ABSTRACT: Many owners have questions relating to why their pet doesn't eat the obligatory two meals per day and enthusiastically clean the bowl on every occasion. They deem that behaviour other than this is abnormal. This article discusses advice that can be given to pet owners regarding finicky eaters, food aversions, increasing food intake and different feeding methods. Behavioural modification advice for those animals with inappropriate feeding behaviours is also discussed.

Finicky feeding

Animals with fastidious or finicky eating behaviours can make transitioning to a new therapeutic veterinary diet almost impossible. This commonly occurring eating behaviour is, in most cases, a ‘human-caused’ problem, resulting from the animal’s conditioned expectations for frequent changes in the food variety or flavour.

Owners will often describe their pet as being a “finicky eater” if they perceive it to be an intermittent or slow eater. This can, however, be the result of the animal being overfed, or the individual’s own auto-regulation of food consumption. Assessment of the animal’s body condition score will enable the veterinary nurse to conclude whether the animal is consuming sufficient or excessive quantities of nutrients.

Behavioural modification to counteract this feeding behaviour is difficult, as it is reliant on the owner. Often the owner is the cause of the initial problem, and reduction of the excessive rotation of different brands and flavours to less frequent changes may help resolve the situation.

A ‘ritualising’ feeding routine will need to be implemented – set meals at a certain time and place and the same brand of food. Some individuals which do self-regulate may benefit from ad libitum feeding.

Those animals which have been fed a high quality, very palatable diet on an ad libitum basis (mainly cats) will expect this unlimited food availability. In order to change the individual’s diet, it must be made to become dependent on the owner for food. In order to accomplish this, the animal should be offered ad libitum feeding for two set hours per day. Once this routine has been established, the old diet should be restricted to 75 per cent of the previous food intake, and the rest of the daily requirement made up with the new diet, placed in a separate bowl next to the old diet.

Food addictions

Food addictions are fairly common – for example, cats becoming addicted to tinned tuna. Addictions can lead to nutritional deficiencies, or even toxic syndromes. Counter-conditioning behavioural modification is required over a period of time. This modification can be achieved by adding a distasteful substance to the food to which the animal is addicted, whilst still providing a balanced complete diet of the same flavour as the addictive food.

Food aversions

The implications of food aversions are dramatically underestimated in veterinary practice. It is not advisable to institute dietary changes whilst clinically ill patients are hospitalised. Diets should be introduced in the home environment once the pet’s health is more stable.

Prevention of malnutrition by ensuring adequate nutrient intake is crucial in the management of all medical and surgical cases. The veterinary nurse plays a central role in managing the practical measures to increase adequate intake. These practical measures include:

History taking

Talking to the owner can prove to be invaluable. Obtaining information on preferred types and consistency of food, and the animal’s eating habits will contribute towards getting it to eat. Cats can be exceptionally fastidious concerning the size, shape and type of bowl or saucer from which they eat. Wide-rimmed bowls tend to be preferred, so that they have room for their whiskers.

Resolution or management

Many medical problems – renal dysfunction, for instance – can result in changes of appetite and olfaction. Pain associated with dental disease or neoplasia in the mouth will also decrease appetite. It follows then that removal of pain or the causal agent will greatly improve the well-being of the patient.

Odorous foods

Diets warmed to body temperature can prove to be more appetising to the animal and increasing the temperature will also increase the odour of the food. Use of highly odorous foods, such as pilchards, can be an aid to stimulate eating. None of these measures will work, however, if the animal is unable to smell the food. Any nasal discharges need to be cleaned away before offering the food, as this will also affect its taste (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Use of odorous food is advantageous in encouraging animals to eat

Positive reinforcements

Positive reinforcements, such as hand feeding, can be used to promote eating. Improving the animal’s general well-being – grooming, for example – can also aid in this process. Trying to encourage eating outside the practice environment may prove useful too. Taking small quantities of food when exercising the animal outside, or feeding in a room away from all other animals, might encourage the patient to eat.

Timid animals can benefit from having somewhere in which to hide away. Food aversions may be reinforced by repeatedly offering a diet that the animal keeps refusing. Force-feeding can be used to aid encouragement to eat, but if the animal becomes distressed this can cause negative reinforcement to that particular food.

Any offered food that is not consumed should be removed from the animal’s environment after 15 minutes. Littering the animals cage with a carpet of different foods won’t encourage eating behaviours.

Feeding methods

The way in which an animal consumes its diet does have an impact on many different elements of its life. There are three basic methods of feeding cats and dogs: free choice (ad libitum), time-limited and food limited. All have their advantages and disadvantages, and will suit different animals on an individual basis.

Significant breed differences in feeding behaviours have been noted in dogs. Beagles have similar feeding patterns to cats, whereas there is anecdotal evidence that poodles eat only during the daylight hours. There are, however, always individuals that are exceptions to the rule.

