How to Get a Rescue Dog to Eat: 5 Simple Steps

How to Get a Rescue Dog to Eat

It is very common for newly rescued or adopted dogs to have eating problems. The most frequent issue will be getting a new rescue dog to eat. It can also be the opposite where adopted dogs will be obsessed with food, to the point of it becoming problematic.

You won’t always know the history of your rescue dog, but it is normal for a dog to not eat after being adopted.

I recently spoke to a person I know who has adopted rescue dogs in the past, and recently gave her friend advice on what to do. She’s agreed to share her knowledge on getting newly adopted dogs to eat here today. I hope you find it helpful.

How to get a rescue dog to eat?

My friend was apoplectic. She had just taken home a middle-aged miniature dachshund from her local ASPCA called Millie. Millie was playful and spritely at the shelter. Now she was at her home, she seemed hesitant, withdrawn and she didn’t eat for one whole day. The blood drained from my friends’ face as she pleaded to me on Facetime:

“Why won’t my rescue dog eat?!”

By identifying the reasons for her hunger strike, being attentive to her needs, crafting an actionable feeding routine, and spicing up her meals, my friend succeeded in getting Millie the rescue dog to eat well consistently.

Here is what she did.

1. Identify the reasons why

When you take your rescue dog home, they have quite a steep adjustment hill to climb. Not only are you new to them, but so are your family members, the household smells, and all of the dog furniture you’ve spent the past 6 months buying online.

Everything takes some getting used to and this can send your rescue dog into a bit of a crisis of confidence. That nervousness can manifest in a lower appetite which is completely normal and expected, to a degree.

Handy Hint: One of the biggest problems with rescue dogs is getting them adjusted and socialized at your home. Here are 7 tips for socializing your newly adopted dog.

If you fill your rescue dogs’ bowl and they barely take a sniff in the first 6 hours of bringing them home, don’t panic. Leave the food out as they may come back to it later when they feel more comfortable.

If by the 18-24-hour point, they haven’t eaten anything at all (not the dog food, nor any treats) then it may be worth investigating further.

Give your vet a call and have your newly adopted dog checked out. There is a good chance that nothing is wrong by them not eating, it’s just them adjusting, but it is better to be safe than sorry.

2. Learn your newly adopted dog’s food habits

Once any illnesses are ruled out, the next step of investigation needs to center on the food itself and your rescue dogs’ average appetite. Ask your shelter if your dog has exhibited any withdrawal when it comes to food before.

  • What is your rescue pup’s favorite thing to eat?
  • What time of day did they typically eat at the shelter?
  • Are they picky eaters?

In the case of my friend, the shelter had neglected to mention that Millie had the most expensive of tastes – literally! She would turn her nose up as any cheap kibble, expecting royal treatment.

It’s good practice to buy a bag of dog food from your rescue center before you take them home, to keep their diet constant whilst you transition them to a new food brand (if that is what you intend to do).

If they are not a fan of what you have on the menu, then this consistency could help.

rescue dog obsessed with food
You might need to change your rescue dog’s food back to what they were eating in the shelter.

3. Make your rescue dog’s meals a little more exciting

This is where my friend cracked the code of how to get a rescue dog to eat. She couldn’t afford to feed Millie the expensive kibble over a long-term basis to keep her diet up. Instead she resorted to what we owners all know works when you want to get your dog to eat – bribery. Well… bribery of a certain kind.

Adding some extra flavour to their bowls can really help in convincing your rescue dog to eat.

What do you feed rescue dogs?

If you are going to add extra food to your dog’s bowl, you have to be smart about what you choose add in.

Yes, dogs can eat vegetables (even Brussel sprouts) but adding raw carrots to your dogs’ bowl as if they are a common rabbit, is not going to have them jumping for joy.

On the other hand, your dog will probably love a thick slice of fatty bacon or pancetta, but that’s not good for their overall health. A balance must be struck. Here are some ideas:

  • Ground beef
  • Small chicken pieces (no bones!)
  • Turkey slices
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Sweet potato

How much human food can you give your rescue dog?

