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Why is My Dog Not Eating?

Why is My Dog Not Eating? | BetterVet

It can be concerning if your canine family member is not eating. While some dogs are naturally picky, many have a voracious appetite, and therefore if your dog is not eating it can be a big red flag that something is wrong. Unfortunately, this is a common and nonspecific clinical sign, meaning it can be caused by many different things, ranging from mild and easily treatable to severe. Any dog who is not eating should be evaluated by a vet sooner rather than later. This is the approach of how one small animal veterinarian addresses this complex issue. 

 

Why is My Dog Not Eating? 

There are many things that can cause changes to your dog’s appetite. These broad categories include:

  • Medical issues - Many illnesses can cause decreased or lack of appetite. Common examples include dental disease (in rare cases), systemic disease (such as kidney, liver, heart, endocrine disease, etc.), gastrointestinal disease, cancer, infection, and many more. 

  • Behavioral issues - Stress, anxiety and changes in routine or environment can also affect appetite. 

  • An issue with the food itself - If your dog food has spoiled or is stale it may be less appealing to your pup. 

 

When to Seek Veterinary Care

If your dog skips a meal or two and is otherwise doing well, you can monitor them at home. If they continue to turn their nose up at mealtime, if the change in their appetite becomes a pattern, or if your pet is losing weight, it is time to consult with a vet. As changes in appetite are a nonspecific clinical sign, your vet will work with you to come up with a plan to figure out the underlying issue and get them eating again. This will likely involve a thorough history, physical exam, diagnostic testing, and treatment. Depending on how sick your dog is, this can be done all at once or step by step. There are significant risks of hypoglycemia and malnourishment if your dog stops eating. Small-breed puppies are especially prone to low blood sugar if they do not eat frequently. If you have any concerns please make sure to contact your vet

 

History 

If only our furry family members could talk and let us know how they are feeling and where it hurts. As this is not possible, veterinarians rely on pet parents to describe what they have noticed at home. This is especially important in evaluating changes in appetite, as a thorough history can help your vet narrow down their differential list (the list of possible disease processes causing your dog’s clinical signs). 

It may be helpful to understand some terminology that your vet will use when discussing why your dog is not eating. 

 

  • Hyporexia - decreased appetite/food intake

  • Anorexia - complete loss of appetite/no food intake

  • Dysrexia - change in appetite/disruption in food intake 

  • Pseudo-anorexia - refers to a dog who wants to eat but is unable to because of difficulty picking up, chewing, or swallowing food 

Your vet will also want to know the following:

  • What is your dog’s age, breed, and sex? - Knowing this information will help your vet narrow down their differential list. For example, a young lab may be more likely to eat something they shouldn’t, leading to gastrointestinal upset, toxicity, or obstruction, while cancer may be higher on the list in a senior pet. Intact female dogs may develop pyometra (infection of the uterus), while intact males can get prostatitis. 

  • Does your dog have any other clinical signs, such as vomiting, diarrhea, increased thirst and urination, weight loss, lethargy, pain, licking lips, or drooling? 

  • How much do you feed your dog and what do you feed them? Will they still eat treats? If your dog gets a lot of treats or people food during the day, they may be filling up on these delicacies and not have room for their meals. 

  • Has there been a change to their diet recently? Or have they gotten into anything they shouldn’t have? "Dumpster diving" or abruptly changing your dog’s diet can cause gastrointestinal upset. More concerning, ingestion of a foreign body can sometimes lead to an intestinal obstruction or blockage, a severe condition requiring surgery. Certain human foods and products are toxic to dogs and could also be why your dog is not eating.

  • How is their water intake? Some diseases such as diabetes, Cushing’s Disease, and kidney disease can cause increased thirst and urination. It is also helpful to know if your dog is vomiting after drinking.

  • What is their lifestyle, travel history, and exposure to other animals? 

  • Do they have any other underlying conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, or dental disease

  • Have there been any changes in their household or routine? Just like in people, stress or anxiety in dogs can present in many different ways and may affect their appetite. If there has been a major change in their household such as the addition of a new baby or animal, or a major change in routine such as the pet parent's work schedule, this may be a clue that a behavioral issue is to blame. 

  • Are they up-to-date on vaccines and preventative care? Puppies or adult dogs who are not fully vaccinated may be at risk for diseases such as parvovirus and distemper. 

