What is Food Aggression?

Though the definition of food aggression is simple, dealing with the behavior certainly isn’t.  Food aggression in dogs is a behavior with which many pet parents must deal with on a daily basis.  Some pet parents are successful in quieting or reducing the episodes of the behavior while others are not.  

The key to successful discouragement or elimination of the behavior lies not in disciplinary measures but in patient retraining of your canine family member.  It is important to remember, that dogs will not attack without first giving a warning and recognizing the behaviors your dog may exhibit may prevent injury to people and other animals.

Food aggression in dogs is simply aggressive behavior, such as growling, snapping or biting, in defense of their food bowls or tasty treats.

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Symptoms of Food Aggression in Dogs

The symptoms of food aggression (also called food guarding) are pretty straightforward, ranging from warnings to actions, sometimes with only milliseconds between:

  • Stiffening
  • Gulping
  • Growling
  • Snarling and teeth showing
  • Freezing
  • Lunging 
  • Snaps or bites when feeding is interrupted

The danger here is that the object of the aggression may be another dog or cat in the family or even a toddler or child who has wandered too close to the food bowl and who doesn’t understand the warnings or why they are important.

Types 

Food aggression or guarding could be typed into two categories:

Aggression toward humans - This type of food aggression could be directed toward any human being who comes anywhere near the food bowl, kitchen where food is being prepared, the dinner table where the food is eaten or even near the leftovers.  It could also be directed at only some of the human family members, with one or two being trusted to come near the canine when he is eating.

Aggression toward other animals - This type could include other dogs, cats or any other animals who are courageous enough to venture near the food dish when your dog is eating or is otherwise near it.

Causes of Food Aggression in Dogs

The behavior is thought to be a throwback to the time when wild dogs had to hunt for their food and, when food resources were scarce, they had to protect what they had.  This is the same type of aggression exhibited when protecting their mates and living areas for reasons of survival.  But now they’re tamed and no longer have to hunt for their food, so why does the behavior still persist?   

Competition for food with littermates is the major cause. Most pet parents feed litters in a communal bowl and it’s literally a free for all at mealtime. Oftentimes, there may be one or two puppies who dominate the food bowl at mealtimes and utilize aggression to accomplish that. Any puppy who exhibits food guarding behavior before the age of 16 weeks should be seen by a veterinarian as this is an early sign of aggressive behavior development

Once this behavior has been experienced by a young puppy, it can be hard for the pup to ignore the desire or need to guard his food as he makes his new home with his new family.  This is especially so if your puppy was one of the “weaker” ones who kept being pushed away and had to battle to get his sustenance.

Diagnosis of Food Aggression in Dogs

To diagnose food aggression in dogs, you will likely need the services of not just your local veterinary professional but also those of an animal behaviorist.  Your complete history will be vital to your vet and will need to consist of dietary regimen, complete with the frequency, amounts of food and types of food and treats being fed.  Any history of the littermates as well as the history of the canine’s interaction with other animals in the household should be noted, as well as interactions with humans in various activities. The behaviors of your canine family member should be well documented, giving your vet as much information as possible about how your pet reacts to humans and other animals at feeding time and virtually any other time he interacts with humans and animals.  

Your veterinary professional will do a physical examination and may order some tests if he suspects a systemic issue at the root of the problem.  If he suspects a food aggression or guarding behavior, he may wish to utilize the services of an animal behaviorist to help diagnose and guide the treatment and retraining of your canine family member.

Treatment of Food Aggression in Dogs

Once your veterinary professional and the animal behaviorist have done their evaluations, an appropriate treatment plan will be developed and initiated.  Your canine family member may require some specialized home retraining to eliminate or reduce the aggressive behavior. Since food aggression in dogs can range from mild growling to protect special treats or food to reacting to any human who comes close when he’s eating to an all out biting, snapping attack, it is important to understand that not all food aggression needs to be treated.

If the aggressive behavior being exhibited by your pet is such that there is risk of injury to humans (adults, children or toddlers) or to other household animals, a retraining program will be developed which is commensurate with the level of aggressive behavior being displayed. These training programs are generally multi-stage or multi-step processes which will gradually teach your pet that they need not fear the loss of food or other resources which they have traditionally protected.

Recovery of Food Aggression in Dogs

It is important for you to understand that the older the animal is when this training is developed, the harder it may be to retrain him.  It may also require a longer training period to achieve reduction or elimination of the behavior. It is for this reason that we emphasize that aggressive behavior not be ignored or “blown off”.  Your canine family member needs help, love and patience to overcome these undesirable habits and behaviors but the result will be a safer and more loving environment for all parties involved.  

Of course, in the event that either no training is recommended or that the training is simply not successful, remember that you can always make adjustments at home at feeding time to isolate your pet.  If this is the course that is chosen, it is important to remember that no food should be left down for your pet unless it is time for his meal.