Reasons for Food Aggression

By: Jennifer Posern, LVT

El Paso, TX

Published October 2015

Why Pets Show Aggressive Behavior

Thinking about aggressive behavior in pets reminds me of a conversation I had with my dad as a child.

Me: “Daddy, does that dog bite?”

Dad: “Honey, if he’s got teeth, he’ll bite.”

That’s painting with a broad brush, but there is an element of truth to it. Any pet that has teeth is capable of biting; the real question is “How likely are they to bite?” or “In what situation are they likely to bite?” While you may not be able to predict with 100-percent certainty when aggression will arise, it is good to be aware of which situations make a pet feel as though biting is their only option. There are no pets that are aggressive all the time; all dogs wag their tails sometimes, and all cats purr sometimes. Pets who show aggression have a reason for doing so; they may be afraid, protective, hurt or in pain. As owners and veterinary professionals, it is our job to figure out the reason and address it.

Solutions for Food Aggression

One of the most common aggressive behavior complaints by owners is food aggression. Many pets are protective of their food. To pets, food is not confined to what is served to them in their bowl. It may mean the sandwich you just dropped, the cracker in your toddler’s hand or the garbage they’ve strewn all over the yard.

Although it is clear that food plays a role in food aggression, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason for food aggression. It is often seen in pets adopted from shelters, and one theory is that they have had to fight for food at some point during their lives and cannot break the habit. Multi-pet households also see a lot of food aggression, and competition for food is usually the cause. With the presence of food aggression, the most constructive step to take is to search for a solution.

It is possible to train a dog out of food aggression, but it is time-consuming and often requires expert help. Some pet owners may not be able to accomplish this, but I encourage them to seek advice and try. If training the problem away isn’t an option, a less time-consuming alternative is to work around the situation and to avoid provoking food aggression. Here are some suggestions for avoiding food aggression:

  • Make sure everyone in the household, especially children, knows that the pet should be left alone while they are eating or having a chew treat.
  • Try feeding your pet in a crate or another room away from others. It’s possible they would feel safer with walls between them and anyone approaching their bowl. This would also keep children out of reach of a pet’s teeth.
  • In multi-pet households, designate a crate or room for each pet.
  • Buy pet-proof trashcans to avoid accessibility to thrown-away items pets may become territorial of.
  • Introduce a rule in your home that all food is eaten at a table (or, for toddlers, in a high chair). While this may make life less convenient at times, it can prevent accidents with dropped food or pets trying to steal food out of children’s hands.
  • Leave the pet alone while it’s eating. Do not try to pet it or stand near the food bowl.

Food aggression is manageable and should be addressed so that your relationship with your pet isn’t strained by aggressive situations. Take steps today to minimize risks and maximize results. Talk to your veterinarian or veterinary staff for advice and then, if necessary, an animal trainer they recommend for further assistance.