What to Do If Your Dog Would Rather Play Than Eat

If your dog would rather play than eat:

  • Bring them to the veterinarian for a check-up
  • Make sure your dog is getting enough exercise
  • Provide exercise right before meal times
  • Eliminate stressors
  • Try new foods, locations, and dishes
  • Ensure they have an exact regular routine feeding schedule
  • Make sure nothing is distracting them

In this article, I’ll discuss what to do and what not to do to make your dog eat when it seems they’d rather play.


Dog Would Rather Play than Eat: What Not to Do

First, we’ll go over some things to avoid—as its easy to think you should do these things that will not solve your problem , and may even make your dog less likely to eat their food.


Do not Punish Your Dog

Some people think that you need to show your dog who is the “alpha” by being forceful or even punishing them for wrongdoings. This is not how dogs actually think, and will only hurt your relationship with them.

Even knowing this, it can be super difficult not to scold or react to your dog’s lack of appetite. You’re worried, you want them to eat, and you’re losing your mind trying to get something in their belly!

It’s important to remember what your goal is: for your dog to have a positive association with food.

Shouting, trying to force them to eat, or otherwise punishing them provides a negative experience. They might remember it and be even less likely to eat their food in the future due to fear.


Do not take their Food Away

I’ve noticed people proposing that you take your dog’s food away after a given time. However, this isn’t a good solution—if you think about it, it’s not actually a solution at all!

Taking your dog’s food away does nothing to address the root of the problem. Why aren’t they eating? Maybe they:

  • Have a medical condition
  • Dislike their current food (or it upsets their stomach!)
  • Aren’t getting enough exercise
  • Can’t focus on eating with too many distractions around them

I know it’s frustrating when your dog just won’t eat. I’ve had it happen to me before! But taking away a dog’s food and not addressing the problem they actually have around meal time, can do more harm than good.

Of course, you should pick up your dog’s food before it spoils—and ideally give them meals on a schedule.

But there’s really no harm in leaving the food out for a while and seeing if your dog will eat it later. If they haven’t, replace it at their next meal time.


Do not Ignore the Problem

Lastly, a dog not eating isn’t a problem to ignore! Dogs need nutrients, and it’s not okay for them to regularly go days without eating.

It might seem like your dog will eat when they get hungry enough, and they might. But in the meantime, there’s a reason they aren’t eating—and that reason could be serious, such as a medical condition.

Any time you notice a change in appetite or your dog isn’t eating, you need to consult your veterinarian. Then, try the other solutions below to see if you can get them eating again.


Dog Would Rather Play than Eat: Solutions

Bring them to the Veterinarian

Any time your dog’s behavior changes, especially their appetite, it’s important to visit your veterinarian. This is because changes in appetite can be a symptomof various medical conditions.

If your veterinarian tells you that your dog is healthy—just a picky eater—then you can move on to the solutions below until you find one that works for you and your pup!


Provide Regular, Daily Exercise

One reason your dog might put playtime first is that they aren’t getting enough exercise throughout the day. They’re simply too hyper to eat!

You might also notice other problematic behaviors such as destructive chewing or excessive barking. Lack of exercise can also cause health problems like joint pain or diabetes.

Solve this by making sure your dog gets enough exercise for their age and breed. Most dogs need at least one daily walk and some playtime at home or in the backyard.

Some breeds require more activity than this, while some can only take short walks or indoor playtime.

Brachycephalic, or short-snouted, breeds can’t handle strenuous exercise, especially in the heat.

If you’re unsure about how much exercise your dog needs, speak with your veterinarian or research their breed.

For rescue dogs, I recommend looking up any known breed or similar breeds.

For instance, my dog Charlie is a Labrador mix. We don’t know the rest of his ancestry (though I’d love to do a doggy-DNA test one day!). So, I follow the exercise requirements for a senior Labrador.

You’ll also want to think of mental stimulation and what your dog’s instincts are. Different dogs are bred for herding, hunting, sprinting, or even to be lap dogs!

Labradors were bred to hunt waterfowl, so I provide Charlie with a kid’s wading pool and time in the sprinkler every summer. I’ve also tried tossing a ball in the water for him to retrieve, but he wasn’t a fan!

I’ve also noticed some herding instincts in him, though, so I try to engage those as well.

There’s no harm in trying different activities and games to see what your dog likes best!


Exercise before Mealtimes

If you’re sure your dog gets enough exercise, but they still are more focused on play than food, it might be time to change up your routine.

Try going on a walk or playing a game of fetch before you feed them. Get them nice and tired, wait a bit, then see if they’ll eat their meal.

