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My Dog is Refusing to Eat – What Should I Do?

Most dogs love their food, so it can be worrying when your pup suddenly turns up their nose at the contents of their bowl. This article will discuss some of the most common reasons for appetite loss in dogs, including what to do with a fussy eater, how much your dog should be eating, and when to be concerned.

Reasons why your dog isn’t eating

There are many reasons why a dog may not want to eat, but the first thing to do is have your pup checked over for a medical problem. Some dogs show only subtle signs of pain or illness, so changes in appetite or behavior should always be taken seriously. A visit with your veterinarian is not only beneficial to rule in or out a medical issue but will also help to identify and treat other causes of appetite loss.

Underlying illness

Loss of appetite (anorexia) is a common symptom in dogs and can be caused by many different diseases. Your dog may also be experiencing other signs of illness such as vomiting or diarrhea. Some of the more common causes for a dog going off their food include:

  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas and associated illness)
  • Diseases of the gut (gastrointestinal tract)
  • Toxic foods or chemicals
  • Mouth pain (including teeth and gums)
  • Disease affecting major organs, such as the liver or kidneys
  • Medication side-effects
  • Cancer
  • Pain

As you can see the list includes mild to extremely serious medical conditions and this is why it’s crucial to have your pup checked over by a veterinary professional. If there is an underlying illness present that can be treated, doing so is the best way to get your pup to eat comfortably again.

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Fussy eaters

On the other end of the spectrum, perfectly healthy dogs may start to turn their nose up at their daily bowl of kibble. Most of the time, however, these fussy or picky eaters will still happily wolf down treats or human food when offered.

Dogs are clever and many of them soon realize that if they don’t eat their dinner, they will be offered something even better! Whether that’s chicken, treats, or leftover table scraps, offering ‘higher value’ treats when your dog refuses their food is actually rewarding them for being fussy.

Though picky eaters are usually created by us humans by accident, it’s also true that some dogs may prefer certain flavors and textures of food. For these pups, it may be worth trying a couple of different flavors or varieties to find out what they like best and then keeping to these formulations where possible.

Anxiety and stress

This is another reason why your dog may be refusing to eat. Think about any recent changes to the home environment that could be stressful for pets including loud noises, fireworks, moving house, travel, vet visits, and new family members such as pets, babies, or housemates. 

If the stressful trigger is temporary, like fireworks or construction, your pet’s appetite should return when the situation resolves. If your dog is struggling with anxiety in response to long-term changes, like the adoption of a new pet, contact your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist for ways to help your pet to cope better with these situations.

Spoiled food

Dogs have an amazing sense of smell and might be avoiding their food for good reason. Make sure to check their food for a lapsed expiry date, mold, and odor. If anything looks unusual, don’t risk it – it’s best to replace it with a fresh batch. Make sure all food is kept in an air-tight container secure from rats and mice. 

Secret feeders

Could someone else be feeding your dog? This may sound like a silly question but if multiple family members are feeding the dog, they simply might not be hungry! Remember that young children may also feed the family dog from their plates, and it’s best to supervise them closely when eating around pets.

When to seek help if your dog isn’t eating

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While most healthy adult dogs can safely go a day or two without eating, this isn’t the case for all dogs. Those with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, as well as toy breeds or young puppies need to eat more frequently as they are prone to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels). For these high-risk pets, it’s much better to contact a veterinarian for advice as soon as possible than risk illness.

Another consideration is your dog’s usual appetite or hunger levels. If your pup is part-vacuum cleaner, like many Labrador Retrievers, not eating dinner is highly unusual and may warrant more urgent veterinary attention. This also applies if your dog is showing other signs of illness such as vomiting or diarrhea.

How much your dog should be eating

Every dog is a unique individual, and their recommended daily calorie intake will vary depending on factors like breed, weight, age, growth, activity level, and whether they are spayed or neutered. A high-quality, complete and balanced dog food should have a feeding guide on the pack which can be used as a rough indicator of how much food your dog will need per day.

Keep in mind, however, that these recommendations are a guide only and your dogs may eat less than what is recommended without a problem. The Pet Nutrition Alliance Calorie Counter is a useful guide for the number of calories per day your dog needs, but remember this should only be used in healthy adult dogs that aren’t currently overweight.

Remember as well that treats, including table scraps, tend to be rich in calories. It might not seem like you’re feeding your dog much, but if they’re getting lots of treats, they may be consuming far more calories per day than you realize. For a healthy, balanced diet, treats should never make up more than 10% of your dog’s daily calorie intake. 

As a general rule, if your dog is in healthy body condition they’re eating the right amount of food for their needs. Unfortunately, around half of the dogs in the US are actually overweight and are eating too much! If you have any concerns about your dog’s current weight or feeding requirements, it’s best to seek advice from your veterinarian or a qualified veterinary nutritionist.

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How often you should be feeding your dog

Most healthy adult dogs are best fed two meals a day, each containing half of their daily food allocation. Spreading their food over multiple meals helps reduce hunger and may reduce the risk of bloat in large breeds, compared to feeding one big meal per day. Dogs also love routine and twice-daily feeding works well with most people’s work schedules.

Measuring out allocated portions rather than free-feeding or feeding ‘ad-lib’ also has the benefit of helping keep your dog’s weight under control.

Growing puppies under the age of six months require feeding at least three to four small meals per day. They need to eat enough to fuel healthy growth and development but only have tiny tummies!

How to get your dog to eat

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The most important step in getting your dog to eat again is identifying and treating the underlying cause for their change in appetite. This means a visit to your veterinarian who will perform a thorough physical examination. They may also recommend diagnostic tests such as blood and urine tests, ultrasound, and x-rays if required.

If your veterinarian suspects a behavioral cause like stress or anxiety, they will create a behavior modification plan that will be unique to your dog’s situation and triggers.

If your dog is a fussy eater then it’s time for some gentle discipline. Start by offering the food you want your dog to eat. Leave it out for 15-30 minutes and if your dog doesn’t eat it, take it away. Repeat this process when you would usually feed their next meal.

This might seem a little mean, but most dogs soon realize what’s going on and will begin to eat within 24-48 hours. This method should only be used on healthy adult dogs and never on those with illnesses like diabetes, or growing puppies.

If your dog still isn’t eating there are a few other tips you can try but if the problem persists, contact your veterinarian:

    • Switch to a different texture or flavor (do this very slowly in small amounts to avoid an upset tummy)
    • Try warming up canned food or adding a little broth
    • Add some canned food on top of dry kibble or try mixing it through
    • Try adding a little plain tuna in spring water or even a small amount of cat food 

Conclusion

If your dog won’t eat, the best thing to do is find out why. There are many causes for loss of appetite in dogs, and a visit to your veterinarian is the best way to rule out an underlying medical condition and get your dog eating again.

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