Why Does My Dog Push His Food With His Nose? (We Asked A Veterinarian)

young yellow lab pushing food around with his nose
<a href="https://notabully.org/author/joseph-menicucci-dvm" target="_blank" rel="noopener">     <span style="font-size: 21px; color: black;">Fact Checked & Reviewed By: </span>     <strong style="font-size: 20px; color: black;">Dr. Joseph Menicucci, DVM </strong> </a>

Dr. Menicucci is a Colorado-based veterinarian with well over a decade of clinical experience.

<a href="https://notabully.org/author/joseph-menicucci-dvm" target="_blank" rel="noopener">     <span style="font-size: 21px; color: black;">Fact Checked & Reviewed By: </span>     <strong style="font-size: 20px; color: black;">Dr. Joseph Menicucci, DVM </strong> </a>

Dr. Menicucci is a Colorado-based veterinarian with well over a decade of clinical experience.

Our furry friends have many quirks. Many of the funny behaviors that are associated with food can be explained or at least linked to something. Since food is so important, there’s usually a good reason why a dog is acting funny with it, including dogs that like to push their food around with their nose.

Most of the time, this behavior is rooted in instinct but can be modified or influenced by the dog’s current environment and past experiences. Veterinarian Joseph Menicucci explains that wild dogs instinctively use their noses to forage for food and push away brush. Even though this isn’t required for our domestic dogs, they still may engage in this behavior.

Additionally, dogs could be enjoying the smell of their food, trying to stash it for later, or could even be suffering from dental issues. 

We’ll review each possible explanation and help you understand which one best explains your dog’s behavior. Let’s get started!

Reason 1: It’s Instinctual

Dogs have plenty of instinctual behaviors that we can still observe today.

While many of our domesticated friends are far from their wolf ancestors, they still have traits that can only be explained through genetics. In the wild dogs and wolves use their noses to dig into prey or push around plants and debris when foraging.  Their noses helped their hunting and also helped them to find the best pieces of prey items.

Dr. Menicucci explains that “a dog that is regularly fed at specific times may show less foraging behavior. On the other hand, a dog that experiences food scarcity or competition with other pets might exhibit more pronounced foraging instincts including nudging their food or bowl with their nose”

However, your dog’s instincts aren’t only limited to foraging, and resource guarding can be a factor as well. Dr. Menicucci explains that “in a multi-pet household or in areas where many other animals are present, a dog might be more inclined to mark territory, including around food areas. In contrast, a single dog in a stable home environment might show less territorial marking behavior.”

I’ve also seen certain breeds engage in this behavior more than others, especially dachshunds and beagles that were bred to keep their noses low to the ground to track a scent.

Reason 2: They’re Trying To Smell Their Meal

Another obvious reason that your dog may push their meal with their nose is that they’re trying to smell their food! Dog noses are super sensory. Compared with humans, dogs have about 294 million more olfactory receptors in their noses. Plus, they have 40 times more space dedicated in their brain to interpreting and remembering scents.

All that smelling power can make a sniff of their favorite food even more enjoyable. On the other hand, they’ll be quick to notice subtle changes if you switch food brands or flavors. Or maybe you started adding supplements or changed the recipes on your dog’s homemade food?  If so, expect your dog to investigate for the first few days.

As we mentioned, dogs explore the world with their noses first.  If they smell something off about their food, they’ll push their snout right into it.  Even if something hasn’t changed, your dog just might really love the smell of their food and likes to put their nose right into it,

Reason 3: They Might Be Stashing Their Food For Later

“Caching” is a behavior commonly observed in the animal kingdom. Wild animals will hide and hoard their food and save it for a later time.  In the wild, this makes perfect sense.

Animals might never know when their next meal is coming and need to be prepared in case something goes wrong. When animals cache food, they usually move it from one location to a more secure one.

Dogs that move their food around the floor with their noses may simply have a caching instinct.  They might think their food is safer in one place compared to another.

