Sometimes dogs refuse food. Failing to eat can be indicative of as little as a mild upset tummy, or of conditions as serious as bloat or organ failure. So, how do you tell the difference? When in doubt, always consult a vet. However, you may be able to determine the cause of your dog’s loss of appetite on your own, by observing the dog and the surrounding environment carefully.
Is it a small dog, and/or is the food different?
Small dogs refuse meals more often than larger dogs. Small dogs also tend to be more particular about their food. If your dog is small and seems otherwise healthy, give the dog food bag or can a good sniff and examine the food to see if it is at all stale. If you just opened a new bag of dog food or a new can, see if there are any visible differences between the new food and the food to which your dog is accustomed.
Toy breeds are perfectly capable of fasting for days and to the point that they can cause serious health problems if they do not want the food they’re being given. If your dog is small and you can’t identify anything strange about the food, allow him or her to skip one meal. If he or she skips a second meal, try to entice the dog to eat a little cooked chicken or hamburger and rice. If your small dog will not eat this simple snack or its favorite treats, head to the vet as soon as possible.
Any other signs of illness?
Does your dog seem to be behaving strangely, other than failing to eat? Check your dog’s heart rate, respiratory rate, pulse, capillary refill time, and, if you can, his temperature. You should have baseline information for all of these vital signs, and update it every few months. Along with preventive bloodwork and learning pet CPR, monitoring your dog’s vital signs regularly is a quick, easy step that can put you ahead of the game if a health problem arises.
Check the whites of your dog’s eyes. Do they appear bloodshot, or yellow? Watch him or her urinate. Is the urine unusually dark or light, or is there less or more of it than normal? Is there blood in his or her feces? Any diarrhea? Vomiting? Is he or she lethargic, or nervous?
If any of these signs indicate that something is not right, head for the vet’s office. Catching a serious illness early enough to nip it in the bud by being attentive to signs and symptoms can make a huge difference to your dog’s chances of recovery.
Could it be bloat?
Particularly if your dog is a large, deep-chested breed, bloat can be sudden and life-threatening. Bloat, which is a common name for Gastric Dilation-Volvulus (GDV), usually sets in quickly a few hours after a meal and must be treated immediately. Bloat is normally noticed before the dog has a chance to refuse a meal. However, if your dog has abdominal distension and no appetite, rush to an emergency vet right away. The more quickly bloat is treated, the greater are your dog’s chances of survival.
Please note that all dogs can experience bloat. Large dogs are more prone to this life-threatening condition, but any dog can have bloat, and bloat can be fatal to any size of dog.
Is your dog an unvaccinated puppy?
Schools of thought on vaccines differ widely among dog enthusiasts. Some people prefer to abstain entirely from vaccinations. Others give every vaccine as recommended. A middle group, to which I belong, gives some vaccines, but avoids non-essential vaccines and doesn’t give boosters if the original inoculation is still effective. There are good reasons for each of these positions. However, if your dog happens to be an unvaccinated puppy, loss of appetite is a more serious concern.
Appetite loss could be an early symptom of an illness like Parvo or Distemper. Vaccinated dogs are normally immune to these conditions, though vaccine-resistant strains do develop from time to time. Young dogs are particularly susceptible, because their immune systems are not yet mature. If your unvaccinated puppy or dog will not eat, call the veterinarian and be sure to note that the dog has not had the typical course of puppy shots.
Could it be a dental problem?
Often, dental problems cause dogs to lose their appetites. Sore teeth and gums don’t make anyone want to chew, least of all your dog. If you know that your dog has tartar and plaque on his or her teeth or has gum disease, failure to eat may be a sign that you can no longer postpone dental work.
Even puppies with clean, white teeth may have dental problems. Adult teeth may become impacted as they come in, making for a great deal of pain. Compulsive chewing and mouthing are also signs of a dental problem. If you suspect that tooth pain has caused appetite loss, go to a veterinarian or veterinary dentist as soon as possible for a second opinion.
What if nothing else is wrong, but your dog still won’t eat?
If your dog is mid-sized or larger, has no other signs or symptoms of illness, and has been vaccinated or otherwise rendered immune to common diseases of dogs, sometimes refusal to eat is nothing to worry about. Your dog may just be expressing an opinion of a bag of food that’s getting a little old, or of eating the same thing every day. The weather might be depressing his or her appetite.
Call your veterinarian to see if she or he recommends that your bring the dog in. If you’re told to simply wait and see if the dog’s appetite returns, take up the meal after 15 minutes, and serve it again at the next mealtime. If it isn’t gobbled up, wait another 15 minutes, take it away again, and offer it a third time at the next meal. If your dog skips three meals in a row, go to the vet.
Some dogs are picky eaters because they have learned that, if they wait long enough, they will get something really tasty offered to induce them to eat. It can be hard to tell a picky dog apart from one with a stomach upset at first, but after a perfectly healthy dog refuses food a few times, you can be fairly certain that you’ve got a picky eater– particularly if you break down and give him or her something better than the normal dinner fare every time.
Small dogs shouldn’t be allowed to go hungry if they are not eating well. Big dogs, however, can afford to miss a few meals. If the picky eating continues even after a few repetitions of the 15-minute strategy described above, the food you’re offering may simply be unpalatable. Try a different super-premium dry or canned brand, or try a raw diet.