An article in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior concludes that “emotional eating” has been demonstrated in humans and rodents, but not in dogs. It’s a confusing study to understand, really. Although the article clearly states that the “vast majority of the 1,099 test respondents perceived that their dog showed emotional eating at some level of intensity,” they maintain that these findings were related to other variables that were more likely the cause for the owner’s perception – like medical conditions, etc..
I’m no veterinary behaviorist, but I just don’t think these findings about emotional eating in dogs are entirely accurate. I’m guessing that many dog parents can vouch for a time in their dog’s life when their eating habits were temporarily altered based on some type of change or stress. I was reading about this poor lady whose German Shepherd wouldn’t eat after they had moved. She felt the reason for this was that the dog just didn’t like his new home. He went from a big farm to a small fenced-in yard. I think she was right about her dog’s feelings… The German Shepherd’s emotional response to his new circumstances could have very well been a change in eating habits, whether – in this case – intentional (perhaps a “protest”?), or simply sadness.
A similar common experience is when a new rescue has problems adjusting to a normal food schedule when adopted and taken into a new home. Just like the german shepherd, a rescue has just had his whole life upended. Who knows what he has been through? A new home and family is a major change in dynamics for this pup. Sometimes the emotion is fear, it could be stress, or anxiety. Bottom line is, some pets will under-eat or overeat in response to what they are feeling.
At Holiday Barn Pet Resorts, we sometimes need to coax a nervous guest – generally a first-time visitor – into eating. We may hand-feed them, offer treats, mix a little enticing soft food into their kibble, etc. in an effort to get them to eat normally. Clearly, these guests are showing some type of emotional reaction to their change in surroundings and circumstances. Once they become accustomed to these changes and begin eating normally, even their disposition reflects a happier, more contented guest.
Emotions that can cause overeating in dogs
What types of emotions do we have when we, as humans, cave to emotional eating? The one that comes to mind is someone (usually female) reaching for a tub of ice cream when upset. That scenario has been repeated in over and over in TV shows and movies. Maybe she was dumped by her partner, maybe she had a stressful day at work, or maybe had one of those days when everything went wrong. So what did she do? She reached for the most accessible, most comforting food she could think of… ice cream (Been there! Done that)! Men do the same thing, regardless of what the media would have us believe! Eating becomes a coping mechanism when stressors are high.
Overeating, or the craving for specific foods, is not as often seen in dogs. First of all, dogs do not have any say-so over how much and what they eat. It’s not like they can go to the pantry or refrigerator and grab something. Controlling what they eat is our job. So a dog’s most primary response is not to eat at all when stressed. BUT, if given the opportunity, i.e., availability of more food or treats, emotional overeating in our pets is very possible.
Depression is another emotion that may cause a change in eating habits in our dogs. It’s hard to believe, but dogs do sometimes suffer from depression. Wouldn’t it be likely, then, that the response to doggy depression is similar to what it is for us? We choose to either eat too much, or not eat at all. I think the same applies to our dogs.
What other emotions might entice a dog to express emotional eating? Boredom is a biggie. So many dogs these days eat because there’s nothing else to do. We have to admit, we sometimes do it too! Most dogs now-days live the life of luxury and often do not get near the exercise or stimulation that they need. Living in our homes, they are unable to run or dig holes, so when there’s nothing better to do, eating becomes the highlight of their day. It becomes an outlet for anxiety and pent up energy. And it’s pleasurable!
Here’s another thought: If you put food down in front of two dogs, what do they do? Rush to see which one can eat the food more quickly, right? Is this a form of emotional eating? I think so. When a dog is not physically hungry and eats just to prevent the other dog from getting the food, there has to be an emotional aspect to the reason for eating the food.
We would be amiss if we did not also mention that a dog’s lack of or increase in eating could be caused by a medical condition rather than an emotional response. If a dog shows a change in eating habits, we can’t just assume that it’s emotional. Medical issues – something as simple as a bad tooth to as serious as kidney disease, some cancers, etc., - may be the reason a dog is not eating. It’s always best to visit your vet to rule out any physical rationale for a change in eating habits.
How to help a stressed dog
Regardless of whether or not we agree with the Journal of Veterinary Behavior’s conclusion that dogs do not exhibit emotional eating, I think we can all agree that change, fear, depression and anxiety can impact our dog’s eating habits. If your dog is struggling with some type of negative emotion, how can we help them?
There are a number of stressed dog remedies. If your dog is an emotional eater, simply taking away the food – their comfort – is downright cruel. Of course, we as owners have to take responsibility for our dog being overweight, so I’m not suggesting we give them more food. I’m suggesting we continue to provide a normal diet, based on their ideal weight. If obesity is a problem, provide them some lower-calorie, healthy treats in lieu of store-bought treats that are sometimes high in fat and calories. Put healthy treats in a food dispensing toy. That will afford them their comfort food AND provide them with an activity. In the meantime, try to get to the root of the problem.
First of all, talk to our Holiday Barn Pet Resorts’ Professional Dog Trainers. There is a possibility what we perceive to be an emotional action, is simply a misunderstood behavioral response that is correctable by proper training.
Secondly, consider adding some activity to your dog’s life to counteract what may be the cause of emotional eating. It could be as basic as adding more or longer walks for your dog. Maybe you can involve your dog in an activity of some sort (See our blog, “Activities for you and your dog” for some fun ideas!). Maybe give your dog a job to do. Working dogs are happy dogs! Retrievers are happier when retrieving (duh); herders like Aussies and Border collies want to herd! Or maybe, if you have the time and inclination, give your dog a “real” job… like becoming a therapy dog, or Search and Rescue dog. Last, but certainly not least, enroll your dog in our Professional Dog Training program to give them the opportunity to work towards any number of obedience and fun objectives.
Finally, anxieties that lead to emotional eating may stem from a lack of socialization. Continued, positive exposure to normal life experiences helps to prevent the anxiety that could lead to emotional eating. It is recommended that socialization starts early in life, but if you have just become the parent of an unsocialized, anxious older pup, he/she can be desensitized to the things that cause him stress or anxiety. Slow and gradual introductions to the things that cause him to be apprehensive is key. Let our Trainers help make it a positive experience for your pup.
We, as loving dog owners, are responsible for the wellbeing of our dogs. Whether it be physical or emotional wellbeing, we are the drivers. We are our dog’s whole life! Let’s work towards making it the healthiest and most contented life ever.
If you have questions or concerns about your pup, or just need a welcoming place to take them for a vacation or play, reach out to either of our Richmond, VA dog boarding locations in Glen Allen or South Richmond/Midlothian!