Has your dog gone off his food? Is your pup refusing to eat his dinner? In “My Dog Won’t Eat” we help you get to the bottom of the problem.
In this article we’ll take a look at the possible reasons why your dog won’t eat and what you can do to help him.
You can use the green menu above to jump to the bits that interest you. But you’ll probably get more out of the article if you read from start to finish
Don’t forget to tell us how you got on with using our tips for your dog!
When a dog has gone off his food
When a dog hasn’t eaten at all for around three days vets will refer to it as ‘anorexia’. Partial anorexia is when a dog eats, but not enough to keep him healthy and fit.
This is a medical term and doesn’t mean that your dog has a mental problem. There are many reasons why a dog or puppy might go off their food.
If a dog eats nothing for a few days or loses his appetite over a period of time this can be a sign of a serious illness. A mild illness, like a tummy upset, could cause him not to eat for a day or two.
Problems with his teeth or pain can also cause him to eat less – just like you would.
But there are other reasons for a dog to stop eating. Lack of appetite can be caused by changes in the environment or emotional upsets
Not eating can also be a learned response.
That’s right. Some dogs learn to get the food they prefer, by refusing to eat what’s on offer.
My dog stopped eating today
If a dog with a normally healthy appetite suddenly stops eating altogether, be alert. You could have a medical emergency on your hands.
First try and see if you can figure out a reason. Is he is not going to his food bowl at all, or does he want to eat but it’s as though he can’t. He tries to, picks at his food but then backs off.
Check his body all over for signs of an injury, bloating or any unusual lumps at bumps. Are there any signs of problems with his teeth, mouth or throat. Check his stools and whether he is passing urine. Does he have a fever?
A recent vaccination can cause mild illness and affect a dog’s appetite for a day or two.
If your dog looks really sick – withdrawn, lethargic or unusually quiet, he may be in trouble. He needs to see a vet without delay. Don’t assume he’s okay because he isn’t crying.
Dogs with severe tummy pain may just take to their beds and not make a sound.
Bloat or some kind of obstruction from eating trash are possibilities your vet might want to consider.
If you can’t find anything, or your pup seems to be just a little off colour, keep an eye on him for the rest of the day. But make sure he’s still drinking water.
You can also try and offer food again in a few hours.
Don’t stress. Dogs can go without food for a few days without any adverse effects on their health.
There are many reasons why a dogs go off their food besides health problems.
Let’s have a look at some of them.
My dog isn’t eating but acting normal
If your Lab is full of energy and charging around like a puppy there is probably no immediate need to rush your dog off to the hospital. Or even if he seems just a little bit reserved.
You dog might just not be hungry. Or bored with his food. Maybe he moved around less and doesn’t need his usual amount of food. Someone could have slipped him too many treats.
Have you changed food brands? Some dogs are very suspicious of unknown tastes and smells. A new bag of kibble you just opened might be off – check and smell the food.
Has something in your dog’s environment changed? When dogs have emotional upsets it often puts them off their food – just like our children.
Have you moved house? Even a simple thing like a new food bowl or changing the place where you feed him can have him turning up his nose at food.
Most dogs also stop eating for a day or two when their owners go off on holiday. Or even just when their favourite companion isn’t home – a person or another pet. Are there visitors who might be upsetting him? Or a new pet?
But, if he normally has a healthy appetite, keep an eye on him, watch and wait. One of the things you need to watch for is that your dog drinks water.
My dog won’t eat or drink water
If your dog won’t eat or drink water, then you need to talk to your vet. Right away.
It isn’t normal for a dog to go more than a few hours without drinking or eating anything.
If your dog is drinking a lot more water than usual and refusing to eat this can also be a sign of an infection or a serious disease.
Just like people, dogs get tummy bugs. When the are vomiting and/or have diarrhea their natural instinct will tell them to stop eating.
These minor bugs are not usually serious and most dogs will carry on behaving normally throughout. And they will drink enough water to replace lost fluids.
Veterinary advice is to not feed your dog for about 12 hours after a tummy upset. Then start by feeding small amounts of bland food every few hours on the first day. This allows the digestive tract to recover.
Increase the amount of food gradually and if it seems that the problem is solved you can start reintroducing normal food.
