t get that choice. Dictating their diets and labelling them as fussy eaters means many dogs are unintentionally forced into eating food that makes them feel like crap.
WHAT ABOUT THE DOGS WHO HAVE BEEN ‘DIAGNOSED’ WITH INTOLLERANCES WHO EAT THEIR FOOD ANYWAY?
This could be down to the symptom type. An IBS type symptom that presents itself soon after eating can easily be associated with what came just before (eating). Whereas, itchy skin as a symptom is not so easily linked to the cause.
It could also be due to the level of symptoms, mild stomach ache in contrast to chronic muscle spasms.
Then there’s other individual motivating factors such as a dog who can’t cope with hunger as much as another. A dog who leads a more active lifestyle than another may have a bigger appetite. Or it could be that having other dogs in the home competing for resources (food) puts the pressure on to eat what ever is available.
Lastly the need for other ingredients in the food (such as fats or proteins) can over ride the need to avoid certain ingredients (such as too much starchy carbohydrate).
WHY IAMS, ROYAL CANIN AND NOT OTHER FOODS?
I have yet to see a behaviour case that’s a ‘fussy eater’ on raw food. I’m not saying some dogs on raw don’t turn their noses up at their meals, but I have noticed a trend with it being linked to certain foods. This could be due to the popularity of the foods in question, but I strongly feel the correlating factor is the ingredients as I’ve seen dogs on EUKANBUA, SCIENCE DIET, ARDEN GRANGE, JAMES WELL BELOVED and BURNS all do the same.
The dogs I have worked with have all gained a renewed enthusiasm for food once the brand is changed to something better quality.
Let’s look at these food brands and the main ingredients they use:
IAMS: A mere 20% Chicken (fresh meat so the percentage left after the water has been removed will be much less), MAIZE, WHEAT
ARDEN GRANGE: Chicken meat MEAL 27%, RICE, MAIZE,
EUKANUBA: Dried chicken & turkey MEAL 37%, MAIZE
ROYAL CANIN: Poultry MEAL, MAIZE, MAIZE FLOUR, WHEAT FLOUR
HILLS/SCIENCE DIET- GROUND RICE, GROUND MAIZE, Chicken & Turkey MEAL, MAIZE GLUTEN
JAMES WELL BELOVED: Lamb MEAL (!), BROWN RICE, WHITE RICE, BARLEY
So, all of the top ingredients are listed. Laughably some of these foods are considered to be premium brands…..and to anyone who buys them, I hate to break it to you- but you are being well and truly ripped off. And below is why:
MAIZE- otherwise known as corn. If your food is produced in the US or US owned then just be aware it’s very likely going to be a GMO crop (unless stated otherwise, and even then you cannot rule out cross contamination).
As a starchy carbohydrate, it’s used as a source of quick-release energy.
However, a mere 10% of the plant (the maize germ) is actually nutritious and contains non-carb nutrients.
It is dirt cheap to use, and that is why it features so heavily in pet foods. Quite simply, it’s bulk, a filler. It’s not nutritious.
Maize is hard to digest for dogs and is considered to be one of the main ingreidents they are intolerant to. I would never consider feeling any of my pets anything with Maize (and for those who feed TAILS….the fantastically ‘bespoke’ food, I hate to break it to you- but it’s full of Maize too).
WHEAT- full of the gluten protein. Gluten damages the lining in the small intestine, more aggressively for intolerant individuals. This damage prevents the intestine digesting all the good stuff found in food.
Wheat is cheap, it is a filling ingredient used to bulk up food providing more to eat for less nutrition.
RICE- White rice is a polished version of brown rice. The polishing process removes all of the nutritious parts of the plant, heaven knows why someone thought it would be a good idea to do it for people, let alone for dogs.
Rice is cheap and as a starchy carbohydrate it provides quick-release energy. And you guessed it, it’s a filler. It bulks out food at a cheap price, filling up animals with minimal nutrition for less money. (It’s usually not you who saves money btw, it’s the companies who use it in their foods. Low cost ingredients = more profit!)
