Dog Not Eating: Potential Causes, Diagnosis & Solutions

by Denise

When your dog won’t eat, the medical term is anorexia. However, this is not the same eating disorder attributed to humans. Anorexia in dogs describes a complete loss of appetite. Is your dog not eating? That means they could be ill, so it is important to seek veterinary care.

Do keep in mind though, that even if your dog isn’t eating as much as the label on the pet food you purchase suggests, they may be perfectly healthy. Many dogs thrive on only 60-70% of what packaging recommends, but that too is a question for your pet’s health professional. Below, we delve into the potential causes, diagnosis, and solutions for a dog not eating.

Why Is My Dog Not Eating

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

Just like with humans, there can be many reasons why a dog will not eat. Only your veterinarian knows for sure, so it is important you communicate with them about this sudden change in your pet’s habits.

We contacted Liz Koskenmaki, DVM from Burbank, California, to find out more about this.

This is a difficult question because every possible illness I have encountered in veterinary medicine can result in a dog not eating: kidney disease, liver disease, hypothyroidism, Addison’s disease, cancer, pain from a spine injury or arthritis, severe allergies, pain from an ear infection, dental disease, etc. Other less pathological issues include anxiety, overfeeding (people complain their dog doesn’t finish his meals or are picky, and yet the dog is overweight), tummy upset from eating something inappropriate and so on.

Liz Koskenmaki

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Media City Animal Hospital

Still, in no particular order, these are 10 of the most common reasons why your dog will not eat:

1. Scent

Dogs were born to sniff, so smell is what attracts your four-legged friend to food. If he doesn’t like the smell or if it has gone rancid, you may have a dog not eating food and instead…turning his nose up at it altogether!

“The percentage of the dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is actually 40 times larger than that of a human! It’s been estimated that dogs can identify smells somewhere between 1,000 to 10,000 times better than nasally challenged humans can,” says Stanley Coren, neuropsychological researcher and writer on the intelligence, mental abilities, and history of dogs. Simply put, if a dog can’t smell it or doesn’t like what he smells, he’s not interested.

2. Upset Stomach

Dogs are curious creatures and eat items not intended for consumption. If something interesting is left on the floor or even a counter or tabletop, your dog may consider it fair game. This can include plants, toys, articles of clothing, rocks, bugs, just about anything.

Eating something he shouldn’t might cause your dog to feel uncomfortable. He may not want to eat until whatever is in his gut has passed through the intestines and out of his body or even vomited up!

Keep dangers out of paws’ reach, and if you suspect your pet has eaten anything sharp, poisonous, or that could be causing a blockage, get him to the veterinary at once!

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

3. Lack of Exercise

You work out, you get hungry. Same goes for your dog. Dogs who exercise daily or who have naturally high energy levels are often more eager to eat than their house-bound, overweight, or older counterparts. If you’re wondering how to get a dog to eat, grab a leash, put on your tennis shoes, and go for a walk together.

Denise Fleck with Bonsai & Haiku. Photo by Paul Fleck.

4. Genes

Some dogs are voracious eaters and don’t come up for air once they dive into their food bowl, yet other dogs sniff, walk away and come back, only picking at their food. You can scratch your head all you want, but how to get a picky dog to eat might be a real challenge when there is no real explanation for his disinterest.

5. Change of Surroundings

Dogs are creatures of habit, so if your pooch accompanied you on a recent trip or cross-country move, or even just came to live with you from a shelter, he may be confused and out of sorts by the change. When surroundings are unfamiliar, dogs act in unpredictable ways, but generally return to normal once they realize that all is okay in their world.

Some dogs get ‘car sick,’ and although they may not actually vomit, their tummies may be queasy during and after a road trip. Giving them ginger snap cookies 20 minutes before a trip often helps ease the discomfort.

6. Weather

Some dogs just aren’t hungry when the weather is hot, but do make sure your pup keeps on drinking so that he doesn’t become dehydrated. When it’s cold, he may crave comfort food (like humans do), but don’t let it pack on the pounds!

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

7. Behaviour Issues

Some dogs are picky, but if the routine has changed due to a new baby or pet joining the family, even dogs with good appetites may not eat. When a pet feels stress or anxiety coming from humans or even the loss of another family pet, they may temporarily lose their appetite.

8. Vaccination

Did your dog just get his annual shots? Vaccinations have saved the lives of millions of pets, yet they have adverse effects on some. Most of the time, the side effect is minor and short-lived, including a temporary loss of appetite. If, however, your dog has trouble breathing, you notice swelling, hives, seizure or collapse, call your veterinarian at once!

9. Dental Issues

Your dog may not want to eat because it hurts to do so! Do you brush his teeth regularly and take a look in his mouth at least once a week? If not, you may be missing the signs of gum disease, a broken tooth or an abscess that may be causing your best pal pain and preventing him from taking in nutrition.

Regular brushing keeps gums healthy. Photo by Denise Fleck.

