Why Is My Pet A Picky Eater?

Written by Oxbow

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July 15, 2021🞄

Our small pets are unique in many ways; they are curious, playful, keenly aware of their surroundings, and highly intelligent.  Another unique characteristic of rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, and other small pets is one that can be more than a little frustrating for us as pet parents: picky eating habits at mealtime.

What Is Picky Eating and Why Do Some Pets Do It?

We all want our beloved pets to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet every day.  And, knowing how important it is for small pets to regularly eat hay and a wholesome daily diet, it can be worrisome to us when our little loved ones turn their noses up at their daily nutrition.

To understand how to prevent picky eating behaviors with your pet, it’s important to first understand why animals like rabbits and guinea pigs practice picky eating (also known as “selective feeding”) in the first place.

With the understanding of why small herbivores are oftentimes wired to practice picky eating habits, it becomes easy to develop some practical tips to help your picky pet develop a less finicky palate.

Selective Feeding and Its Ties to Survival in the Wild

To understand why your pet is a picky eater in the domesticated environment of your home, we first need to understand how animals survive in the wild.

Small mammals are prey in the wild and are not able to store a very large quantity of food in their stomachs.  This low storage capacity for food makes it easier to escape predators.  To understand this concept, think about trying to run after a big holiday meal; gives you a side ache just thinking about it, right?

So, to meet their nutrition and energy requirements, our pets select the most nutritionally dense foods.  In this hunt for food, wild rabbits, for example, can spend up to 11 hours per day feeding and foraging, traversing more than 5 acres of land in the process.

Fast Forward to the Comforts of Home – A Look at Your Pet’s Daily Diet

Being “picky” in the wild allows pets to survive by finding the most nutrient-dense foods.  But, what about our pets at home on the couch?  Food scarcity isn’t a concern for our little loved ones, but the selective feeding instinct remains hard-wired all the same.

Given the opportunity, our pets will instinctively select the highest calorie foods first.  This becomes especially evident and important when it comes to choosing a daily diet for our pets.

The Link Between Mix-Based Diets and Selective Feeding

If your pet currently eats a mix-based diet (including newer products marketed as “forage mixes” or “forage blends”), there’s a good chance you’ve already seen selective feeding in action.  Have you ever noticed that your pet chooses everything except the pellets first?  Depending on the food, this might include pieces that are high in starch, sugar, and fat – all ingredients small pets are not designed to consume on a regular basis.  Even the more natural ingredients (like dried veggies and flower petals) are likely to detract your pet from eating the essential vitamin and nutrient-rich components.

While this type of “picky eating” may not seem like that big of a deal at the time (after all, who doesn’t love to pick their favorite pieces out of a bowl of trail mix?), there can be real, serious consequences to this type of selective feeding (more on that in a bit) over time.

How Do I Prevent My Pet From Being a Picky Eater?

So, now that we know why small animals are instinctively wired to practice picky eating habits when given the opportunity, what (if anything) can we do to discourage or even prevent these behaviors at mealtime?  Is there any hope, or is your beloved pet predestined to turn their nose up at their food at mealtime?

Good news – preventing picky eating is easier than it might seem.  Here are two effective, proven steps to rid your pet of their pesky picky eating habits.

Step 1: Ditch the mix and offer uniform nutrition.

Mixes have been around for many years, and it’s easy to understand why many first-time pet parents opt for these options when looking for a fortified food option they believe their pets will enjoy.  Mixes look fun and appealing.  Most mixes contain a variety of shapes, colors, and ingredients that we associate with tasting good (e.g. dried fruit, yogurt, etc).

When offered a mix-based diet, many small pets will begin eating right away, munching enthusiastically on the most appetizing, calorically dense pieces.  It may make you feel good as a pet parent to see your pet enjoying their food, but there’s an inherent, two-fold problem when it comes to mixes:

Not All Components of a Mix Are Created Equal

The most calorically dense pieces in a mix can contain a variety of ingredients and, oftentimes, these ingredients are not species-appropriate for animals like rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas.  Concentrated amounts of dried fruit, for example, contain far too much sugar for the delicate gastrointestinal systems of small herbivores and can lead to serious health outcomes over time, including serious issues such as GI Stasis, dental disease, and bladder sludge.

Selective Eating Leads to Nutritional Imbalance

When pets select only the most tempting morsels, they most often leave behind the less appealing pellets or kibble.  Rather than wait until all the food is eaten, most pet parents are inclined to fill the bowl back up, repeating the cycle all over again.  More sugary, starchy ingredients are eaten, more nutritious pellets are left behind, and the likelihood of negative health consequences just keeps increasing.

The good news is that preventing picky eating is preventable!  By choosing a unform food, you effectively eliminate your pet’s ability to selectively feed.  In doing so, you help ensure your pet receives a guaranteed amount of the essential vitamins and minerals present in the food.

Ready to kick your pet’s mix?  Check out Oxbow’s vet-recommended lines of complete, uniform foods.

What About “Forage” Mixes?  Do They Make Good on Their Claims?

Forage mixes claim to support the natural foraging instincts of pets, but a quick look at the definition of foraging and how small animals like rabbits and guinea pigs practice this behavior in the wild clearly point out how these claims fall short.

The term “foraging” refers to the act of searching far and wide for sustenance.  In the wild, many species of small animals are forced to forage over a great distance each day to survive.  In the process, animals receive ample amounts of physical exercise and mental enrichment.  Eating a bowl of a mix-based food, in contrast, is far from foraging.  Rather, it’s an invitation to selectively eat the most tempting, least nutritious pieces first.

Step 2: Support Your Pet’s Foraging Instincts in Healthy Ways

So, if forage mixes or other mix-based diets don’t promote foraging, how can you encourage your beloved bunny, guinea pig, or chinchilla to practice this beneficial behavior in the home setting?  It’s easier and more fun than you might think.

In an upcoming blog, we’ll dive deeper into the science of foraging.  For now, here are some Cliff’s Notes on some of our favorite easy ways to encourage your pet to forage each day:

Offer hay, and lots of it!

Every herbivore should be eating large amounts of hay every day for health and happiness.  The next time you offer hay to your pet, try hiding a few small treat pieces or their favorite greens or veggies deep in their hay.  See how they enjoy hunting high and low for these yummy bits?  Guess what?  That’s foraging!

Challenge your pet to work for their uniform food!

Okay, so you’ve made the commitment to avoid the temptation of grabbing a mix off the shelf.  Congratulations!  This is the single most important step in preventing picky eating.  In fact, providing uniform nutrition is the only way to ensure your pet won’t lean back on their instincts to eat selectively.

Just because your pet’s food isn’t filled with fun colors, shapes, and tempting bits doesn’t mean that the act of offering it can’t be fun and engaging.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite!  Two easy and effective ways to promote foraging with your pet’s uniform food include scatter feeding (spreading their food out over a greater surface area) and hiding their food in engaging locations throughout their habitat (in their hay, hideouts, etc).

Provide foraging fun with enriching accessories

Ready to take foraging to the next level?  Oxbow has a wide range of enrichment products designed specifically to encourage foraging in beneficial ways while making the activity fun for both you and your beloved pets.

Some of our foraging favorites include:

Two of the greatest joys of being a pet parent include supporting your little loved one’s instinctual behaviors and providing the right nutrition to provide a long, healthy life together.  By choosing a uniform food that eliminates unhealthy selective feeding and promoting foraging in healthy and enriching ways, you can take pleasure and comfort in knowing you’re supporting both the health and happiness of your pets each and every day.