How to Care for Your New Puppy

What to Do When Your Puppy Won't Eat

ways to get your puppy to eat

Illustration: Joshua Seong. © The Spruce, 2018

All pets lose their appetite once in a while, but if your puppy won't eat for more than a day or two, they could die. Some pets are just picky by nature, but healthy pups tend to make up for a missed meal with the next serving. As long as the pet acts like they otherwise feel good, loss of appetite for one or two days isn’t a cause for concern.

Any sudden loss of appetite that lasts more than two days needs medical attention -- sooner if the pet acts sick. Young puppies have less fat and fluid reserves 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. Signs of hypoglycemia are drunken-type gait, weakness, and sometimes seizures. Lift the pup’s lip and put Karo Syrup, honey, or something similar on the gums, and once they're conscious, feed them.

Causes of Anorexia

Anorexia may be abrupt in which your pup suddenly refuses to eat, or gradual where they eat less over the long term. Some finicky pups develop preferences for certain foods and refuse to eat anything else. When you give in and feed the desired ration, you've trained the puppy how to get their own way. If your vet has confirmed your puppy is otherwise healthy, practicing “tough puppy love” may convince them to eat your choice of food when you schedule feedings.

Stress can suppress your pet's appetite; being left at the kennel or the loss of a beloved family member that results in separation anxiety can quell the dog's appetite. Just the stress of a mother-in-law visiting the family could prompt anorexia. High outdoor temperatures can also kill a pet's appetite.

Anorexia is, however, the most common sign of illness in dogs and often occurs in conjunction with a fever. Nearly any illness can cause a puppy to refuse to eat.

Life-threatening diseases such as distemper or parvovirus, parasites, or a sore mouth from ​teething can make the pup reluctant to eat. Even a respiratory infection that stops up the dog's nose can spoil their dinner by ruining their sense of smell and taste.​​​

Tempting Puppy Appetites

If your pet stops eating, you’ll need a diagnosis from the veterinarian to figure out why, but often it’s perfectly legal to tempt their appetite with ​healthy people food.

  • Offer wholesome tidbits like a sliver of lean beef or chicken. That will also help you decide if they're just being finicky, or really has a problem that needs medical attention.
  • Tempt your pet’s appetite with pungent-smelling foods that make the food more palatable. Liverwurst or peanut butter are often favorites.
  • Meat-based baby food is also very palatable for most puppies and easier to eat if the mouth is sore.
  • Try adding warm water or no-salt chicken broth to dry foods to make a slurry in the blender.
  • Warm up the food -- that can unlock the aroma and pique your pup’s appetite. Zap the food in the microwave for ten seconds or so.
  • Spiking a regular ration with yogurt or cottage cheese also is a good way to may tempt your dog's palate, or offer a stinky canned product with high meat/fat content.
  • If you have a cat, mix in some of the dry cat food with the pup’s food. The aroma and higher protein content of cat food can be very appealing.
  • Some reluctant pups will eat if the owner hand-feeds.
  • Leaving food out in front of a reluctant eater for long periods at a time overwhelms and “wears out” the appetite centers in the brain. That will kill any appetite the pet may have left. Instead, offer your reluctant eater a small amount of food, and when he’s had their fill or refuses to eat, take it away and try again an hour later.

    In severe cases, the veterinarian may recommend drugs to help stimulate the appetite. Other times, force-feeding may be recommended with a paste-like diet that’s syringe fed to the pup. In rare cases, the veterinarian may resort to placing a feeding tube directly into the stomach to force-feed the dog.