Choosing the best dog food for your picky eater small breed dog can be extremely frustrating. Purchasing food after food only to have your pup turn their nose up to it time and time again. Or start eating a new recipe well, to refuse days later. And though there are personal preferences that you will need to take into account as a pet parent – such as your dog not liking certain proteins, textures or even certain bowls. We actually do know quite a lot about dog taste preferences from research studies.
But before we get into that, it’s important to understand that “pickiness” can be a sign of both illness, stress and fullness as well. It’s a good idea to do a self-assessment of what your pup is currently eating beyond their balanced diet, and talk to your vet before assumingyour pup is just picky. Once you have ruled that out you can start to take a look at dog food for a picky eater.
Step 1: Evaluate how much you are feeding
The first step of this process is doing a self-assessment of how much your pup is currently eating. Write down how much they eat of their balanced diet, along with any treats, chews, and supplements. Small breed dogs don’t need a lot of calories each day unless your dog is competing in agility trials or doing extensive exercise.
A 5 lbs dog only needs about 130 to 210 calories per day, a 25 lb dog only needs 430 to 700 calories per day. This includes both treats and additions. Of these values 90% should come from a balanced diet, and the rest from treats/additions. Most training treats are 3-10 calories each, teenie greenies are 26 calories, and bully sticks, tendons, collagen sticks, and trachea are 150-200 calories for a six inch chew. It’s very easy to overfeed treats to a small breed dog. And many small breed dogs are very in-tune with their hunger & fullness cues from their body (unlike labradors), and will self-regulate. Refusing to eat additional calories because they have already filled up on treats.Important note: check in with everyone that has contact with your pup! I don’t know how many times the grandparents, husband/wife, kids, petsitter, daycare is giving extra food to the primary caregiver. I’ve seen it many times where dogs are double-fed meals on accident just due to lack of communication and a very smart puppy.
Step 2: Schedule a Vet Visit
The second step to knowing if your pup is struggling with pickiness is ruling out health conditions. Many different diseases and conditions can cause dogs to go off food, or seem picky without other clinical signs such as vomiting or diarrhea in early stages, or even in severe cases. Some examples of these are: pancreatitis, IBD, dental disease, neck pain, gastritis, acid reflux, kidney disease, liver disease.
Doing an examination with some basic blood work can help rule out some of these causes. And depending on finding additional lab work or procedures (like a dental cleaning) may be advised!
Step 3: Consider the Environment
The final consideration I want you to think about is “is my dog stressed” or “is my dog distracted”. This can happen or be caused by a variety of different things. Your dog might need to compete for food during meal-time with another dog who is more outgoing.
Meal or bowl placement may be in a very busy area of the home that makes it hard to eat. This might be because of stress (aka kids running around or a new puppy), or it could be because they are excited (they want to be part of everything!). If your pup’s bowl is currently in a secluded area for mealtime, offering the bowl during your meals might be useful. Some dogs are social eaters!
For dogs getting medications that need to be fed with food. If the medication is bitter they may avoid eating entirely to avoid the taste. In which case separating the medication from the meal or offering two meals may be advised. Also speaking to your vet about other medication preparations may be helpful – some medications can be compounded into flavoring agents for better acceptance.
If you do have a dog that is stressed – bringing on a positive reinforcement trainer to help you trouble-shoot the situation may be a good idea.
My dog is picky – what food do I try?
Once you have established that your dog is actually picky it’s time to choose a food! What we know through research studies is that dogs – if given a choice – prefer diets that are:
High in Protein
High in Fat
If we were going to put numbers to this – we would be looking for diets with above 30% protein on a caloric basis, coming from primarily animal sources. Over 50% fat on a caloric basis, coming from a variety of sources – either plant or animal.
Though some dogs may have texture preferences towards dry foods – most dogs have been found to prefer moisture rich diets that have been cooked. Typically these diets are either canned, steamed, baked or home-cooked. As the cooking process makes foods not only more flavorful (aka tasty) but makes the foods have a stronger smell that does prefer.
Below the top dog foods picky dogs that you can easily find online or in stores! Keep in mind that most of these recipes are very calorically dense – meaning that a little food will go a long way!