Waiting is important, particularly if you have a deep-chested breed such as a sighthound. These dogs are prone to bloat, a deadly health condition with a high mortality rate. Exercise too close to meal times can be a cause.

If you’ve tried feeding your dog while they’re tired and they still won’t eat, then it’s not about exercise—let’s look into some other solutions.


Feed the Right Amount of Food

Sometimes food labels aren’t accurate, frustrating as that is. They might tell you to feed your dog more than a veterinarian would recommend, and therefore more than your dog actually needs!

I learned this when my veterinarian recommended a diet for my dog Charlie.

Of course, being a lab, he scarfs down anything I put in front of him. But if your dog is only eating part of their meal and leaving the rest behind to go play, you might be feeding them too much.

It’s recommended that you portion your dog’s food out into 2-3 daily meals. When it comes to how much food to feed them daily, you should speak with your veterinarian for advice.

They can give you very specific suggestions taking your dog’s breed, size, and health into consideration.

Write down the entire name and flavor of the food you feed your dog—not just the brand!—or bring in the packaging so that your veterinarian has all the information they need to answer your questions.


Try New Foods

If your dog is more interested in their toys than their food, sometimes a change of food is in order! Some dogs just get tired of eating the same thing every day.

A good way to handle this so that you’re not constantly switching foods is to give your dog variety. You can do this by buying variety packs of wet foods or even by adding a little something extra to dry kibble.

If you can’t afford to waste the food your dog isn’t eating, try adding some healthy but tasty “human foods” such as cooked, unseasoned meat or a teaspoon of pumpkin puree. You can add these on top or mix them into the serving.

Some dogs will eat around their food to get only the good stuff, but it might work for you if your dog just needs a little something different in taste.

If your dog absolutely won’t eat the food, try giving it to someone you know or, if it’s still sealed, to a local animal shelter or rescue. This way it doesn’t go into the trash, but is given to a dog in need!


Develop a Schedule

If you aren’t already, try feeding your dog on a schedule. Break their daily diet into two meals, one in the morning and the other in the evening.

Exercise your dog on a schedule as well by walking them at specific times and maybe even creating a loose schedule for play time.

Dogs thrive on routine. This will teach them when it’s time to play and when it’s time to eat.


Feed without Distractions

It’s possible your dog is too distracted from their food when there are toys, pets, or people in the room. This may also be the case if it’s very noisy in your home or there is a lot going on.

Remove as many distractions as possible. Pick up your dog’s toys and feed them alone. If possible, choose a room with a closed door so that your dog isn’t tempted to walk out and see what everyone else is doing.

Teach your children and any other pets that your dog should be left alone at meal time, and they can play again once the dog’s done eating.


Try Staying with Your Dog While they Eat

On the other hand, your dog may be nervous when left alone. This is something you should work on with them, but in the meantime try staying with your dog while they eat.

This may make them feel calmer and more willing to eat.

Perhaps now they feel they’re missing something, or have separation anxiety when away from the family.


Feed Your Dog Where They’re Comfortable

This is a little like the solution above, but taken a bit further. Try feeding your dog in new places, particularly the places they like to spend time.

Think about your dog’s favorite place in your house, and feed them there. Maybe it’s their crate, or the living room where the family hangs out, or even the back porch.

Feeding your dog this way might mean dealing with a little bit of a mess on your carpet or furniture, but the important thing is that you get your dog eating!


Try Different Dishes (or No Dish!)

Sometimes it isn’t the food your dog dislikes, but the presentation!

Dogs are sometimes finicky about their dishes. Try choosing a different bowl, such as a heavier one that doesn’t move around when they eat or a shallow one they can eat from more easily.

If your dog doesn’t like eating from a dish, try feeding them on a hard floor instead, or on a mat like the one you’d place under their food and water dishes.

Another option is to feed them using a puzzle feeder so that they can play and eat at the same time! This might be the perfect fit for a dog who’d rather play than eat.


Make a Game of Eating

Like I discussed above, sometimes the best thing to do if your dog is motivated by play is to indulge them. Make eating into a super fun game!

The most common way to do this is through puzzle toys. There are a variety of them on the market, including the KONG or a treat dispenser ball.

You can also try simply scattering dry food on the floor for your dog to run around and eat, or hide small piles of kibble around the house for them to find.

Try having your dog perform a trick and giving them some kibble in place of a treat!

With these methods, you just want to ensure you’re still feeding the right amount of food to your dog. Take what would normally be a meal and use it for whatever game you create, being sure not to under or overfeed.

Overall, with a dog who isn’t eating, you shouldn’t worry about feeding them the traditional or “normal” way—just do what works for you and your dog! Them getting food in their tummies is the most important thing, after all.

Writer: Katelynn Sobus

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