Why Won’t My Dog Eat?
By Chyrle Bonk, DVM October 24, 2019
For some dogs, food is the way to their heart, while others would prefer to watch their figure. No matter which kind of dog you have, not eating can be a sign that something is wrong, even just a small decrease in appetite can indicate an underlying issue. That being said, there are many reasons for anorexia, or not eating, so let’s look at what those are and when you should be concerned.
Why Won’t My Dog Eat?
The reasons why a dog won’t eat can be related to health issues such as illness, dental problems, or pain. It can also be due to behavioral troubles like stress or pickiness. Or it can simply be due to eating food from other sources that you are unaware of.
Before we dive into why your dog isn’t eating, you first need to determine if that’s indeed true. While it may seem fairly obvious that your dog is or isn’t eating, they can sometimes be sneaky, and it may take a little investigation on your part to find out. First of all, if you have a new pup that is not eating the recommended portion on the dog food label, then be aware that these amounts are averages. Some dogs are going to eat less. If your dog is maintaining a healthy weight and otherwise happy, they just may be the one that needs less food per day.
Sometimes you may notice that your dog’s dish contain leftover breakfast kibble in the middle of the afternoon. Before you panic, make sure that they aren’t sneaking food elsewhere, say the cat’s food bowl or under the table for example. Most dogs will leave their normal kibble if something tastier is available, even if the food is harder to get to.
Reasons Why a Dog Won’t Eat
Once you’ve determined that your pup isn’t sneaking food from other sources, and that they are truly eating less or not at all, it’s time to get to the bottom of it. Most often, not eating won’t be your only clue that something is wrong with your pup. In the case of illness or pain, they may also be lethargic or have a fever. If your dog is stressed and not eating, they may also be clingy or jumpy. Let’s sort out the reasons why your dog might not be eating.
There are many illnesses that could cause anorexia or partial anorexia. Some are mild, like a vaccination reaction, and others are more severe, like cancer or kidney failure. Illnesses are typically accompanied by other signs as well like lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever.
- Dental disease
Since teeth are a major component of the eating process, anything out of the ordinary with them can cause your pup to stop eating. Broken or abscessed teeth, gingivitis, foreign objects in the mouth, or even cuts and scrapes to the gums, cheeks, or tongue can turn a dog off of food for awhile.
Not just pain in the mouth, but pain in other areas as well. I once had a dog that quit eating because he had a neck injury. It turned out that he didn’t want to bend his head down to reach the food bowl. Pain from arthritis can also make it uncomfortable to stand or lay at the food dish. Dogs in pain are typically not active dogs, so that might help clue you in as well.
Whether it’s a move, new pet, new baby, or an annoying neighbor dog, any environmental changes can stress our best friends out to the point they might stop eating. Maybe the food bowl got moved near the water heater and the noise scares them or you happen to feed around the same time of day that the mail arrives and visitors make your pup nervous. With stress induced anorexia, you will more than likely notice other signs such as nervous pacing, jumpiness, or agitation.
Vaccinations work by activating the immune system with modified versions of the bugs that they’re protecting against. Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? It is, and your pup may feel the effects of the vaccination and not want to eat that day or maybe even the day after getting vaccinated.
Let’s face it, some dogs have delicate appetites. To put it mildly, some prefer a flavor change every once in awhile. You’re going to know if your dog is one of these since they typically eat people food and treats but not their kibble.
Let’s put all of these reasons into context with a few examples of when a dog isn’t eating and what the possible causes could be.
- My dog won’t eat but drinks water
This could be a case of pickiness, they simply don’t like their dog food. These pups will probably still eat treats and people food though. Another reason they might not eat but still drink is due to vaccinations or the beginning of an illness. Often when your dog is feeling mildly uncomfortable they might not put the effort into eating but still drink. This is because it takes a lot more energy to eat and digest food than it does to lap water. Moreover, dental disease may keep your dog from eating since it’s uncomfortable and drinking water doesn’t bother sore teeth and gums.
- My dog won’t eat and is acting normal
As we discussed above, most of the time if dogs are sick and not eating you’ll see other signs as well. This may not be the case of an early onset of an illness. Sometimes a little stomach upset will make your pup to turn away from food, but they still feel ready for a four mile run because eating actually makes their stomach feel worse. Pickiness is another factor that can cause your pup to behave completely normal but not want to eat their dog food. Dogs with dental disease usually act normal until they try to eat. You may notice that your pup has trouble chewing and then just refuses to try altogether.
- My dog won’t eat dog food but will eat treats
This is definitely a sign of a picky eater. If you had the choice between salad or a candy bar, which would you choose? I think most of us would grab the candy bar and run. Similar to what a picky dog is thinking. Treats are often more flavorful and tasty, that’s why they will eat treats. The same thinking applies to dogs that are just coming down with an illness. They will still nab a treat if given the chance, but ignore their full dish of food. Dogs that are stressed may still eat treats because treats usually equal attention. However, sometimes the best remedy for stress is a little one-on-one time.
- My dog won’t eat their dog food
All of the above reasons could be behind this one. Picky eaters may want something different, stressed dogs just want another outlet, and sick dogs either don’t feel like eating or it makes them feel worse when they do eat. Dogs with food sensitivities or allergies sometimes figure out pretty quickly that their vomiting happens every time they eat their kibble, so they decide to eat only the canned food instead.
When to Worry About a Dog Not Eating
If your pup skips a meal here or there, it’s usually not a big deal. Not eating becomes an issue when it goes on for more than 48 hours or if they start skipping meals more than once or twice a week. As a general rule, healthy dogs can go 5-10 days without eating as long as they’re drinking normally. That’s a long time! Most of us aren’t comfortable with that kind of time span, hence the 48 hours. If you notice other signs along with the not eating, such as lethargy, fever, behavioral changes, vomiting, or diarrhea, you should take your pup to see a vet sooner rather than later.
As far as skipping meals more than once or twice a week, this generally is unnoticed until your pup starts losing weight or starts to exhibit other signs of illness. Chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, or kidney disease may show up as intermittent or partial anorexia and should be seen by a veterinarian. Dental disease may also cause your pup to not eat every once in awhile due to the discomfort chewing food, but eventually they will force themselves to eat once they get hungry enough. Dogs with dental disease may also have a hard time chewing, you may see blood in their water or food bowl, and they usually have some pretty nasty breath to go along with it.
How Can I Help My Dog Eat Again?
The most important thing to do when your dog stops eating is to figure out why. Any underlying illnesses should be treated and any stresses addressed. Once most dogs feel physically, emotionally, and mentally better, they will start eating normally again. For dogs that develop food sensitivities or allergies, you may have to try an elimination diet or a novel protein diet in order to get their appetite back.
For dogs that have had GI issues, it’s usually best to start them off eating a bland diet either of boiled chicken and rice or a commercially available digestive diet. This is to help their digestive tract heal so they’re ready to eat regular food again. These dogs also do better if fed small meals more frequently so as not to overload a healing system.
For picky eaters, you may need to rotate through food. While it’s not usually advised to change your dog’s food with any regularity, most quality brands make a variety of flavors so you can change up the taste without changing too much of the makeup. However, it’s still better to mix foods for a couple of days before completely changing over.
When a pup isn’t eating, we all tend to feel it. The most important thing to remember is to look at the whole picture. Did your dog just get vaccinated? Was there a big change recently that could be stressing them out? Are they showing any other signs of being sick or uncomfortable? Is it just their dog food, or are they refusing everything? Asking yourself these questions will not only help pinpoint the cause of your dog’s anorexia, it will also help you decide your next course of action. If have concerns about your dog not eating, then don’t hesitate to see your veterinarian.