Purina Pro Plan High Protein Canned
Purina Pro Plan is a well-known, science-based brand of dog food that specializes in performance dog nutrition. With over 50 years of experience in diet formulation, several board-certified veterinary nutritionists on staff and a full research facility – Purina is one of the leaders in canine nutrition research.
Almost all of the Purina Pro Plan recipes are higher in protein and fat in order to help maintain lean muscle conditioning of moderately active dogs. The Purina Pro Plan High Protein Canned food line is exceptionally nutrient dense, and perfect for picky dogs.
Currently the Purina Pro Plan High Protein Canned food comes in: Beef & Bison, Chicken & Rice, Salmon & Cod, and Turkey, Lamb & Venison. Which is great for dogs that prefer rotational feeding.
However it’s important to note that though some of these canned foods labels may display “salmon and cod” as main protein sources – they are not. Almost all of these recipes have unspecified ingredients including “liver”, and “meat by-products” – which may come from a variety of animal species such as beef, chicken, pork, etc. Making these products possibly poor choices for picky dogs with food allergies.
34% protein ; 100g protein / 1000kcals
58% fat ; 69g fat / 1000kcals
8% carbs ; 30g carbs / 1000kcals
At 420-440 calories per can, a small breed dog may eat only ⅓ to 1 ½ cans per day depending on size and activity level.
Honest Kitchen Butcher Block Pate: Chicken & Super Greens
Honest Kitchen is one of the few Human-Grade pet food manufacturers in the USA. This means that Honest Kitchen’s products are held to a higher standard for ingredient sourcing, and production than other feed grade facilities.
According to AAFCO (or the American Feed Control Officials) to be considered a human-grade product ingredients must be sourced from the human food chain, stored and manufactured in the same facilities and standards to that of human food. Honest Kitchen also boasts a test and hold procedure on all final products to check for product consistency and pathogens prior to release to the public.
The Honest Kitchen Butcher Block Pate, Chicken & Super Greens is a high protein, high fat, moisture rich diet – perfect for our poultry loving pups. The recipe comes in pate form – which is similar in consistency to ground meat. However unlike other wet dog foods the Honest Kitchen is tetra-packed – this means the food is cooked at a lower temperature, and uses a BPA-free lining that is food-safe.
The ingredients in Honest Kitchen are also specific, with no open-label terms. Making this a great option for dogs with beef allergies as this is a single protein recipe.
Open Farm is a newer dog food brand that has a variety of options available including kibble, freeze-dried, lightly cooked and wet food options. Though Open Farm is a new company, they do have someone with a Master’s in Animal Nutrition on staff, and have a robust quality control department. Each product is tested for nutritional adequacy, and pathogens prior to release to the public. And all of their products have gone through digestibility and palatability feeding trials.
Similar to Honest Kitchen, Open Farm dog foods are also human-grade meaning that they source all their ingredients from the human food chain, and then store and manufacture those foods in a way to keep them to the same standards as human food.
The Open Farm Grass-Fed Beef Rustic Stew is an amazing option for picky dogs – as it’s high in protein and fat. It is also a slightly different consistency than the Honest Kitchen Pate. The Open Farm Beef Stew has chunks of meat, providing a different texture and consistency for dogs that prefer a moisture rich liquid diet. Also making it a great pour-over or flavor enhancer for a kibbled or dry food recipe to stimulate eating.
The ingredients in the Open Farm Stews are specific, with no open-label ingredients. Making this a potentially great option for dogs with chicken or poultry allergies. As this is a single protein recipe.
Ingredients: Beef, Beef Bone Broth, Pumpkin, Carrots, Green Beans, Spinach, Red Lentils, Agar Agar, Chickpeas, Sunflower Oil, Coconut Oil, Chicory Root + vitamins & minerals
However it should be noted that this recipe does contain a small amount of legumes – in the form of red lentils and chickpeas. As this is a high protein/fat recipe and these legumes are not included in the top 5 ingredients the amount within the recipe is likely small. However we do currently have an ongoing body of research looking into a possible connection between legumes and DCM (or Dilated Cardiomyopathy) – thus some veterinary professionals are advising pet parents to avoid these ingredients completely in an abundance of caution.
