The evolutionary instinct to eat…and keep eating
First, it’s important to realize that it is perfectly normal for dogs to be food-motivated. This is particularly true if they associate eating with connecting with their owner. This is because, for all members of the canine family, eating is a social ritual as much as a matter of getting energy and nutrients.
Canines in the wild hunt together and they eat their prey in accordance with pack hierarchies, which means that they are driven to eat as one way of forming social bonds and pack cohesion.
Not only do dogs associate eating with the community of their pack, but they have also been selectively bred over millennia to link the activity of eating with connecting to their human masters. One theory maintains that wild dogs first became domesticated when early humans began providing them with scraps and leftovers.
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Why Does my Dog Keep Asking for Food
Dogs are also often driven to eat as much as they can as often as they can because of another evolutionary imperative: feast or famine. Food in the wild is a limited resource and, like most large carnivores, hunting it consumes a large amount of energy.
When food becomes available, then, dogs tend to actively pursue it because of a latent fear that there might not be another meal for a long time. This is probably why dogs will often eat even if they’re already full. (It’s also why they’ll engage in food caching—like burying bones—and scavenging—like knocking over the trash to explore its contents.) Rescue dogs, whose lived experiences have probably brought them into contact with the feast-or-famine imperative, are particularly likely to be driven by this impulse.
The Kennel Club Views
According to the American Kennel Club, some breeds of dogs are more likely to retain these instinctual eating instincts. These include Beagles, Bull Terriers, Daschunds, Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers, Great Pyrenees, Norwegian Elkhounds, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Pugs, and Rottweilers.
So before you leap to the assumption that something is wrong, remember that dogs—and certain breeds in particular—are actually programmed to be food-motivated.
Eating as a result of behavioral cues
Because most dogs respond to cues that are based on food, owners and trainers often use treats as rewards to reinforce positive behavior when training puppies. Dogs have long memories, so they will often continue to connect the idea of eating with the positive feelings that come from being rewarded. This is, in a way, similar to the evolutionary imperative linking eating with communal bonding described earlier.
But dogs are also great generalizers, which means they can take a specific action-reward sequence and broaden the sensation of reward beyond the specific trigger.
For example, a puppy might get a piece of cheese as a reward for sitting on command, but years later they may link eating any kind of, or amount of, cheese with feeling praised. The sense of approval that comes from the reward is effectively disconnected from the action that earned approval and displaced onto the award itself.
What this means is that domesticated dogs are often driven to eat a lot, and more frequently, because they have been trained to associate eating with earning approval. In short, eating becomes both the learned behavior and reward. It’s this vicious cycle that leads to the dog behavior best known, and most dreaded, by dog-owners around the world: begging.
Possible medical explanations for an increased appetite
In some cases, however, overeating in dogs can also be a sign of certain medical problems. These are not as common as the evolutionary and behavioral drives described above, but responsible dog owners should be aware of them and on the look-out for signs of them.
Many commercial dog foods contain grains, starches, and other added fibers that actually leave your dog lacking in essential proteins, amino acids, and nutrients.
Dogs who eat these foods exclusively, or primarily, will feel the urge to keep eating because their bodies, at the cellular level, are simply not getting what they need to feel full and energized. Essentially, these dogs are chronically malnourished, despite constantly eating, which drives them to need to eat more and more.
Some dogs internalize the socializing connotations of eating too deeply and will turn to overeat in an attempt to compensate for feelings of anxiety resulting from fears of abandonment or loneliness. This kind of stress-based behavior is usually accompanied by other symptoms of anxiety, such as excessive barking, pacing, digging, and destruction of property.
Less commonly, dogs who display an increased appetite may be suffering from an endocrinal or gastrointestinal illness.
This is more likely to be the case in dogs who demonstrate unexpected changes in eating habits, such as dogs who have previously had normal eating habits expressing a sudden desire to eat all the time, or dogs who previously ate normal diets suddenly showing an interest in eating atypical or even dangerous things, like dirt or plastic.
The diseases that most typically are associated with overeating or aggressive eating in dogs are:
• Diabetes. Lifestyles that have little exercise and diets that are high in grains and starches can result in obesity which can result in an ensuing fall off in the production of insulin. This lack of insulin is the hallmark of Type 2 diabetes and can manifest in your dog as an aggressive hunger.
• Cushing’s Syndrome. This disease triggers the release of too much cortisol by your dog’s adrenal glands. This overproduction is toxic, which the body attempts to fight through the release of large amounts of glucose from the liver. Burning that extra supply of glucose results in a constant need to eat.
• Hyperthyroidism. Rarely seen in dogs, this condition results from a tumor that triggers an overproduction of thyroid hormone. Most dogs who do suffer from this have raw food diets (which can include active thyroid tissue). Dogs with this condition will lose weight, even though they eat and drink constantly.
• Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency. Your dog’s pancreas produces many of the enzymes he or she needs to digest food. EPI causes the pancreas to reduce or even arrest entirely the production of those enzymes. This means that the nutrients in the food can’t be absorbed into the bloodstream to nourish the rest of the body, causing your dog to feel hungry no matter how much he or she eats. Symptoms of EPI are weight loss, diarrhea, and constant eating.
If your dog displays symptoms in addition to overactive eating, or if his or her eating habits change suddenly or without a clear reason, you should seek assistance from your veterinarian to determine if there is an underlying medical cause. If left untreated, most of the illnesses that can lead to overeating in dogs can result in serious medical complications and even death.
There are lots of answers, then, to the question, “Why does my dog keep asking for food?. Being aware of those answers can help you make sure that your pet is happy and healthy.