What to Do if Your Dog Isn't Eating

Maltese refusing to eat bowl of dry dog food.

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Dogs are usually very food motivated so if your dog stops eating, it is natural to be a little concerned. Knowing why a dog has stopped eating, if and how you should force it to eat, and when you should be concerned is important to understand as a pet owner.

What Is Anorexia in Dogs?

Anorexia is the lack of an appetite or reluctance to want to eat. People usually associate this term with anorexia nervosa which is an eating disorder in people but anorexia simply occurs when a dog refuses to eat.

Reasons Why a Dog Stops Eating

There are a number of reasons why a dog may refuse to eat. Some reasons can be due to behavior but other, more serious issues, can result from a disease or problem with your dog.

  • Behavioral: Some dogs become picky eaters after being spoiled by well-intentioned dog owners and refuse to eat unless they get what they want. Regular changes in the pet food you are feeding, lots of treats, and spoiling with table foods can cause behavioral issues resulting in anorexia.
  • Disease: Any time a dog doesn't feel well due to an illness or disease it may not want to eat. Liver and kidney disease, respiratory disease resulting in breathing issues, cancer, and other problems may all cause a dog to stop eating. Lethargy and other symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea are also often present alongside anorexia in a sick dog.
  • Pain: Pain can be a result of an injury or disease but can cause a dog to stop eating. Neck pain, mouth pain, abdominal discomfort, and other things that cause a dog to hurt can make it reluctant to want to bend its head down and chew food.
  • Dental issues: Broken teeth, periodontal disease, and even a stick stuck in the roof of the mouth of a dog can result in anorexia in your dog.
  • Environmental changes: If your dog is stressed or fearful because a new puppy or person in the household, in a new environment, or because of home construction and other environmental changes, it may refuse to eat.
  • Side effects: Medications that your dog may be taking may cause it to not want to eat. Discuss this with your veterinarian to see if a dose can be changed or if something else can be done to decrease the side effects. In addition to medications, recent vaccinations can also cause a dog to not feel well and therefore not want to eat.
  • Obstruction: Some dogs eat things like socks, stuffed animals, rocks, and other items that aren't digestible. This can result in an obstruction and make your dog not want to eat.

Ways to Entice a Dog to Eat

If your dog isn't eating, there are a few things you can do to try and entice it to eat at home.

  • Warm up your dog's food for a few seconds in the microwave
  • Offer baby food, either jars of puree or meat sticks
  • Feed a bland diet of cooked rice, pasta, chicken, or turkey
  • Use canned or pouch dog food instead of dry dog food
  • Mix sodium-free chicken broth or water into your dog's food
  • Put your dog's food on a plate that a person would eat off of
  • Put your dog's food on the floor instead of in a dog bowl
  • Sprinkle some cheese or a little peanut butter on the food
  • Try a different flavor of dog food

Different options may work better then others for your dog and could depend on the cause of your dog's anorexia. Softer foods may be more enticing to a dog with dental issues, different flavors and warmed food may be more appealing to a dog that cannot smell well due to respiratory issues, and additives like cheese may help a picky eater.

Should You Force Feed Your Dog?

If a dog is losing weight, your veterinarian may instruct you to force feed or provide assisted feeding to your dog. Watered down canned food or special formulations can be used to syringe food into a dog's mouth but this must be done slowly. If force fed too quickly or if your dog refuses to swallow the food, it could aspirate resulting in food going into the airway instead of the esophagus.

When to Contact Your Vet if Your Dog Isn't Eating

If your dog is refusing to eat but acting normally otherwise, continue offering food and monitor your dog for any other changes for a day or so. If the anorexia continues or if your dog starts losing weight, is not acting normally, is vomiting, has diarrhea, or you notice any other changes in your dog, contact your veterinarian. Alongside a physical examination, X-rays, blood screening, and other tests may need to be run to determine the cause of your dog's anorexia.