Free-choice feeding

This method of feeding does tend to suit those animals that will eat only what is required to meet their energy requirements. Over-consumption can lead to obesity and, in growing large and giant breed dogs, can predispose to developmental orthopaedic disorders (DOD).

Other disadvantages include food wastage, especially if feeding a moist diet, and competition from other animals in the environment, which can lead to over¬eating in some individuals and consequently under-eating in others. Advantages include a more
constant level of nutrients and hormones in the circulation.

Those animals which are timid are more likely to eat with free-choice feeding, as there is a longer period of access to the food which can be beneficial, especially if other individuals are competing. This method of feeding is advised in animals with – or predisposed to – FLUTD.

Feeding ad libitum can have clinical benefits too, especially in cats; because when any animal consumes food, gastric acid is secreted and creates a temporary net acid loss from the body, and alkalisation of the urine. This is referred to as the postprandial alkaline tide.

The alkaline tide is caused by secretion of bicarbonate into the blood by parietal cells of the stomach. A transient ‘bicarbonisation’ is produced and increases urinary pH. Acidifiers in the diet will offset this increase in pH. If the diet is offered on a free-choice basis, some cats will eat little and often. This feeding habit results in a smaller – but more prolonged – alkaline tide. This can reduce the likelihood of struvite precipitate formation.

Time-restricted meal feeding

In time-restricted meal feeding, the animal is allowed free access to the food for a set period of time each day. This is usually 10 to 15 minutes, once or twice daily. This can be a disadvantage in small dogs, puppies and kittens – owing to their limited stomach size, insufficient food is consumed in order to meet their nutritional requirements.

Over-consumption can easily occur when using this feeding method, especially if the animal is greedy. In these cases, reducing the amount of time that the animal has to the diet, or feeding a diet of a lower energy density is required. Advantages include facilitation of house- training in puppies. A routine of feeding a puppy and then taking it outdoors can enforce house-training by taking advantage of the gastro-colic reflex.

Food-restricted meal feeding

Food-restricted meal feeding requires either calculating the daily energy requirement (DER) of the animal, and thus the quantity of diet that should be fed; or following the manufacturers recommendations on the food packaging. This method is recommended for animals predisposed to developmental orthopaedic disorders (DODs).

The calculated DER is then divided by the energy density of the diet in order to obtain the quantity of food that should be fed. The advantage of this feeding method is that, when using a complete balanced diet, the animal is receiving the correct amount of nutrients. The disadvantage is that all animals are individuals, and when implementing this feeding method, reassessment of the quantities fed should be made because some animals have a higher metabolism or work load and, therefore, require increased amounts of energy.

In these cases a performance diet can be beneficial. Likewise, some animals may gain weight using this method, and in these cases a light diet could be recommended (Figure 2).

Figure 2: A good store of various different types of diet is a must


Finding the correct method of feeding is very much dependent on the animal, its lifestyle and environment (Figure 3). Communication with the owner is very important to ensure that each animal is receiving the optimal feeding regimen. 

Figure 3: A relaxed environment can encourage normal eating behaviours


Nicola Ackerman BSc(Hons)RVN CertSAN A1 VI

Nicola works as senior medical nurse at The Veterinary Hospital Group and has been one of the emergency night nurses since 2005. She is a graduate of Hartpury College with an Honours Degree in Equine Science, specialising in animal nutrition; and qualified as a VN in 2002. She has subsequently gained a post graduation Certificate in Small and Exotic Animal Nutrition.

She is also the Head Assessor in practice for a team of four other assessors, and is currently studying for the internal verifiers award (VI). Nicola was part of the BVNA Council for four years and held posts of Treasurer and Executive Editor of the VNJ during this time.

Nicola is part of the Pet Obesity Taskforce and has written a book on animal nutrition for veterinary nurses and technicians.

To cile this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2010.00005.x or

Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 26 pp21 -23

Suggested reading

BOURGEOIS. H„ ELLIOTT. D„ MARNIOUET, P. et at.. 120041 The influence of food characteristics on palatability. Focus Special Edition: Dietary preferences of dogs and cats pp23-36.

LeBEL ,C.. BOURDEAU. A.. LAU. 0. AND HUNT. P. 119991 Biological response to peripheral and central administration of recombinant human leptin in dogs Obes Res 7(6): 577-585.

MORRIS. J. G.. ROGERS. Q. R and FASCETTIS. A J 120001 Nutrition of healthy dogs and cats in various stages of adult life. In: Hand, M S.. Thatcher. C. D . Remillard. R, L, and Roudebush. P. eds. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition 4th Edition. Missouri:

Mark Morris Institute, pp 529-562. TEFEND. M and BERRYHILL, S. A. (20061 Companion Animal Clinical Nutrition. In: McCurnin, D. M and 8assert, J M. eds. Clinical Textbook for Veterinary Technicians 6th Edition. Missouri: Elsevier Saunders. Pp 438-492.

Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 26 • January 2011 •