MEAL- Meal is when animal tissue (could be meat, offal, other body parts) is heated and ground to form a moisture-less powder. Legally it does not have to list the source, and therefor can be an illusive ingredient (for eg it can be listed as meat meal, which doesn’t specify which animal it comes from). It is generally not considered to be as nutritious as the animal meat in its fresh form. It requires antioxidants to be added during the processing to stop it from becoming rancid. Although natural antioxidants are available, potentially harmful chemicals such as BHT, BHA and Propyl gallate are still used widely to preserve meat meals. As these are added during meat rendering they do not have to be declared on the ingredients list of the food. So even if you can’t see them on the list, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there! Look for ‘free from artificial preservatives’ on the list (as opposed to ‘no added artificial preservatives) for reassurance.
So, the correlating factor here is the above foods are exceptionally high in simple carbohydrates (cheap ingredients!). They are low in quality protein (what our carnivorous pets thrive on!) and low in nutritious natural ingredients.
Let’s look at cat food for a second…..
GO CAT- CEREALS, Vegetable protein extracts, meat and animal derivatives….(if anyone can tell me EXACTLY what ingredients and body parts these contain I’ll give them £100!)
WHISKAS- 4% meat!! For an obligate carnivore?! CEREALS
FELIX- 4% meat!, VEGETABLE PROTEIN
IAMS- doing ok with 40% dried turkey and chicken, but then MAIZE, WHEAT
Since when did obligate carnivores need grain or eat vegetables? Can you see any molar teeth in your cats mouth? When did you last see a feral cat hunting an aubergine?!
Starches are broken down into their constituent sugars, which studies have shown to increase CELL INFLAMMATION. Sugars are a source of LOW NUTRITION & SHORT RELEASE ENERGY. (References: 1, 2, 3)
As the breakdown of starches elevates the blood sugar levels, the body has to compensate by producing high levels of insulin (The blood sugar level regulating hormone). This is worth considering for diabetic animals, most notably cats! Dry food which is full of simple carbohydrates is not suitable for diabetic animals.
HOW THE HECK DOES THIS CORRELATE WITH BEHAVIOUR?
For this bit I am going to refer to dogs as that’s my main species, but if you’re cat is playing up take the below into consideration.
Okay, so firstly- if your dog has an unhealthy relationship with food they are going to find it less reinforcing. This means we are loosing a valuable and efficient reinforcer. If we can’t efficiently reinforce good behaviour (what we want them to do) it is unlikely to increase!
If I hear the words ‘my dog isn’t motivated by treats/food’ then I consider three things.
1) The dog is possibly too aroused by the environment to find food reinforcing (stress affects the appetite)
2) The dog has an unhealthy relationship with food
3) What treats are being used? Are they reinforcing enough (A swift switch to cooked meat treats usually resolves this).
On the topic of treats and reinforcers, if your dog is a grazer then your training could fall flat if your dog has decided to tuck into their food shortly before your walk/session. If they’re full up, then food wont be as reinforcing. (Not to mention the risk of bloat if you walk your dog shortly after they’ve eaten).
Secondly, it’s kind of obvious (or should be) that if you feel like crap- you’re more likely going to be cranky, over sensitive or want to hide away. So if a dog is reactive, anxious, or withdrawn the silent symptoms of food intolerance absolutely needs to be considered and ruled out.
A lot of pet carers or vets may rule out pain or discomfort, especially if the pet’s stools are fine and they don’t flinch, recoil or yelp on examination.
My response to this is: can you identify which person has IBS on the street? Unless someone verbally complains, how can you tell? Do they flinch when you touch them? Usually they’ll manage themselves enough to avoid doubling up in pain……and animals do this by being ‘fussy’ eaters!
Thirdly- if dogs aren’t getting a variation in their diet, and it makes them feel like crap, they’re going to be pretty desperate to get other types of food. Cue excessive scrounging, scavenging, treat snatching, manic/unfocused/desperate behaviour around high value treats.