A lack of appetite accompanied by absence of bowel movements, or by straining, may indicate a bowel obstruction. So it’s off to the vet without delay!
Obviously, you don’t want to run to a vet with every little minor tummy upset, but your vet would always rather see a healthy dog unnecessarily, than a sick dog too late.
Illness aside, the vast majority of dogs that go off their food are not in the throes of a medical emergency.
Dog won’t eat dry food
It’s very common for dogs to go off dry food. Let’s face it, kibble can be quite boring. If you ate the same old pellets every day, you might get bored too.
Having said that, most kibble fed dogs consume their daily ration with gusto.
So why do some dogs stop eating dry food?
There may a perfectly good reasons. Older dogs, or those with dental problems or painful jaws may find them hard to chew. Or in winter the food might just be too cold. The solution here is simple – add a bit of warm water.
But most often the reason is that someone added something tasty to the kibble at some point. And the dog has really appreciated that addition.
It might have been some tasty gravy or some after dinner scraps.
Either way, plain old kibble without any additions the next day, doesn’t have quite the same appeal.
So the dog turns his nose up, and what happens next?
Well, if you’re anything like most of us, and your dog has gone off dry food, you probably feel sorry for the dog and add something (a splash of gravy or a few scraps) to the kibble to encourage him to eat it. Which he does!
Or not. Because you now have a dog that won’t eat dry kibble at all.
No – he is prepared to hold out for the tasty additions he has come to expect. So what do you do?
What to feed a dog that won’t eat any more
Some dogs eat a wide range of food to begin with and then get more and more selective.
Perhaps you’re driving forty miles a week to get the only kibble your Labrador will eat? Or paying a small mortgage for fancy food in a pretty pouch?
The good news is, you don’t have to. This isn’t about ‘what’ to feed him. It’s about ‘how’.
The bad news is, your dog will make you feel like a bit of a heel whilst you go about teaching him not to be a fussy eater. He may also lose a bit of weight (which could be a bonus).
We’ll look at that in a moment, but first a quick word about changing brands.
Which brand should you try?
People often ask us which brand of dog food they should try, especially when their dog is refusing several brands.
We simply cannot advise you on which brand of food you should feed your dog. That is a matter for you, and possibly your vet, to decide in consultation with your wallet.
But be very wary of switching brands on more than one occasion.
My dog won’t eat dog food but will eat treats
Another common problem is the dog that will eat treats, or human food, but simply won’t eat dog food at all.
The causes are the same as for the dog that won’t eat kibble unless it is smothered in yogurt or cheese sauce
Your dog has learned to play you.
The solution is to teach him that you won’t play his game.
How long can a dog go without eating
Forget about hours. If he has access to water, a fit and well dog can last days without food. And most healthy, well balanced, dogs will give in and eat what is put in front of them within two or three days.
So if you want to, you can safely refuse to feed a fit and well dog alternatives, until his hunger gets the better of him and he gives in and eats what you provide.
You’ll find more detailed instructions for curing a fit and well picky eater below.
The important part here is the ‘fit and well’. That includes mentally well.
You shouldn’t be entering into a battle of wills with an elderly dog or a young puppy. Or a dog that has a health or emotional reason for not eating.
My sick or recovering dog won’t eat much
Dogs that have a chronic illness such as heart problems or cancer generally lose their appetite. So do dogs who are recovering from a serious illness or have pain from recent surgery or conditions like hip dysplasia.
This is only partly because they are less active and need less food. Various metabolic changes also take place when the body is under stress.
In these circumstances it will be necessary stimulate your dog’s appetite and feed them differently so that they get the nutrients they need. You want to help them to maintain the best possible condition and/or heal and recover.
Your vet will probably advise you on what to feed your sick, injured or recovering dog.
He is likely to suggest that you tempt your dog with foods that he enjoys. Meals should be nourishing, easy to eat and to digest. You should offer smaller meals more frequently.
Dogs find moist, warm food with a strong flavour more appetising. Canned dog foods, meat, fish, and eggs fit the bill.
My old dog is not eating well
It isn’t uncommon for senior dogs to lose their appetite to a certain extent. Sense of smell and taste can decline with age, and lower activity levels may mean that the dog simply needs less food.
