How can I get my picky senior dog to eat?

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Dr. Kate Mezan
Experienced companion animal veterinarian; Stanford University B.A. & M.A., Massey University Veterinary School BVSc, Veterinary Medicine

It’s common for pet owners to notice their senior dog becoming more picky about food. The most important step is to rule-out medical problems first. When dogs are uncomfortable, they tend to lose their appetite -- so make sure that in addition to a blood panel to screen for diseases, your vet checks your pet’s mouth for dental issues that could be causing pain while eating. Too many senior dogs have mouths full of rotten wiggly teeth -- if your dog has rancid breath, that may be a clue!

While medical problems need to be checked out first, some cases can be helped with a few simple changes at home to make meal time more enticing. 

How to make meal time more appetizing for senior dogs

  • Adding Broth: Moisten your pet’s kibble with warm water or low-sodium chicken broth -- this releases aroma which may spark your dog’s interest. 
  • Try Canned Version: If your pet has always eaten dry kibble, try switching to the canned version of their regular food. Many dogs find canned food more appetizing. It is also easier on any teeth that may be loose or painful.
  • No Treats Between Meals: Make sure your senior dog isn’t filling up on treats between meals! Savvy seniors may have learned to “save room” for more delicious (but less nutritious) treats.
  • Mixing In a Little Appetizer: Mix in SMALL amounts of something more appetizing -- a little bit of scrambled egg, a few shreds of cooked chicken or low-fat cottage cheese are all healthy options. 
  • Try a raised food bowl: Senior dogs with back or neck pain may be reluctant if they have to reach down to the floor. Make sure your senior is still leading as active a lifestyle as possible. Exercise creates appetite! 
  • Multiple Small Meals: Try multiple small meals throughout the day rather than one or two large ones -- some senior dogs prefer not to eat a lot at once.

Finally, concentrate more on your senior dog’s body condition than their appetite. If they are a healthy weight -- you should be able to feel, but not see their ribs--it’s really OK if they want to skip a meal here or there! It may even help them to stay lean, which is so important for overall health as pets age.

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