Of course, there are many other reasons a dog may scavenge, snatch treats, counter surf, bark while you eat etc…….but when I see sheer desperation and tunnel vision like behaviour around food the first thing I want to rule out is inadequate/incompatible diet.
There is a HUGE link between gut environment and behaviour. Seriously, the link is HUMONGOUS!
The majority of serotonin is produced in the gut. A good gut environment helps maintain the gut flora needed to keep healthy levels of serotonin. Serotonin is the feel good hormone. Good gut = good (or better) mood!
Studies are starting to show there is a massive link between gut and brain health. In other words, out gut environment has an effect on our behaviour (4)
Additionally, if your dog has a high sugar diet (otherwise known as a diet full of simple maize, rice, wheat) it is worth noting that as insulin levels fall (as they bind to all of the sugar in the blood) this triggers the release of more Adrenalin because the energy needs to be allocated for muscle movement.
So Adrenalin preps the body for moving!
Adrenalin is the fight or flight hormone. So if you have a hyper, manic, over-reactive, aggressive or fearful dog it is really worth considering the link between sugar-insulin-Adrenalin-behaviour.
On the physical health side of things it should be also noted that many animals who are left to graze at their food are OVERWEIGHT because it becomes near impossible to monitor how much you’re feeding. Overweight animals can be under physical stress, and this can also affect behaviour.
SO, HOW EXACTLY DO SIMPLE CARBOHYDRATES AFFECT THE GUT BADLY?
Certain bacteria and fungus (such as Candida) thrive and flourish on starches and simple carbohydrates and when we consume an abundance of them the balance of friendly and non-friendly bacteria becomes unstable. Complex carbohydrates (their fiber and nutrients) feed the beneficial bacteria in our gut.
So, diets high in starch feed our bad bacteria and diets low in complex carbohydrates starve our good bacteria.
The bad bacteria start to cause inflammation in the gut, this inflammation can cause the cell walls in the gut to separate- causing the gut contents (undigested proteins, bacteria toxins) to leak out into the blood stream. This is called LEAKY GUT SYNDROME. Pretty gross, huh?
This then triggers the body’s immune response. Research is now starting to link a poor gut environment to auto immune disease. (5)
So, with all of this going on behind the scenes I think we should be cautious of labelling dogs and cats as ‘fussy eaters’. We should be taking their diets very seriously indeed if we want them to live long and healthy lives.
Every behaviour case I have changed onto quality food has found a new enthusiasm for food, and sometimes we see subtle-to-drastic behaviour changes with it.
This is not to mention the hundreds of dogs we have helped switch diets in store. We see and hear of physical and mental health changes in animals so much that this anecdotal evidence is too significant to be coincidental.
I’m absolutely not saying there aren’t other reasons behind animals having a poor relationship with food. Stress can affect the appetite and negative association based on previous experience can also be a factor. Including other reasons, in some instances the texture of food is an issue (for instance my dogs all refuse to eat raw fish chunks, but will eat raw fish minced).
ISN’T GOOD FOOD MORE EXPENSIVE?
Yes, often it is.
But think of how much money you’re throwing in the bin every time you empty that half-eaten bowl of stale dry food! (If you’re not throwing it away then just consider that the fats in the kibble will have turned rancid after a day or so out in open-air. Rancid fats are certainly not healthy for your pet to consume).
Think of the vets bills you save from feeding quality food.
As an example, the 5.5 year old dog I have raw fed from 6 months of age- vet visits ZERO.
The two five year old cats we’ve raw fed from 5 months of age- vet visits TWO!
The three cats I owned previously- all deceased by 10.5 years of age. All fed on GoCat. One became diabetic at 8 years of age and thus my journey into quality pet food began!
Of course there are many other factors that contribute to the health of an animal- but what fuels them each day plays a huge part.
SO, WHAT THE HECK DO I FEED MY PET?
Despite having a pet shop full of quality dry foods, they are last on my list to feed. If you’re going to feed a kibble (dry food) store it sensibly (air tight, BPA free container). Use it up as quickly as you can as it looses nutritional value the moment the bag is opened. Make it grain free, high in a SPECIFIED animal MEAT (for eg lamb meat) and complex carbohydrate based if possible (or low simple carb).