Most older dog gain weight because of inactivity. Those who keep losing weight usually have an underlying long term health problem, problems with their digestion or difficulty in swallowing.
So if your older dog it not eating and keeps losing weight you should have him checked out by your vet.
When older or chronically ill dogs eat too little over a long time they lose, not only body weight, but also lean mass (muscle). You’ll want to avoid this by offering them small meals with a high protein and fat content.
My puppy or new dog won’t eat
Be suspicious if your puppy stops eating. Labrador puppies usually have voracious appetites, and will eat pretty much anything with relish
Even if your puppy seems otherwise well, talk to your vet if he stops eating altogether for more than a few hours.
Moving home can be very stressful for a dog.
So if you have moved house, or if you have bought a new dog home from the pound, don’t expect him to tuck into everything you offer him right away.
He may need a little time to settle in first. And yes, it’s okay to spoil him a bit for those first few days, tempt him with treats, or whatever it takes.
His emotional health is the priority here, not your ability to control his diet. That can wait a week or two.
But what happens when your dog eats everything besides the food they should?
Your dog that is happily settled in your homes, in great health, and refuses to eat the food allocated for him. He happily scoffs treats, or food of a different make?
What about dogs that will only eat if you wet their food?
Or pour gravy on it. These are the fussy or picky eaters of the dog world.
These are often dogs that are having a great time making their adoring humans run around after them – providing their favorite delicacies – and generally giving their dogs what is very often a completely unbalanced diet.
How to cure a fussy eater
The cure for a fussy eater is straightforward. But before you begin:
Trying to cure a fifteen-year-old Labrador of a lifetime’s fussy eating is probably a bit mean.
- Don’t do this with dogs that are very old, very young, unwell, very underweight, or undergoing medical treatment.
- Do use a complete dog food that will fulfil all your dog’s nutritional requirements.
Here are the steps:
- Decide what you want your dog to eat and offer him a small quantity in a bowl.
- Set a timer for five minutes.
- When the timer goes off, take the bowl away.
- Do not feed him any treats whatsoever until his next mealtime.
- At the next time, offer the dog a small quantity of exactly the same food again. For exactly five minutes.
- Do not feed him anything else.
- Make sure he has clean drinking water available at all times.
- Rinse and repeat
Build up quantities as soon as he starts eating again. That’s it.
All you have to do is ignore the pleading eyes, thwart any attempts to raid the fridge, and prevent the dog from eating the cat’s dinner or mugging your visitors.
Some dogs will ‘hold out’ for a couple of days. But you will win this battle.
Remember that no healthy dog will normally starve itself to death, but very occasionally you’ll meet a dog that will keep itself chronically underweight rather than eat what you are offering.
When a dog won’t eat: summary
If a dog won’t eat or eats too little is can be a sign of a health problem.
So if your dog starts to look underweight, seems unwell, or if you are worried, have him checked by your vet.
If your dog won’t eat or drink, he needs to see a vet now.
Take your adult Labrador to the vet if he hasn’t eaten anything at all for more than 24 hours – even if he doesn’t have any other symptoms. Unless you know there’s a good reason like moving house.
Puppies need to eat more frequently than adult dogs. And lack of appetite in small puppies is unusual. If your normally hungry puppy refuses two meals in a row, have him checked by a vet. Don’t delay.
Whenever in any doubt visit your vet.
But is your dog is just being picky about what he eats – he’ll eat one thing but not another and has no other symptoms at all? The chances are he is training you to feed him the diet of his choice.
For fit, healthy and happy dogs you can, if you wish, cure your dog’s picky eating using the system described above. Let us know how you get on in the comments section below!
This article has been extensively revised and updated for 2019
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Burke, A. (2017) Anorexia in Dogs: 6 reasons why your dog isn’t eating. American Kennel Club.
Coates, J. Feeding Sick Dogs. PetMD.com
Corbee, RJ & Van Kerkhoven W.J.S. (2014) Nutritional support of dogs and cats after surgery or illness. Open Journal of Veterinary medicine.
Vetsnow (2018) My dog wont eat, what should I do. Vets Now Ltd.