Dogs generally aren’t timid eaters. Given the chance, most will gobble up any and everything in sight. So what do you make of it when your normally voracious eater doesn’t touch their food? It can certainly be alarming to see your dog not eating, particularly if the hunger strike goes on for a day or more. But before you begin thinking the worst, take a step back and try to determine why your dog refuses to eat.
There are myriad reasons as to why a dog might lose their appetite, each with different underlying causes and methods of treatment. Here we’ll walk you through each of these potential causes and tell you what to look out for in each. After all, the first step in turning your pet back on to dinner is pinpointing why they stopped eating in the first place.
Anorexia in Dogs
Your dog not eating is actually referred to as anorexia. This lack of appetite may be either full, in which case the dog shows no interest in food or eating. Or it may be partial, where your dog eats some food but not enough to maintain their health. A dog may also show signs of pseudo-anorexia in situations where it wants to eat but is physically unable to do so for a number of reasons.
Don’t let the terminology here confuse you. Anorexia, or appetite loss in dogs, is distinct from the eating disorder anorexia nervosa in humans. So while your dog may be showing signs of anorexia for a number of reasons, a desire to manage their weight is not one of them.
Then why might a dog suddenly lose their appetite or no longer show an interest in food? Anorexia might be a symptom of an underlying medical condition ranging from an upset stomach to more serious illnesses like bacterial infections or cancer. Similarly, a lack of desire to eat might stem from a variety of dental issues that make eating difficult or painful.
Conversely, the anorexia might be caused by environmental factors, like a stressful situation or an anxiety-producing life change. It might also arise from behavioral issues such as bad eating habits or simple pickiness. We’ll cover these various categories in more detail now.
Some common illnesses and medical conditions causing anorexia include:
- Upset Stomach
- Dental Issues
- Infection (bacterial, viral, parasitic)
- Cardiovascular disease
- Gastrointestinal disease or blockage
- Endocrine disorder
- Autoimmune disease
- Respiratory illness
- Neurological disease
- Pain (stemming from an injury or an underlying condition such as arthritis or hip dysplasia)
- Addison’s Disease
Because anorexia is a symptom in wide range of illnesses, it may be difficult to pinpoint exactly what is causing your dog not eating. It may be something as relatively minor as an upset stomach resulting from your dog eating something they shouldn’t have (it’s hard to pass up some tasty smelling trash).
Oftentimes, an upset stomach will be accompanied with vomiting and diarrhea as your dog’s body attempts to pass the offending snack or foreign body causing the gastrointestinal issues. This process will usually work itself through in a matter of days, although veterinary care may be sought if the symptoms persist longer.
Unfortunately, abstaining from food may also be a symptom of a number of more serious illnesses. These may not be easily diagnosed without the eye of a professional, although some conditions are more readily discernible than others. Intense scratching accompanied by skin lesions and scales, for instance, would indicate a loss of appetite as a result of a bacterial infection. Swollen or bleeding gums, on the other hand, would point to a dental issue such as gingivitis, periodontal disease, or an oral tumor.
Other illnesses, however, may be less obvious (like Addison’s Disease). For this reason, it is important that you pay attention to all the symptoms your pet is exhibiting and communicate those to your vet. This, along with a full physical examination, will help your veterinarian pinpoint and treat the underlying issue causing the appetite loss.
Remedies for an Upset Stomach
If your pet is suffering from a stress-induced upset stomach or from something they ate, there are a number of natural remedies you can try. These home remedies will help soothe stomach pain and entice your dog to eat.
Our aim here has of course been to encourage anorexic dogs to eat. There are times, however, when taking a short fast is actually beneficial to your dog’s health. Stomach irritation causes discomfort in the gastrointestinal system and makes it difficult to digest food. So giving your dog pet food that has to be digested by the already-inflamed GI tract doesn’t do much to help the system recover.
To allow your pup’s upset stomach to right itself, try withholding food for a period of 12-24 hours. Just be sure to keep them hydrated during this time. If they’re not enthusiastic about drinking on their own, give them some ice cubes or ice chips. The food-like crunch will be more satisfying to your dog while still being hydrating.
Another great option to soothe an upset stomach while providing hydration is a bone broth. You can prepare this ahead of time and freeze it in ice cubes to give to your dog when they’re sick. Simmer a whole chicken in a solution of water and apple cider vinegar in a crockpot until the meat falls off the bone. This will allow all the marrow and mineral goodness in the bones to release into the broth.