You cannot get a carb free kibble, and I personally feel they are too high in carbohydrates- all of them! That said, I appreciate the convenience side of things so if you are going to feed kibble then SUPPLEMENT IT WITH FRESH FOOD!! Not just once a week….as often as you can. Fresh is good!
This will make the gut work harder (as it skim-reads kibble) as nature intended. The gut was not designed to process the same texture, shape and ingredients day in and day out. Exercise the gut with variation.
Look up pre and pro biotics and feed these (dog safe ones of course!).
I feed two of my three dogs and two of my three cats raw food and they thrive on it. This is my preference, but it’s not for everyone. If it’s not for you then there are some amazing wet foods out there ( for eg Natures Menu, Akela, Millies Wolfheart, Forthglade). For dental health supplement wet food diets (or all diets preferably) with raw meaty bones and natural chews. For cats I really recommend Natures Menu freeze dried treats which are great toothbrushes.
If you suspect your pet is intolerant to something then please don’t feel tempted to put them on ‘sensitive’ or ‘hypoallergenic’ diets. As demonstrated so beautifully by Hills in my list above, these diets still contain ingredients that could be causing the issue. Many of them are full of dubious ingredients like ‘animal fats’. Or they use hydrolyzed proteins which are molecules made too small for the immune system to detect (but they still cause cell inflammation). This basically means they aggravate the body in a stealth way, and the body doesn’t become aware of it until it’s a glaringly obvious problem.
Feed a NOVEL MEAT SOURCE. As you can see from my list above, chicken is hugely over used because it is cheap. It’s also often totally unethical (mass produced), but that’s for another debate.
Being fed chicken day in day out dramatically increases the chance of the body developing an intollerance to it.
Switch to a novel meat source such as rabbit, kangaroo, pheasant, venison. Feed this for 5-6 weeks and if your dog’s condition seems to be improved introduce another novel meat source.
Ideally you want to feed your dog 2-3 meat sources rather than just one.
Stick to foods with as small ingredients list as you can. Dogs can be allergic or intolerant to pea protein, lentils, potato and much more. Starchy veg isn’t great for those with yeasty skin conditions (as they are high in sugar which feeds the yeast). The smaller the ingredients list the easier it is to get right or eliminate what’s not working.
AVOID VAGUE INGREDIENTS- as discussed earlier. What the actual hell is a vegetable protein. Yes, it’s plant based protein, but what vegetable exactly?! What are ‘animal derivatives’ or ‘animal fats’ exactly?
How can you rule out this isn’t a problem for your pet if you don’t even know what it exactly is?
You’d like to think these expensive veterinary formulas (and other brands) have our pets welfare in mind. But profits clearly come first. One cannot logically dispute that processed, vague, low nutrient, sugar filled ingredients are superior over nutrient rich, fresh and identifiable food.
You may think ‘my pet is doing fine on X….this doesn’t apply to me’.
Well, I thought that until I lost three cats to difference diseases/illnesses in a two period, all under the age of 10. Just because you can’t see something, it doesn’t mean its not happening. In some instances, symptoms often show when it is chronic or sadly too late.
Of course, there’s the odd individual who thrives on what ever they’re fed. I’ve met plenty of 19 year old cats who have been fed high carb diets. But I’ve also met loads of dogs and cats who’ve become ill too soon in life. We now know that our genes are greatly influenced by the environment, and what you input into your pet daily plays a huge part in that.
Take 5 minutes to read your pet’s food nutrition label and consider whether it’s good enough.
-If your pet has a specific medical condition (such as pancreatitis or an enzyme deficiency/EPI) then seek the advise of a fresh food advocating veterinary professional or nutritionist.
-Some dogs are genuinely picky about their food, or desperate for other types of food for other reasons that those discussed. But in my humble and personal experience these cases are less common or can be alleviated/improved by a change in diet.