33% protein ; 97g protein / 1000kcals
60% fat ; 72g fat / 1000kcals
7% carbs ; 20g carbs / 1000kcals
At 354 kcals per carton, a small breed dog may eat ½ to 2 boxes per day depending on ideal weight and activity level.
Another way to entice your pup to eat is cooking for your pup yourself! This not only allows you to tailor your dog’s nutrition to their particular tastes and needs, but most dogs love a freshly cooked meal.
One of the easiest ways to do this is by using something called a “Base Mix”. Base Mixes are designed to be a base that you can just add meat to. However the issue with most base-mixes is that they don’t come with recipes so that you can know exactly how many calories you are feeding, and if the recipe even meets basic nutritional needs.
That is where the Yumwoof Dog Food Mix is different. This base mix comes with several recipes – all formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, and designed to have the nutrient-blend baked into the final product. Each recipe has a full nutritional breakdown of macro and micronutrients along with recipe directions. Generally speaking – all recipes are high protein, and high fat – which our picky dogs love!
As the Yumwoof Dog Food Mix can be used with multiple recipes – it’s perfect for dogs who prefer a rotational diet. Without having to scramble to purchase loads of additional ingredients.
For those that want the ultimate control of exactly what they are feeding their dog – BalanceIT can be the answer. BalanceIT is both a free dog food formulation software, and multivitamin supplement. With BalanceIT you can create complete and balanced homemade dog food recipes with thousands of different ingredients and compositions.
Personally I love BalanceIT for dogs who are currently only eating one food. If your pup will only eat chicken thigh, or pork – we can use BalanceIT to create a recipe!
First thing you do is select the foods that your dog enjoys. If you’re unsure which foods your pup likes – then simply offer different foods as treats on a “tasting board”.
Select the button for “create dog recipe” and the balanceIT formulation software will create recipe options. For picky dogs I recommend selecting either the Carnivore Blend or All Meat options, or the High Fat, High Protein option.
Then you edit the recipe for your dog’s weight – and you can view your recipe!
The BalanceIT multivitamin is a synthetic multivitamin supplement, what this means is that for dogs with allergies – this is a great option as it is hyperallergenic. However for picky dogs without allergies this supplement may be “chalky” tasting. So what I usually recommend is to slowly work up to the full amount of supplementation needed for about a month and/or create a minimally supplemented recipe!
You can also use honey, or broth in order to flavor the multivitamin to mask the taste.
Premade Recipe: Beef and Salmon:
If creating a recipe seems overwhelming you can always check out this free beef and salmon dog food recipe. This recipe is complete and balanced for adult dogs, and is high fat and protein – perfect for our picky pups!
How you offer your dog food really matters with your pup. Dog’s are very intelligent and definitely can take advantage of their human’s emotions. So many pet parents accidentally create a picky dog by just offering food in the wrong way.
So let’s discuss how to do it right.
First – decide on a routine and what food will go in the bowl. Ideally choose a food that is highly palatable that your pup will love. If you want to top the food – do so. Just be mindful of if these toppers can be eaten or picked out of their meal. The idea of a topper is to make your pup eat all the food, not just the topper.
Second – put the food down in an environment that suits your dog’s behavior. If your dog likes company eating, offer meals when you eat in their own area near where you eat. If you dog is high stress – maybe offer a meal in a kennel or a separate room. If your pup is easily distracted, limiting space and excess to distractions would be advised.
Third – leave the food accessible for 15 minutes, after that time, pick the food up and store in your fridge until the next meal-time.
What if they don’t eat?
If your pup doesn’t eat at the time when you offer, do not coerce or try to force them to eat. And do not after food is refused, immediately top the food with something. I’d like you to “honor their hunger”. Instead offer food again in 1-2 hours.
The next time you offer food you can use a different topper, or even re-heat the food to make it more enticing. But never do it immediately after you’ve said “no”. And do not offer treats instead of a meal if they don’t eat.
Some dogs will have preferences to eat more/less at certain times of day – as your notice these patterns you can adjust how you offer these meals.
When not eating is a problem…
If your pup is not eating for over 24 hours, it is worth speaking to your veterinarian and/or working with a veterinary behaviorist to trouble-shoot the situation. Going days without eating is not normal – and should not be ignored.