Tips and preventative measures to help stop your pet stealing food
Our pets have mastered the ability to get what they need and want from us – and much of the time, that’s food!
Unfortunately, some common human foods are toxic to our pets. Data from insurance claims related to pets eating things they shouldn’t show that common foods like chocolate, grapes and meat bones can cause serious illnesses and injuries.
Meal preparation, a bag left briefly on the floor, a young child eating a snack: in a busy household, there are plenty of opportunities for our fur babies to steal food.
Begging can also be an issue. Animal behaviourist Mark Vette explains that dogs, in particular, have co-evolved with humans over thousands of years, honing their ‘puppy dog eyes’ to dupe us (and our kids) into handing over tasty treats.
Every time your pet successfully steals or begs for food, they are rewarded, and this strengthens the unwanted behaviour.1 That’s why it’s important to take preventative measures and to train your pet – and your whole family – to help stop your pet from eating foods they shouldn’t.
Sally Cory, Head of Veterinary Services Companion Animals at the New Zealand Veterinary Association, says it’s about staying vigilant.
Tips to prevent your pet from stealing food
Talk to your family about food safety around pets
Our pets’ clever noses can sniff out tasty morsels. From half-eaten snacks in kids’ bedrooms to a lunchbox left on the floor, it’s vital that the whole family is vigilant about leftover food.
“Children and teenagers may leave half-empty plates and things in their rooms or in lunchboxes. That’s quite a common occurrence,” explains Sally.
“We’ve had lots of scenarios where the dog gets hold of a mouldy sandwich that was under the bed – I’ve seen that one far too many times – or food wrappers left in bedrooms.”
Eating mouldy food can cause vomiting, muscle tremors and seizures in your pet; in many cases, they’ll need immediate emergency veterinary treatment.2 Talk to your family about the importance of making sure food isn’t left in bedrooms or lunchboxes.
Keep an eye on young children when they’re having snacks and meals. A moment of distraction, or crumbs left behind, can be a gold mine for opportunistic pets. Try giving your pet a treat or snack at the same time so they’ve got their own (pet-safe) food to keep them distracted. Frozen treats or food puzzles are a good way to engage your fur baby’s natural behaviours – and keep them busy for longer.
If messy eating is inevitable, you might want to remove your pet from the room altogether while the family is eating.
It’s also a good idea to train your pet to not go hunting for that sneaky plate of food left on the coffee table. Make sure you read Mark Vette’s tips on how you can do this to make things easier & safer for the whole family.
Dispose of food carefully
“Be really careful around disposing food,” says Sally, “Dogs, and cats to a certain extent, are really good at getting into the garbage. It’s about making sure that rubbish bins are secured, that rubbish bags are tied and disposed of correctly, that bins can’t be knocked over and that sort of thing.”
Sally adds that home composting bins should be secured and kept well away from pets, too; “pets getting into the compost could be disastrous.”
Rotting or composting food waste and things like fruit stones (for example, from peaches, plums and avocadoes) can cause illness if eaten by your pet.
Leftovers on plates can also be a hazard. Leftover pizza, for example, can contain foods toxic to pets, like onions and garlic. Even if it isn’t visible on the food item, it can be hidden in sauces. Dispose of leftovers promptly, and don’t leave dirty plates stacked on benchtops, beside the sink, or anywhere a sneaky fur baby could jump up and lick them ‘clean’.
Be smart about food storage
Some pets are surprisingly smart when it comes to getting what they want. Our customers have told us stories of their cat eating Nerf gun pellets – twice – and a dog who went to great lengths to eat chocolate.
Careful food storage is another line of defence when stopping your pet from scrounging food. Remember that many pets can climb, jump, open cupboards and boxes, and even rip open packaging.
“Kiddie locks that you can get on bins and add on cupboards are really good at keeping pets out too,” says Sally, “pets can be pretty good at opening cupboards and things like that, especially if there’s a reward on the other side.”
Carefully store all food – including your pet’s food – in sealed containers and out of the way on high shelves or locked cupboards where possible. Medication, whether for pets or for humans, should also be kept securely.
Sally adds that holidays like Easter and Christmas can be “more fun for the dog than the small humans.”
“It’s not uncommon for chocolate to be wrapped up as a gift at Christmas time and then that’s put under the tree. It doesn’t take long for the dog to sniff that out.”
Keep your eyes peeled: preventing pets from eating things they shouldn’t
“Always presume the worst when there are pets around! They’re always going to eat it until proven otherwise. It’s about being careful and not leaving anything within access,” says Sally.
Pets eating things they shouldn’t is also a problem outside of the home. If your pet is a known greedy gut, it might be safer to keep your cat indoors or to consider putting a basket muzzle on your dog when taking them for a walk. Sometimes, you might need to think outside of the box to prevent your pet from eating things they shouldn’t.
Sally gives the example of mouldy bread left for ducks in the park being a problem for some pets who just can’t help themselves.
“If you have a wilful dog who continually manages to get to things when you’re out for a walk, you could put a loose basket muzzle on them just so they can’t pick things up as easily. It’s not something I’d advocate for every dog, but if used correctly, it can be quite helpful.”
Remember, if you think your pet has eaten something they shouldn’t have and are showing signs of illness or distress, contact your veterinarian immediately.
1 Dog Training Nation, My dog steals food from children, Fanna Easter, accessed April 2023, https://www.dogtrainingnation.com/dog-behavior-2/how-to-keep-dog-from-stealing-food/
2 Dr Alex Hynes, Can eating mouldy food harm my pet?, accessed April 2023, https://dralexhynes.com.au/can-eating-mouldy-food-harm-my-pet/