What To Do If Your Dog Won’t Eat

Learn more about what could be going on if your dog won’t eat, and when it’s time to seek help.

Written by
Illness, stress and feeding table scraps are some of the causes for a dog to stop eating his food. Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Laura Lee Bloor

When I was growing up, we had a little, white Maltese dog named Brittany who was extremely attached to, and protective of, my mom. Brittany trotted around after my mom everywhere. Whenever my mom left, Brittany draped herself across the top of our living room sofa staring out the large bay window, waiting for her to return.

Whenever we left to go on vacation, our neighbors would tell us how little Brittany ate while we were gone. The stories were always the same: Brittany pretty much stayed glued to the couch whenever they visited to check on her. The neighbors tried to entice her down with treats, but it was clear that Brittany wasn’t hungry and was depressed that we — especially my mom — abandoned her.

Upon our return, at the sight of my mom, Brittany about lost her mind every time. She practically did back flips she was so excited. Her appetite returned with vigor.

I learned that Brittany was what Josh Sosnow, DVM, with North Scottsdale Animal Hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, refers to as a “situational eater.” Dogs who are situational eaters stop eating when something changes in their environment, such as too many people being at the house, moving to a new home or when the family leaves, Sosnow says.

If the dog is otherwise normal before you leave and then the appetite returns upon your arrival, it’s nothing to be concerned about.

Dogs can go five to seven days without eating anything and be alright, Sosnow says, but if the problem persists or worsens — the dog isn’t eating and starts vomiting or having diarrhea or is acting differently — that’s obviously a big indicator that you need to have your dog examined.

“Anytime you have some type of problem that doesn’t feel right and is quite out of character [for your dog], that’s the time to call,” Sosnow says.

What To Look For If Your Dog Isn’t Eating

If you notice your dog isn’t eating as much as he used to, your first step is to stop and ask yourself if your dog seems ill, Sosnow says. Are there other symptoms at work? Is the dog vomiting and/or does he have diarrhea? Does he have a fever?

“I encourage folks to get a thermometer and use some Vaseline and check their [pet’s] temperature, but a lot of people aren’t up for that,” says Dr. Todd Russell with Pet Menders Animal Hospital in Boulder, Colorado.

I would count myself as one those people who would rather not anal probe my dog. I’m pretty sure it would be extremely uncomfortable for both of us.

The normal rectal temperature for a dog is 100.5 to 102.5, so anything above that would indicate a fever, Russell says.

The next thing to look for is a change in behavior. Is your typically overly energetic dog staying put and acting tired?

You can try to entice your dog to eat, but it can be difficult to make dogs eat when you want them to, Russell says. Sometimes pet owners try to entice their dogs to eat using chicken broth, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it can be if a foreign body is lodged in the dog. So without knowing the cause as to why your dog isn’t eating, there can be risks involved with coaxing him to eat.

What Could Cause Your Dog Not To Eat?

Basically, just about anything can make dogs stop eating. According to Sosnow, some common environmental causes as to why a dog might not be eating could include:

  • The dog owners literally feed the dog food from the dinner table, so the dog eventually becomes accustomed to people food and refuses his dog food.
  • Someone in the family keeps feeding the dog human food or lots of dog treats with the other family members unaware. Again, the dog becomes acclimated to the treats or human food and won’t eat his dog food.
  • Conversely, maybe the pet owners have been feeding the dog human food for a long time and then suddenly take it away and expect the dog to be satisfied to returning to eating just dog food.
  • Back to the “situational eaters,” some dogs are more sensitive and lose their appetite when they experience stress, anxiety or depression.

Illness-related reasons your dog might not eat, according to Sosnow include:

  • Periodontal disease, or tooth decay, rotten or loose teeth can cause your dog to have pain when he eats.
  • Foreign objects; for example, Dr. Sosnow tells a story about pet owners giving a puppy a toy that was made from sock-like material and the puppy chewed it apart and part of it got stuck between the stomach and small intestine, so no food could leave the stomach. When the puppy tried to eat, he just vomited it back up because the sock leg was blocking digestion.
  • Many different kinds of diseases: kidney disease, congestive heart failure, chronic renal insufficiency, cancer, liver conditions and/or pancreatitis.

While that last one might sound scary, there’s no need to assume that if your dog isn’t eating, he must have cancer.

“More often that not, it’s not something terrible,” Russell says. “However, every once in a while, it can be more serious.”

So, if you notice your dog isn’t eating and you’re ever unsure if it’s more serious, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and have your dog examined. With a little love and care, his appetite should return in no time.

Article Categories:
Dogs · Food and Treats · Health and Care