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Dogs that won’t eat or have a diminished appetite, also known as anorexia, is a common symptom reported by pet owners. It can be a minor problem or a very significant life-threatening problem. There are many causes for this common symptom and a decreased appetite can suggest the start of many different diseases or problems.
As a pet owner, you may not know what to do when this happens, so this article will focus on what you can do for your pet at home and help you to understand when you should seek help from your veterinarian.
Here are some of the most common questions pet owners ask about canine anorexia:
What is Anorexia in Dogs?
Anorexia is the lack of appetite, not eating, or eating less than normal.
What Causes Lack of Appetite in Dogs?
Anorexia or lack of appetite in dogs can be caused by a variety of problems including fever, infections, pain, food change, as well as just about any other problem. Lack of appetite or decreased appetite can also indicate a systemic problem such as cancer, kidney failure, diabetes, liver disease, infectious diseases as well as just about any other problem. For a full list of possible causes, go to Causes of Anorexia in dogs.
What Can I do at Home for my Dog that Won’t Eat?
Specific home treatments for anorexia in dogs is dependent on the cause of the anorexia or lack of appetite. For example, if the underlying cause is kidney problems- then your dog needs more diagnostic tests and fluid therapy. Or if the cause is an infection, the treatment may be antibiotics.
The general approach for home care of a dog that won’t eat may include:
- If your dog won’t eat a meal, doesn’t finish his food as quickly as usual, only eats part of his meal and there is no vomiting, has a normal bowel movement and is acting playful, then the problem may resolve on its own.
- Monitor your dog closely. If you notice that your dog isn’t eating like normal – step up your observations of your dog. Take note of the following:
- Is there any vomiting?
- Take him out on a leash and monitor the bowel movements for signs of diarrhea.
- Are the urinations normal?
- Is he or she drinking normally?
- Is your dog acting lethargic?
- Do you notice any weakness? Trouble walking?
- Is your dog coughing? Any trouble breathing?
- Does your dog seem painful?
- Are the gums pink or pale?
- Look for a predisposing cause for the lack of appetite such as exposure and possible ingestion of trash or toxins, any change in the food, ingestion of plants, new treats, or any other changes. If possible, eliminate the source of the problem.
If your dog doesn’t eat a meal and you cannot take your dog to your veterinarian (which is recommended), then you may try the following:
Note: Please check with your veterinarian before giving ANY medications. Administer only prescribed medications. Many over-the-counter (OTC) medications that are safe for humans can be toxic to dogs.
- If there has been no vomiting, encourage your dog to drink fresh clean water. Crushed ice or adding ice cubes to the water can encourage some dogs to drink.
- Offer something enticing and easily digestible to encourage your dog to eat. For example, you may try small frequent feedings of a bland digestible diet such as: Hill’s Prescription Diet i/d, Iams Recovery Diet, Provision EN or Waltham Low Fat are commonly recommended foods. You can make a homemade diet of boiled rice or potatoes (as the carbohydrate source) and lean hamburger, skinless chicken or low-fat cottage cheese (as the protein source). Here’s our recipe on How to Make a Bland Diet for Your Dog.
- Feed a small amount of this food at a time. Don’t overfeed your dog as he may eat the entire bowl and if he hasn’t been eating or his stomach is upset – he could vomit, thus creating another problem.
- Feed only a small meatball-size portion at a time. If there is no vomiting, you may offer another small meatball-sized amount about one hour later.
- You may also try adding warm water or low-sodium broth to your pet’s food to increase the palatability of the food.
- You can try feeding canned dog food. Again, feed only a small amount to ensure your dog is tolerating it ok before feeding the whole can. Heating the canned food in the microwave for a few seconds can also help entice some dogs to eat. It releases the aromas that can appeal to dogs. If you use the microwave, stir it around with your finger to ensure there are no “hot spots” that could burn your dog’s mouth.
- If healthier food choices are not working, you can try some pet “junk” food. If you have given him a McDonalds hamburger periodically and he loves (and seems to digest it ok) then try it again. Peanut butter (for dogs, please check the label as some human peanut butter now contains xylitol which is toxic to dogs), pet snacks, lower-quality canned food (which is usually palatable), sandwich meat, etc. are some possible choices to entice your dog to eat. Another option is cat food. Small amounts of cat food can be very enticing to dogs, as it has more protein than dog food. Do not feed large amounts of fatty foods, as this can lead to other health problems such as pancreatitis. If your dog doesn’t eat his real favorites – then you can start worrying.
- Many veterinarians recommend Pepcid AC® (generic name is Famotidine) to decrease stomach acid. This helps some dogs. The dosage most commonly used is 0.25 to 0.5 mg per pound (0.5 to 1.0 mg/kg) every 12 to 24 hours. A 20-pound dog should get about 5 to 10 mg once to twice daily. This is an oral medication, which can be found at most pharmacies in the antacid section. Pepcid AC® (Famotidine) does not require a prescription. It is often used for three to five days.
- Ideally, if your dog eats, feed the bland diet for two days. Then gradually return to regular dog food over the next one to two days. At first, mix a little of your dog’s regular food into the bland diet. Feed that for one meal. Then feed a 50/50 mix for one meal. Then feed ¾ dog food and ¼ bland diet for a meal. Then, return to feeding your dog’s regular food.
- Leash-walk your pet to allow observation of bowel movements, normal urination and any additional vomiting that may otherwise occur without your knowledge.
This is important! If your dog continues not eat or you notice the onset of other symptoms, please call your veterinarian promptly. If your pet is lethargic, starts vomiting, has diarrhea, is weak or lethargic or has any other physical abnormalities mentioned above, it is important to see your veterinarian. Your pet needs your help and the professional care your veterinarian can provide. If your pet is having the clinical signs mentioned above, expect your veterinarian to perform some diagnostic tests and make treatment recommendations. Those recommendations will be dependent upon the severity and nature of the clinical signs.
When is Lack of Appetite an Emergency?
If your dog continues not to eat, acts lethargic, starts vomiting, has diarrhea, is weak, has trouble breathing, and/or you notice pale gums – then immediate medical attention is warranted. Please see your veterinarian. It is always better to err on having your dog evaluated sooner rather than later.
Great Links for More Information
Here are some links to additional information that may be helpful.
- Anorexia in Dogs
- Nausea in Dogs
- Vomiting in Dogs
- Diarrhea in Dogs
- Vomiting and Diarrhea in Dogs
- Dehydration in Dogs
The advice given in the Home Care series of articles is not meant to replace veterinary care. When your pet has a problem, it is always best to see your veterinarian as soon as possible. But in some cases, it is not always possible to seek veterinary care. You could be traveling, it could be after hours and there are no 24-hour clinics near you, or maybe you simply can’t afford it. Whatever the reason, when your pet has a problem, you need answers. Most vets will not give you any information over the phone – they will tell you to bring your pet in for an office visit. So, when these difficult situations arise, many pet owners don’t know what to do – and they end up doing the wrong thing because they don’t have sound veterinary advice. When your pet has a problem and you can’t see your vet, the information in this series of articles can help guide you so that you will not inadvertently cause harm to your pet. However, this information is not a replacement for veterinary care.