Many dogs act as though their stomachs are bottomless; feed them their whole meal and they will follow you around looking for scraps. While this is a plus for positive reinforcement training, it’s hard to not wonder why your dog acts like he is starving all the time. But is there even an answer to the question? A Veterinarian and Dog Trainer weigh in below with some possible explanations for your dog’s insatiable appetite.
Dr. Jules Benson, VP of Veterinary Services at Petplan Pet Insurance says, “typically, the insatiable hunger can be attributed to canine biology, but it also can be a warning sign for a medical issue such as diabetes or Cushing’s disease.”
He explains that a “dog’s eat when food is presented mentality” may be because of their wild ancestry. “Looking at the domestic dog’s nearest wild relative, the grey wolf, they are adapted to a feast-or-famine diet and can go many days without fresh prey,” Dr. Benson explains. “They achieve this through eating large amounts when food is available, food caching (may be analogous to burying bones in the garden!) and scavenging (watch out for the kitchen trash can!).”
So it’s possible your dog is not actually hungry, but eating whenever food is offered in case you stop offering it.
For the lazy lab that has been a house dog from birth, this may be a hard explanation to swallow, since he has not been wild even and neither has any of his nearest kin. And, if many of their other instinctual traits have been bred out of them (for example herding dogs that no longer have the instinct to herd) it could be argued that this one would be as well, though it does have its benefits to humans. As aforementioned, it certainly makes training eaiser.
Dr. Benson also mentions that an always hungry dog could have a medical problem causing them to always feel hungry.
“While some dogs just simply like to indulge in food, sometimes an increased appetite is the sign of an underlying health issue,” he explains.
Common Diseases That Show an Increase in Appetite:
Diabetes, for example, can trigger an increased appetite. Although there is an excess of glucose in their bloodstream, a lack of insulin means that the glucose is effectively “locked out” of the body’s cells. The cells respond by telling the animal that they should still be hungry, so this can result in an abnormally large appetite.
Hyperadrenocorticism (also known as Cushing’s Disease) can also cause an increased appetite when the dog’s body produces too much glucocorticoid – the hormone that helps furry friends deal with stress.
Conditions causing malabsorption – any disease where a dog can’t properly absorb the nutrients in their food – can result in them being extra hungry. Most of the time these conditions are accompanied by other signs like diarrhea and/or vomiting. Some examples include:
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency(EPI) – most common in German Shepherd dogs, this condition results in a decrease in the enzymes required to digest food. As a result, food can pass through the digestive tract without being broken down properly, thus not being able to be absorbed.
Bacterial overgrowth – sometimes associated with EPI but also able to occur as a primary condition, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) can cause the walls of the small intestine being damaged by bacteria, resulting in reduced nutrient absorption and an increased appetite.
If you notice your dog is eating more than usual, consult your veterinarian to be sure that their feeding frenzies are not the result of a more serious health concern.
Force of Habit
Robin Bennett, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, author, and consultant, suggests we may have actually caused this behavior in our dogs.
“Most of the dogs I see act hungry because they have been reinforced for acting that way.” Bennett offers. “It’s hard to resist those big brown dog eyes when a dog looks at their owner…so owners give their dog a treat. This reinforces the food seeking behavior in the dog, so that it gets stronger in the dog. And since the dog eats, the owner feels that the dog really was hungry. It’s an interesting cycle.”
Bennett notes that even if you don’t train your dog with food, you are most like “guilty” of giving them a treat when they “ask for it” through begging, staring at you, etc.
“In this sense, I think dogs often train us to feed them,” Bennett adds. “My own dog is able to do his ‘it’s time to eat act’ with each member of the family at night and we’ve fallen for it enough that we actually have to confirm with one another whether or not he has been fed. He’s a smart dog.”
About the Author
Based in Tustin, Calif., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She also owns her own custom pet products company, A Fairytail House, where she makes personalized collars, leashes, beds, keepsake pillows and blankets, and anything else your imagine can think up. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs.