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My smartphone chimes, alerting me that in 10 minutes, I have a telephone interview for an article I’m writing. I reach into the cupboard and remove a bag of my dog, Chase’s, cookies. He sits next to me, drooling. I hand him a cookie. No, make that two. I can’t take any chances that he’ll cause a commotion during my interview. It’s as if Chase knows that when I’m speaking on the phone, I am vulnerable to his food demands. It’s also when he begs most insistently — whining, circling, and batting my computer with his paw.
Does the sight of a telephone really incite Chase into a frantic state of hunger, or did I create this learned behavior? Much like a child cries and tugs on his mother’s dress hem, Chase may have been seeking my attention, according to Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DACVB, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Massachusetts.
To pacify Chase, I proffered cookies, unwittingly “rewarding” him for his persistence. “If you respond to a certain behavior by giving a dog food, then you will get more of that behavior,” Dodman said. These days, I might as well be holding a cookie-shaped phone, because that’s what Chase now sees.
“Food-driven behavior probably relates back to 10,000 years ago, when dogs lived in packs,” said Mark Stickney, clinical associate professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine in College Station. “They ate as much as they could whenever they could because they didn’t know when the next meal was coming.”
Excessive hunger is sometimes a warning sign of an underlying medical condition, so your first stop should be your veterinarian for a full physical examination. Common medical causes of hunger in dogs are:
- Cushing’s disease, or hyperadrenocorticism, is a condition of the endocrine system in which a dog’s adrenal glands secrete too much of the steroid hormone cortisol. “Hunger is a side effect of increased steroid production,” Stickney said. Dogs with this condition typically experience weight gain and often exhibit excessive thirst and urination.
- Diabetes mellitus, or sugar diabetes, is caused by a deficiency of insulin, a hormone necessary to transport dietary glucose from the bloodstream into the cells, where it is used as energy. “Diabetic dogs have plenty of sugar in their blood, but they feel like they are starving all the time because none of it penetrates into the cells,” Stickney said. Dogs with diabetes typically lose weight and may also show an increase in thirst and urination.
- Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) occurs when the exocrine portion of the pancreas fails to produce enough digestive enzymes to adequately break down dietary protein, fat, and carbohydrates. The undigested food remains in the gastrointestinal tract until it is passed out via the dog’s feces. “Dogs suffering from EPI can eat and eat but still lose weight, because they are unable to digest and absorb nutrients from their food,” Stickney said.
- Intestinal parasites, such as roundworms and tapeworms, primarily affect puppies but can also occur in adult dogs, according to Stickney. “Parasites absorb the affected dog’s dietary nutrients, causing him to feel hungry even though he’s consuming plenty of food,” he said. Dogs with internal parasites typically lose weight.
Stickney and Dodman agreed that a dog experiencing unexplained hunger should receive a veterinary physical, including a complete blood count (CBC), chemistry panel, and urinalyses. “Based on the dog’s history, clinical signs, and initial laboratory workup, the veterinarian will then order any additional testing necessary to confirm a diagnosis,” Stickney said.
As for Chase, his veterinarian long ago ruled out a possible medical issue, and I have learned to cheerily indulge his selective telephone-time begging. He’s 14 years old and at a healthy weight, so it’s the least I can do.
Try these tips for your always-hungry dog
As a canine nutrition consultant, I work with many clients who struggle with satisfying their canine chowhound. Here are my tips to help control an always-hungry dog:
- Increase fiber and protein. Studies show that dogs voluntarily eat fewer calories when fed a diet containing both high protein and high fiber compared to a diet containing either high protein or high fiber.
- Provide nutritious, low-energy-dense between-meal snacks such as apple slices, carrots, and green bean pieces.
- Switch to a lower-energy-dense diet. Energy density refers to he amount of calories in a particular weight of food and is typically displayed on dog food packages as kilocalories per kilogram (kcal/kg). Low-energy-dense foods contain fewer calories for a larger volume of food, enabling dogs to eat more without packing on the pounds. Low-energy-dense foods include those high in water content and fiber, such as spinach, zucchini, celery, carrots, and whole grains.
- Invest in a timed feeder if your dog wakes you up during the night to eat.
- Substitute playtime for snack time. It’s possible that your dog craves your attention, not the food.
Read more on feeding your dog:
- 5 Foods That Keep My Dog Looking and Acting Half His Age
- Dog Food & Treats
- Let’s Talk: Do You Insist on Feeding Your Dog “Premium” Dog Food
About the author: Diana R. Laverdure, the Pet Food Diva, is an award-winning dog health writer, pet nutrition consultant, and healthy pet food advocate. She is the author (with W. Jean Dodds, D.V.M.) of the new book Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health and is currently writing her dissertation toward her master’s degree in animal science. Her weekly blog posts atpetfooddiva.com discuss creating optimum health in our companion animals based on the principles of nutrigenomics, the science of how diet affects gene expression, and cellular health. Connect with her on thePet Food Diva Facebook page and on Twitter at @PetFoodDiva.