Like humans, it's not unusual for a dog to lose its appetite once in a while. But if your dog is refusing to eat, it could be a sign of a deeper problem. Any sudden loss of appetite that is out of character for your dog and lasts longer than a meal or two requires veterinary attention—sooner if your puppy acts sick.
We break down the reasons that puppies sometimes refuse to eat and how to know when it's time to seek a veterinarian's assistance.
Why Do Puppies Refuse to Eat?
Anorexia—or loss of appetite—may be abrupt, with your pup suddenly refusing to eat, or gradual, so that it's eating less over time. A number of factors can contribute to your puppy's anorexia.
Young puppies have smaller fat reserves than adult dogs and can’t go without food longer than about 12 hours before needing medical help. Toy breed puppies are particularly prone to potentially deadly drops in blood sugar (hypoglycemia) if they skip a meal.
Some finicky pups develop preferences for certain foods and refuse to eat anything else. When you give in and feed your puppy its desired food, you've taught it how to get its way. If your vet has confirmed that your puppy is otherwise healthy, practicing “tough puppy love” may convince it to eat your choice of food during scheduled feedings.
Stress and High Temperatures
Stress can suppress your pet's desire to eat; being left at the kennel or change in an owner's work schedule that results in separation anxiety can suppress the dog's appetite as well. Just the stress of household visitors could prompt anorexia. High outdoor temperatures can also kill a pet's appetite.
Illnesses, Parasites, and Teething
Anorexia is one of the most common signs of illness in dogs and can occur in conjunction with a fever if an infection is present. Life-threatening viral infections, such as parvovirus, will cause anorexia. Distemper and other less severe infections such as an upper respiratory infection or intestinal parasites will also cause anorexia. Even a sore mouth from teething can make a pup reluctant to eat. Other times, an ingested foreign body (like a swallowed toy or piece of trash) can cause abdominal pain and result in a puppy not wanting to eat.
If your dog's anorexia lasts for more than a few meals, be sure to have your veterinarian rule out any illnesses before trying any techniques to coax your puppy to eat.
How to Stop Anorexia
You’ll need a diagnosis from your veterinarian to figure out why your puppy has stopped eating. If your vet rules out illness, it’s often OK to tempt your puppy with bland, vet-approved healthy people food and employ other techniques to encourage it to eat.
- Offer wholesome tidbits like a sliver of lean beef or chicken. This will also help you decide if your puppy is just being finicky or really has a problem that needs veterinary attention.
- Stimulate your puppy's appetite with pungent-smelling foods that may make eating more attractive. Liverwurst and peanut butter are common favorites.
- Give your puppy meat-based baby food, which is palatable to most puppies and easier to eat with a sore mount.
- Add warm water or no-salt chicken broth to dry foods to make a slurry in the blender.
- Warm up your puppy's food by zapping it in the microwave for 10 seconds or so, which can unlock the food's aroma and pique your pup’s appetite.
- Spike your puppy's regular food with yogurt or cottage cheese for another good way to tempt your dog to eat or offer a small amount of a stinky canned product with high meat or fat content.
- Mix some dry cat food with your pup’s food if you have a cat. The aroma and higher protein content of cat food are very appealing to most dogs.
- Try hand-feeding your reluctant pup.
- Offer your reluctant eater a small amount of food, and when it's had its fill or refuses to eat, take the food away and try again an hour later. Leaving food out for a reluctant eater for long periods may overwhelm the appetite centers in the brain, which may kill any appetite your puppy has left.
- Utilize a little behavior modification if your veterinarian has ruled out a health issue and your puppy is turning its nose up at even the tastiest foods. Cut back on treats (as with kids, treats tend to spoil a puppy's appetite for meals) and stick to your dog's regular feeding schedule.
- Buy a new food dish or move the old one to a new location, which might make it a little more interesting; you might even try using a food dispenser that your pup can partially control.
- Take your dog for a walk or engage in another type of exercise with it before mealtimes if its appetite still isn't what you'd like it to be.
- Talk to your veterinarian if your puppy's case is severe. She may recommend drugs to help stimulate its appetite, depending on the diagnosis.
- Seek veterinary attention immediately if your puppy shows signs of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), such as a drunken-type gait, weakness, and occasional seizures. In the meantime, if it appears weak, you might try boosting its low blood sugar by applying something sweet to its gums, such as a very small amount of pasteurized honey or Karo syrup.
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Helping the Dog Who Wont Eat Enough. Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University
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Burton, A. et al. Risk Factors for Death in Dogs Treated for Esophageal Foreign Body Obstruction: A Retrospective Cohort Study of 222 Cases (1998-2017), doi:10.1111/jvim.14849