The secret is, surprisingly little! Millie the rescue dog got eating with just a few morsels of chicken sprinkled into her food. More often than not, a few pieces are enough to convince them to eat the whole plate.

If your dog only eats the chicken and leaves the kibble, it is still progress. At least they ate something. Another good trick is to combine the dry food with a spoonful of low-sodium, onion, and garlic free broth or gravy to make their meal more enticing.

4. Set a feeding routine for your dog

So now that you have bribed your new rescue dog into eating their first full meal, you have a little more work to do to make this a regular thing. According to the American Kennel Club, the recommended feeding schedule is twice per day.

How you integrate this into your routine is up to you but feeding a rescue dog around breakfast and again late afternoon works well.

If your rescue dog is a picky eater, like Millie, a once a day feeding schedule could be fine for them. You don’t want to increase the mealtimes and put them off further.

The most important thing is that you are striking a balance between their recommended food intake every day and the frequency of meals. Two meals per day is perfect. Only rescue puppies under 6 months should be fed 3 times per day.

Handy Hint: Some rescue dogs will be recovering from parvo. Here’s what you should be feeding a puppy with parvovirus to get their strength back up.

5. Monitor them for 72 hours

As with all things when it comes to rescue dogs, patience and consistency are key. Monitor their eating habits over the next three days to see if any hunger-striking presents itself again.

Usually, after the first full meal, it becomes progressively easier for your dog to eat regularly. You may still need to bribe a little bit, but you can transition this out over the next week.

Save the extra delicious meals for treat days.

rescue dog eating
You can bribe your rescue dog into eating with a tasty treat.

Should you take your rescue dog to the vets?

If you have gone through the entire process and your rescue will still not eat, then you may have a bigger problem on your hands. It’s worth going back to the vet just to rule out any more serious complications and seek advice.

If you have adopted a rescue puppy that won’t eat, their hunger striking is far more dangerous than with adults and should be called to attention within 48 hours.

Here are clear signs that something is wrong:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Manic episodes of hyperactivity
  • Blood in their stool or urine

Feeding problems you may face with your rescue dog

Why is my rescue dog obsessed with food?

Food obsession in dogs is complex as it could come from a variety of sources. Rescue dogs will be obsessed with food as a behavioral problem, which could just be a symptom of your dog’s adjustment period to your home. It could also be due to overfeeding in their past.

Staying consistent with your feeding schedule is the best course of action.

Sometimes overeating is a symptom of illness, such as a parasite, diabetes or gastrointestinal issues. Consult your vet for expert advice.

Why does my rescue dog eat so fast?

Another possibility for food obsession is if the rescue dog was on the streets where food was scarce or was underfed by a previous owner. They will obsess over food, as in their mind they can’t be sure another meal will be coming their way.

Imagine what their life was like if they were a street dog? If they were lucky enough to be given food they would have to eat is as quickly as possible before any other dogs got to it.

Why is my rescue dog begging?

Say you have worked out a two-meal system in your household, but your rescue dog is begging between meals. If you are eating human food around them, begging is a natural behavior so there is nothing to be hugely concerned about.

It is more concerning if they are kicking their bowl or whining by their dining area.

In this case, first, make sure you are feeding your dog enough at each feeding as recommended by your vet. Then try introducing a small snack in the middle of the day. Millie gets a dog cookie at midday to quell her hunger until her main evening meal. It can make a huge difference.

Why is my rescue dog stealing food?

Stealing food is a behavioral hiccup that can be ironed out with steady, persistent training.

For starters, never leave food out on the counters or within reach. “No” and “off” are two commands that you’ll want to master with them.

Once they have dependable recall skills, spend time on “no” and “off” to keep their paws off your food.


Adopting rescue dogs comes with many challenge, but once you’ve managed to get them settled, eating, and at ease, you can start to work on bonding with them. It’s an amazing experience, and you might value these tips on bonding with a new rescue dog if it’s not been easy for you. Good luck!

You might also like…

On the topic of feeding, once you’ve got your rescue dog to eat in regular and healthy patterns, here are some other guides to get them into a proper routine.

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Marc Aaron

I write about the things we've learned about owning dogs, the adventures we have, and any advice and tips we've picked up along the way.

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