  • Do they take any medications or supplements? Decreased appetite may be a side effect of certain medications. Many types of antibiotics, for example, can cause nausea and gastrointestinal upset. 

 

Physical Exam

A physical exam is key in assessing your dog’s overall health. A thorough physical exam is performed at every veterinary visit and will help provide clues as to the underlying cause of your dog’s decreased appetite. Things that your vet may pay special attention to are:

  • Evaluation of their mouth for evidence of dental disease, painful teeth, masses, gum color, and foreign bodies

  • Palpation of their abdomen for evidence of organ enlargement, thickened intestines, masses, and splinting (discomfort). If your dog is a larger breed, overweight, or very tense, then abdominal palpation will likely yield less information.

  • Palpation of the spine and limbs for any evidence of pain 

  • Body and muscle condition score for evidence of weight loss  

  • Evidence of any other abnormalities or areas of discomfort 

  • Thoracic auscultation to evaluate heart and lung sounds, heart rate, and respiratory rate

  • Rectal exam to check the consistency of stool, anal glands, the presence of any masses, and for enlargement of the prostate in male dogs. Your vet may also take your dog’s temperature rectally. 

  • Your vet may also offer your dog a special snack or treat in the exam room to see if they show interest

 

Testing to Determine Why Your Dog is Not Eating

While history and physical exam will help guide the type and order of diagnostic testing, most hyporexic or anorexic dogs will need further evaluation, which may include some or all of the following. 

  • Blood Work - This is an excellent way to get information about a dog’s overall systemic health. Blood work can help your vet determine if your dog has kidney disease, liver disease, an endocrine disorder such as diabetes, or evidence of infection or anemia. While some types of cancer can cause changes in blood work, many do not. Your vet may also want to test for a specific drug or toxin. 

  • X-rays of the abdomen and chest - Imaging of the chest can be helpful in looking for evidence of infection, heart disease, lung disease, and cancer. Radiographs of the abdomen are helpful in looking for masses, enlarged organs, evidence of foreign body or intestinal obstruction, etc. 

  • Ultrasound - This is another way to image the abdomen and internal organs that is more detailed than radiographs for evaluating soft tissue structures. 

  • Referral and advanced imaging - In complex cases referral for additional testing such as CT, MRI, or swallowing study may be needed. 

  • Empirical treatment, diet trial, or appetite stimulant - Sometimes response to treatment will not only help a dog feel better but also provide information about the underlying cause. 

 

Treatments for Decreased Appetite in Dogs 

The treatment for a dog who is not eating will be aimed at resolving or managing the underlying cause and will therefore vary widely. Common types of treatment may include oral medications and diet changes. If a behavioral issue is suspected, treatment will also likely include training techniques such as desensitization or counter-conditioning to the source of stress. If the underlying cause cannot be treated then appetite stimulants or assisted feeding via placement of a feeding tube may be needed. 

 

Ways to Encourage Your Dog to Eat 

If your dog has skipped a meal but is otherwise doing well, you may wish to monitor them at home and try these tips to encourage eating. If you are concerned or your dog is displaying other clinical signs such as vomiting or lethargy, please contact your vet immediately. 

  • Offer canned food instead of kibble 

  • Offer a bland diet - Plain-boiled chicken and rice can help settle an upset stomach. You can also purchase a prescription gastrointestinal diet from your vet 

  • Mix in treats, canned food, or low-sodium chicken broth to make their typical food more enticing

  • Warm canned food in the microwave (make sure to mix it up so it doesn’t get too hot)

  • Try a feeding toy, puzzle, or hand feeding

 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

How much should dogs eat? 

The feeding recommendations on your dog food packaging are a guideline and a good place to start if you are not sure how much to feed your dog. However, all dogs are unique and some will need more or less food than this. It is also possible to calculate resting energy requirements for your dog. However, the best way to determine if your dog is eating an appropriate amount is by monitoring their health and body condition score and adjusting accordingly to keep them at an ideal weight. A wellness visit with nutritional guidance is also a good place to start. 

 

How long can a dog go without eating? 

Each dog is different, however, most healthy dogs can go for approximately three to five days without food, as long as they are drinking water. This does not mean you should wait this long before contacting your vet - the sooner they can diagnose and treat an underlying issue the better.

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