The powers of ginger in supporting digestive health are well-known. In addition to alleviating an upset stomach, ginger’s anti-inflammatory properties can help fight nausea, bloat, and arthritis. As a powder, pill, tincture, tea, or raw root, you can choose how to best administer ginger to your pup.
As with any remedy, even natural ones, always consult with your veterinarian before self-administering. Ginger should not be given to dogs on aspirin or those undergoing surgery, as it can cause the blood to thin.
Another trick holistic vets swear by is canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix!) to ease indigestion. Pumpkin’s low glycemic index allows it to slowly absorb in the body, aiding with digestion and stomach pain. As a fiber-rich prebiotic food, pumpkin also helps with both diarrhea and constipation.
There are a number of herbs that may be given to your dog as teas, tinctures, and powders to alleviate an upset stomach. Soothing herbs like chamomile, aloe vera, and nettle provide relief and promote healthy gut health. Anti-inflammatory herbs such as goldenseal, dandelion, and cornsilk reduce painful inflammation and support the immune system.
While some herbs are safe enough to be given as supplements every day, others are toxic in large quantities and should only be used as short-term treatments. Consult with a holistic veterinarian to determine what herbs are best for your dog and how to safely administer them.
While most dogs experience an upset stomach from time to time, repeated problems could indicate that there is something amiss with their gastrointestinal tract. Talk to your veterinarian and try switching your dog over to foods that will be less irritating.
Meats like beef, buffalo, and fish are less likely to cause inflammation than meat like lamb, chicken, and venison. Also avoid foods containing grains like corn, rice, wheat, and soy. Look instead for low glycemic foods like millet, which take more time to digest.
If you suspect that your pet’s upset stomach is the result of eating something poisonous, contact your vet immediately. The Pet Poison Helpline is also available to call 24 hours a day. The service helps dog owners identify common signs and symptoms of different poisons, as well as toxicity levels and proper care.
An upset stomach isn’t always a symptom of an underlying medical condition. Sometimes it’s simply a manifestation of a stressor in your dog’s life. Environmental causes are any external factors that may be causing your dog to experience a loss of appetite. These often arise during or after your dog has undergone a stressful situation. This might include a new addition to the family, a move to a new house, extended travel, or separation anxiety. Even something seemingly benign as a change in routine or a new environment may trigger stress.
If your pet is feeling uncomfortable or stressed out in their environment, that anxiousness may very likely inhibit their appetite. Dogs are, after all, creatures of habit and can often feel nervous or uncomfortable when faced with change.
The physical environment in which meal time occurs may come into play here as well. For example, if you feed your dog around other dogs, particularly aggressive ones, they may feel anxiety around meal time. Dogs can also develop anxious behaviors and bad habits stemming from such associations.
This is especially true for those that lived in shelters or other crowded environments around food-aggressive dogs. Being growled or snapped at and having to fight for your food isn’t exactly conducive to developing healthy eating habits.
Anorexia may also be the result of a number of different behavioral issues. Sometimes, this may boil down to sheer pickiness. Like humans, dogs develop certain taste preferences over time, sticking to foods they enjoy and avoiding those they don’t. If you’ve recently switched dry dog food brands or flavors, your dog may take a while to warm up to the change.
Conversely, your pup may become bored with their current kibble and begin fasting in protest. Dogs can also become turned off from their food after becoming accustomed to receiving table scraps. Likewise, feeding excessive treats throughout the day will cause your dog to lose interest in their food come dinner time.
Treating Anorexia in Dogs
How you go about stimulating your pet’s appetite will depend on the underlying cause of their anorexia. We’ll look separately at different solutions for each category – illness, environmental, and behavioral.
Solutions for Illness-Induced Anorexia
While most dogs can typically go several days not eating without any major adverse side effects, you should contact your veterinarian after 24 hours of your dog not eating. You’ll want to consult your vet even earlier for puppies and dogs with known medical conditions.
In more extreme cases where a dog hasn’t eaten for two or three days, your vet might resort to syringe-feeding or inserting a feeding tube. If necessary, intravenous or subcutaneous fluid therapy and electrolytes can also be given to rehydrate the dog.
Once you treat the underlying medical condition, your dog’s appetite should return in the following day or two. Depending on the afflicting illness, your vet might put your pet on a prescription diet during treatment.
Once your dog’s condition is stabilized, a refeeding program may be recommended to ease them back into their regular diet. This typically consists of bland foods, such as boiled chicken and white rice, fed in small portions two to three times a day.
There are a few tricks you can try to entice your pup if they don’t seem to have recovered their full appetite. Try pouring a little bit of warm chicken or vegetable broth over their food to make the aroma a bit more appetizing.