10. Illness

A decreased or sudden total lack of appetite (aka anorexia) is often a sign of sickness. If your dog is not eating, it may be a symptom of a bigger problem. Take your dog to the veterinarian anytime your gut tells you something is not right or if your dog won’t eat for more than 48 hours.

How to Diagnose Why Dog is Not Eating

Most of the reasons as to why your dog has a loss of appetite can be categorized by food and lifestyle or a medical/behavioral issue.

  • Dry food stays fresh for about 30 days once opened and then loses its appeal or can even turn rancid. Are you buying too much at once?
  • Canned food is only good for 3 days after opening, even in the refrigerator. Are you feeding beyond that time?
  • Did you change your pet’s food recently or could he have gotten into something he should not have?
  • Has something in his lifestyle changed or has the temperature heated up?

“Yes” answers to any of the above could imply that the problem is food or lifestyle related, but if you answered “No” to these questions, there is a possibility of illness.

The first thing anyone should do if their dog isn’t eating normally is to bring their pet in for a veterinary exam. Once the underlying problem is addressed and the dog is feeling better, eating won’t be an issue.

Liz Koskenmaki

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Media City Animal Hospital

At the vet’s office, your dog will be examined and possibly given a CBC (complete blood count), urinalysis, and fecal examination to rule out diseases that affect the taste and smell of foods.

Jennifer Coates, DVM and frequent contributor to PetMD.com, explains: “Conditions such as kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease and liver disorders can reduce the dog’s sense of smell and taste, but any disease that makes a pet feel nauseous or weak can reduce his desire to eat. Most conditions can be identified through some combination of a good physical examination, lab work, and imaging studies (e.g., X-rays or ultrasound).”

What to Do if Dog is Not Eating

Some dogs can go a week without eating [but not without water] with no ill effects, but I have many clients who freak out if their dog only ate half his dinner. They worry about the anorexia (the not eating) instead of what might be causing it.

Liz Koskenmaki

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Media City Animal Hospital

Some dogs won’t eat their meal as they are holding out for treats or other goodies. Ways to get a picky dog to eat include keeping him on a rigid schedule and limiting snacks between meals. Feed your pet twice a day, picking up the food after 10 minutes if he doesn’t eat, and stick to a regular schedule.

Too many treats may prevent your dog from eating his meal. Photo by Denise Fleck.

A dog not eating food may be stressed by another family pet dining in the same vicinity. Make sure you create separate eating areas or stagger feeding times to keep peace in the household.

Pay attention to the little things that mean so much. Practice the Goldilocks Principle by getting things ‘just right’ for your canine. Is your dog’s bowl too big or too small? Does it move around on the floor or rattle when he’s eating? If he has a doggie table, make sure it is the right height for his stature.

Haiku enjoying a good meal at a table suited to his height. Photo by Denise Fleck.

If your dog’s loss of appetite is caused by illness, his doggie doc will likely recommend a diet that will meet his nutritional needs while addressing the underlying problem. Some prescription diets are not tasty, while others must be fed via syringe or in liquid form.

Warming food to your pet’s body temperature (100°F but no higher) or adding a little warm water will enhance its aroma and possibly peak your dog’s interest. This strategy is also useful with senior dogs whose sniffers aren’t as keen as they once were.

Other solutions include offering dinner after an enjoyable walk together, hand feeding portions of the meal, and praising your pup to encourage him to keep on eating.

Coates adds in her PetMD article: “If a dog won’t eat a particular food, try a different brand or formulation. Older dogs (over 7 years of age) may enjoy a senior diet as these foods are made to be more palatable for dogs that may have a reduced sense of smell. You can also try adding small amounts of other foods to encourage him to eat.”

Strong smelling fish oils (Omega 3s), honey, and salt-free chicken broth are good choices. Research continues, but some canine appetites have been boosted by the addition of CBD products to a dog’s daily routine. Talk to your vet to see if hemp oil might be a good fit for your pet.

Conclusion

When your dog is not eating, it could be a simple digestive upset or it may be quite serious. Since dogs don’t choose to go on diets as humans do, dogs don’t stop eating in hopes of dropping a few pounds, so consider anorexia (dog not eating) a symptom of something wrong.

If you haven’t changed your pet’s food or shaken up his lifestyle, you should contact your veterinarian promptly, and take your dog to the clinic for an exam and testing. It’s the best way to ensure he’ll be happy and healthy by your side for years to come.

Have you ever searched on your computer, “why dog is not eating” out of concern for your pet? What were the circumstances, and how did you encourage him to eat? Was a veterinary visit in order? Please share your experience. Every dog is unique, but we can all learn from each other how to be even better dog moms and dads!

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About the Author: Denise

DENISE FLECK is an award-winning author, animal care instructor and radio show host. She was named one of Pet Age Magazine’s “Women of Influence” for 2018, a “Most Inspiring Story” in 2017 by Voyage Atlanta Magazine and has been nominated for 6 Dog Writers Awards to be announced in early 2019.

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