Your dog might even try to push the food into the carpet or pretend to bury it somewhere.  If your dog is moving their food around and trying to hide it, it’s not a bad thing.  However, food scattered around the house can be annoying and unhygienic so you might want to try to discourage this behavior if possible.

Dr. Menicucci notes that this behavior is less common in domestic dogs compared to wild counterparts where it’s a common behavior. However, if your dog is doing this, you’ll certainly notice even if it takes you a few weeks to find your pup’s hidden food!

Reason 4: They Could Have Dental Issues

One of the more alarming reasons your dog pushes their food or bowl with their nose is that they have underlying dental issues.  They might smell their food and move it around but won’t be able to pick the food up and chew it.

Dr. Menicucci expands on this by explaining “Dental pain or discomfort can make it difficult for dogs to eat normally, leading them to push their food around. This highlights the importance of regular dental check-ups for dogs.”

If they’re very hungry they might even use their nose to try and smash their food into smaller pieces and make it easier to chew.

Unfortunately, dental disease in dogs is more common than you might think.  Dogs can have all sorts of dental issues including abscesses, fractures teeth, and gum disease. These issues might cause a dog to avoid eating. It can be hard to tell if your dog has any dental problems, especially if they don’t want you near their mouth.

If you suspect that your dog may have some dental problems, the best thing that you can do is take them to the veterinarian.

Reason 5: They Might Have Difficulty Seeing

This one is much less likely but still worth mentioning, especially if your dog’s bowl is in an unusual location.

If a dog has difficulty seeing, it’ll start to rely on its other senses much more.  Obviously blind dogs rely on their sense of hearing to help them navigate the world.  But they use their noses as much as or more than their ears.

Your dog may not be able to see their food, but they can sure smell it!

By pushing their nose into their food bowl they can tell what kind of food they have and if it’s safe to eat it without even looking. However, if your dog is losing vision, you’ll likely notice several other behavior changes before they start nudging their bowl. But if your dog’s bowl is in a dark laundry room or some corner of the house, you may be testing your pup’s vision.

Reason 6: They’re Just Playing With Their Food

Now, for a less serious explanation!  If you have a puppy or juvenile dog, they might push their food bowl around because they’re being playful.

Puppies need to play.  If you’ve ever had one in your house, you know that they’re not picky about what they play with.  They might choose to play with something like a shoe or the carpet!  If they’re in a mood, they might push their kibble around just to get a reaction.

If your puppy is spreading and pushing their food around, don’t worry.  Odds are, they’ll grow out of this juvenile behavior soon.

Reason 7: They’re Being Picky

Even though dogs are animals, they can be very picky.

Does your dog have strong preferences for food?  I know mine does!  If I don’t give him the right amount of wet food on top of his kibble, he might not eat all day!  He’ll eat eventually but he definitely lets me know what his preference is.  Usually, when this happens, he’ll go to his bowl and sniff around but won’t actually eat anything.

If you have a picky eater you can try to figure out what’s in their food that they don’t like.  You might notice them using their nose to move certain pieces out of the way.  Dealing with picky eaters can be tricky but it’s definitely not impossible!

Should You Be Worried?

For the most part, there’s no need to worry about your dog pushing food with their nose. Unless you think they could be experiencing vision or dental problems, this behavior is natural.

Smelling is one of the ways that dogs even know that their food is actually food! In fact, when dogs use their noses to get to their food it can be stimulating and good for their brains.

This video shows how a puzzle feeder can be used to encourage nose engagement and make mealtimes more entertaining for your dog.

Final Thoughts

Dogs use their noses for so many things throughout the day!

While moving their food around might seem a little strange, it’s pretty normal. Your dog may just be following their instincts and trying to cache away food.  They could be playing or feeling picky.

In some instances, your furry friend might be suffering from dental pain or vision loss.  In that case, you’ll want to make a trip to the vet.  Otherwise, you can just enjoy watching your pet do their weird thing!

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