Or do the same with a little wet food, mixing it into their regular food to encourage eating. If required, your vet can prescribe an appetite stimulant such as mirtazapine.
The gastrointestinal tract is often sensitive following a period of illness or fasting. It is therefore important to follow your veterinarian’s feeding instructions and closely monitor your dog’s eating habits, bowel movements, and general behavior.
If your pup’s appetite is still non-existent 24-48 hours post-treatment, be sure to let your vet know right away.
Solutions for Environmental-Induced Anorexia
A dog may find itself in a stressful environment and too anxious to eat. When this happens, the best thing you can do is to create a safe, peaceful space free of stress and distractions. Set up a regular routine for feeding and walking times and try to stick to that schedule as much as possible. Creating a predictable routine will foster a sense of structure and security that your dog can rely on.
If you’ve noticed that your dog experiences high levels of stress during travel, try to limit the frequency and/or duration of trips. For example, rather than taking your pet to a kennel when you go out of town, arrange to have them watched in the safety and comfort of their own home instead.
When introducing your pet to other novel experiences – a new pet, say – easing them into it is the way to go. A gradual introduction will allow your dog to become acclimated to the new animal in stages. This will greatly reduce the amount of stress for all involved.
Feeding your dog with other dogs or pets in the same space may encourage aggressive behavior that can lead to anxiety and ultimately anorexia. Try feeding your dog instead in a quiet place where they are away from other pets. That way they can enjoy meal time without distractions or the stress of having to share.
Solutions for Behavioral-Related Anorexia
Your dog’s lack of interest in dinner might stem from a variety of behavioral issues. If this is the case, chances are your pup has developed a few learned bad habits from you. Pets that are used to receiving endless treats throughout the day or table scraps with every meal often acquire a preferred taste for such foods over their own.
In addition to creating a fussy eater, feeding too many treats or table food causes weight gain and obesity. Furthermore, a scraps-and-treats-based diet fails to provide your pet with the proper nutrition.
To get your dog back on track, ration out treats prudently and cut out those table scraps. Provide your dog with two measured meals a day at regular times (three to four times a day for puppies). Give your pup a window of time to finish their meal before taking the bowl away, even if it’s unfinished.
This will teach your dog to eat regularly at prescribed times, getting them into the rhythm of a schedule. Save your praise for when your dog finishes their food. If a dog learns that you will fawn over them for not eating their food, they’ll continue to do so in a bid for more attention.
For a Bored or Picky Eater
If your dog is bored with their current food or just plain picky, try switching it up. You can swap flavors or brands but be sure to make the transition gradually. Mix the old food with the new. Over time, slowly weed out the old food until your pet is eating only the new.
You can also try using the chicken stock or canned food trick to make their dry kibble a bit more appetizing. Either way, be sure to choose a high-quality, well-balanced food that will provide your pup with plenty of protein and all the essential vitamins and minerals.
Always check food to ensure that it isn’t spoiled or past the due date. Wet food particularly is apt to go rancid and should be eaten immediately. Any canned food that your dog leaves in their bowl should be thrown out after four hours. Opened cans of wet food can be stored in the refrigerator for up to five to seven days.
Another tip to get your dog eating is to schedule a long walk right before meal time. This will stimulate your dog’s appetite and encourage them to make the association between a walk and dinner. You can also help your dog associate feeding time with a positive experience by making it more fun.
Try putting some kibble in a food-dispensing toy and watch your dog go crazy. The added bonus of inducing mental and physical stimulation helps keep your pup active and mentally sharp.
If all else fails, enlist the help of a board-certified veterinary behaviorist to work with you on finding a solution that addresses your dog’s behavioral issues and gets them eating again.
The sight of a bowl of untouched food can cause concern and frustration. But before you freak out and begin miming eating motions to your dog, take a step back and put your deductive cap on. Closely observe your dog and their behavior to try to determine why they’re not eating. Because anorexia is such a wide-ranging symptom, it can be difficult to assess what exactly is going on.
Being aware of your dog’s normal behavior and typical habits will help you tremendously when determining if something’s amiss with their health. Likewise, being vigilant about any potential environmental stressors can help you determine whether your pup’s loss of appetite is stress-induced. Maintaining a level of self-awareness (for instance, asking yourself Do I maybe overdo it with the treats?) will help you ascertain if you might be feeding your dog’s bad eating habits.
Once you’ve figured out the root cause of your dog’s loss of appetite, you’ll be able to take the appropriate steps to address it. With the proper treatment, a few tricks, and a lot of patience, your four-legged friend should regain their appetite in no time. Now if you could just keep them from eating out of the trash…