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Canine Trauma

When Your Dog or Cat Eats Like a Bird

Written by: Tracy Vogel, Staff Writer -

Contrary to pet food commercials, most pets aren’t hugely picky about what they eat.

Seriously’look at what we feed them. Would it’barring some kind of dare with a serious monetary stake’get anywhere near our mouths? Not likely.

"Dogs are disgustingly non-specific eaters," said Glenn Brown, a nutritional advisor to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. "Cats do get flavor fatigue."

Though having your pet refuse food is a rare problem’usually keeping them away from food is the difficulty’it does occur. When it happens, the first necessity is to check for a health problem, veterinarians said.

"More often than not, you can find something medically wrong," said Dr. Maureen Ricksgers of The Cat Hospital, Northampton, Mass. Health problems indicated by lack of appetite can range from mouth sores and dental problems to renal disease and stomach problems.

If your pet’s pickiness isn’t a health problem, other factors may be in play. Animals can lose their appetites over stress, Mr. Brown said. Your pet may be jealous of a new housemates’people or animals’upset at a move and new surroundings, or even concerned about a new dog next door.

They might not recognize their food as edible, if their exposure to different types of food was limited as a puppy or kitten.

They may be getting too many treats, which naturally taste better than pet food, encouraging them to wait for a better offer before settling for kibble.

Or you might have an animal that’s "just plain fussy," Mr. Brown said. In which case your best bet is to figure out what the pet likes to eat’try different types of food, different textures and flavors.

That doesn’t mean you should overreact, said Dr. Tony Buffington, a professor and nutrition specialist at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. "Put out the food and leave the animal alone," he said. "Try to decrease the focus on the food."

Some people hover over their animals as they eat, like anxious mothers wanting a child to clean his plate. "It’s too much pressure," Dr. Buffington said.

Sometimes the problem is that people look at the bowl instead of the pet, Dr. Buffington said. If you’ve ever gone to dinner with someone who ate more than it looked like he would, or less than it looked like he would, you know what he means. "They’re perfectly healthy’there are different ranges of metabolism," he said. "Most animals that people say are holding out don’t look malnourished."

If you have a picky eater, you can try a few different things. First, get your pet on a feeding schedule’don’t leave food out for it to eat at will.

Two meals a day suffice for both large and small dogs, said Dr. Matt Sherwood of Tomball Veterinary Clinic, Tomball, Texas. When the pet is young, you should start "timed feeding"’give the animal a measured amount of food it can eat in 10 to 20 minutes.

If the animal doesn’t eat after the set time period, pick the food up and put it away, Dr. Buffington said.

Whatever the pet ate in that 10 to 20 minutes is a normal meal for your pet’one of the benefits of scheduled feeding is that you’ll be able to tell when your animal is sick by its lack of appetite, Dr. Sherwood said.

The schedule is important for cats as well as dogs, Dr. Ricksgers said. Failure to eat’even a few meals’can contribute toward liver disease, she said. "Sometimes that’s the only symptom."

If your pet doesn’t want kibble’he wants the lasagna leftovers he’s used to eating’you need to moderate the treats, veterinarians said. If stress over a new pet in the household is the cause of your pet’s lack of appetite, you can try feeding them in separate rooms.

Give each pet a quiet feeding place, Dr. Sherwood said. Dogs that eat beside one another will gulp their food, racing each other to the finish. Cats don’t have that problem, but they’ll feed more peacefully away from one another.

Altering your pet’s diet can also help. Veterinarians disagree about the effectiveness of that approach, with some arguing that pets will cheerfully eat the same thing day in and day out, and others saying a little variation is a good thing. "You can give dogs a variety without problems," Dr. Sherwood said. (Of course, there are some animals that simply won’t tolerate variety, or can only be fed a certain type of diet.)

If you do decide to switch foods, let the transition take place over a week or so, gradually blending the foods in together as you switch, to avoid making your pet sick, veterinarians said. As with people, if you suddenly switch food on a pet, it could develop an upset stomach or diarrhea.

Finally and surprisingly, taking some of the emphasis off food seems to help in many dietary cases, Dr. Buffington said. "Our American culture is intensely fixated on the interaction between food and love," he said. "People, I think, transfer that to their animals."

Focus on an alternative activity that doesn’t involve feeding time, he suggested’it could be taking your dog for a walk, or teaching your cat tricks. "I know it sounds flaky, but it’s been my experience," he said. "It provides an additional mechanism of emotional expression, and then they don’t need eating behavior as an emotional expression."

Article republished here with permission from
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