What to Do If Your Dog Won′t Eat

What to Do If Your Dog Won′t Eat

Consider these insights from a veterinary expert. 

Proper nutrition is important for your dog′s well-being, so if your dog refuses to eat, you′ll want to get to the bottom of it ASAP. (In other words, we′re very glad you looked this up, pet parent.) The challenge is knowing what info you can trust, so that you can do what′s best for your dog and avoid making things worse.  

There′s a lot of advice out there on the interwebs, but what do real-life veterinary experts say about a dog or puppy suddenly not eating? 

We consulted Dr. Leslie Hancock-Monroe, a veterinarian and research fellow of pet nutrition and animal science at The J.M. Smucker Company, the maker of Rachael Ray® Nutrish® pet food. Find the valuable insights she shared below. 

What′s the First Thing I Should Do If My Dog Won′t Eat? 

You may be eager to get some nutrients into your fur baby — but please don′t try to force feed your dog. That could make the situation worse. 

First, check for major red flags. Is your dog showing other symptoms that he or she might be sick? How long has it been since your dog stopped eating? Is he or she still drinking water? 

If any of the following red flags apply, call the vet right away, and take your dog in for diagnosis and treatment: 

  • Vomiting 

  • Diarrhea 

  • Signs of fatigue or lethargy 

  • Little to no appetite for more than three days 

  • Not drinking water for even one day 

Is your dog not eating but drinking water and acting normal otherwise? Then the cause of the food-bowl boycott could be relatively minor and easy to fix. Check out some possible culprits below. And if you′re still not sure whether to call the vet, pick up the phone, just in case.  

What Are Some Possible Reasons My Dog Won′t Eat? 

There are a range of possible reasons a dog may not want to eat, from minor to severe. And if your dog is newly adopted, he or she may be dealing with several appetite-squelchers all at once. 

Of course, it′s not just new rescue dogs who sometimes refuse to eat. The potential reasons behind a newly adopted dog not eating can actually affect any dog. Consider the possibilities below. 

  • Stress from a Change in Surroundings 

When a dog is adopted into a new home, whether it′s a full-grown adult or a new puppy, not eating right away could be due to stress. That might not sound so surprising, since a dog′s whole world changes after adoption. 

But actually, even a singular change can be a stressor for any dog, newly adopted or not. That includes a new home, possibly in a new city with different street sounds; a new pet, human family member or house guest; a new feeding schedule; or even a new neighbor. Likewise, if someone in the family has recently moved out or passed away, or even left town temporarily for a trip, that can be just as stressful. And stress can affect canines′ appetites much like it does humans′.  

Knowing what type of food your dog finds most irresistible can help during these times, even if it′s not what you prefer to serve normally. For example, if you usually serve dry food but your dog refuses to eat when you leave for a trip, you might advise your dog sitter to serve all canned food while you′re gone.  

In fact, that′s exactly what does the trick for Dr. Hancock-Monroe′s dog. When she′s out of town, he′d go days without eating his normal food. So that′s when it′s time to bust out his ′′very special yummies." 

  • New Medication or Vaccination 

Sometimes a medication or a vaccine can cause a loss of appetite. Antibiotics and pain medications, in particular, are known to sometimes cause tummy upset, and vaccines can cause an immune response that makes dogs extra sleepy for a day or two. Plus, the trip to get the vaccine can be stressful.   

Pay close attention after a shot or a new medicine, and get in touch with your vet if your dog′s appetite doesn’t bounce back after a couple of days. 

  • New Food Introduced Too Fast 

If your new dog won′t eat what you′re serving from day one, it could be because it′s not familiar. Try asking the shelter or previous caretaker what food they used, start with that, and transition gradually to a new food. 

Even if you′ve had your dog a long time, a sudden change in food can be rejected or even cause an upset tummy. Take a step back and try again, slowly. 

Start by mixing in a little of the new food with the food your dog is used to. Then adjust the ratios over the course of a few days, using a little more of the new food and a little less of the old food each day. 

If you′re switching your dog from a wet food to a dry food, it might help to mix in a little bit of warm water with the dry food.  

  • Contaminated or Rancid Food 

Is there any way your dog′s food could have accidentally gotten contaminated, or maybe just been sitting around too long? If so, eating it could be extremely dangerous for your dog, so it′s actually a very good thing that he or she doesn′t want to eat it.  

Check the expiration date, inspect to food for any visible molds or odors that seem off, and make sure the food has been stored properly. Definitely don′t try to cover up the taste or force your dog to eat it. 

When in doubt, throw it out. Better safe than sorry.  

  • He or She Is Already Full! 

Maybe someone in the house has been sneaking scraps under the table, or maybe your dog managed to get into some people food against your wishes?  

It′s also very possible to overindulge your dog by giving him or her too many treats. If you′re training your dog, remember that treats aren′t the only way to provide motivation and encouragement. Try rewarding your dog with praise instead. 

Another way to moderate your dog′s treat consumption is to use fewer but extremely high-value treats (high-value to your dog, that is — a.k.a. especially exciting). For example, Dr. Hancock-Monroe′s dog gets his very favorite treats throughout the day, but not a whole treat at a time. They′re broken into smaller pieces so he can enjoy a little nibble more often without eating too many total.  

  • A ′′Trained′′ Picky Eater 

Unfortunately, you can accidentally train your pup to be a picky eater. If you typically offer your dog multiple kinds of food, he or she may have learned to hold out for the tastiest option.  

The more you try to tempt your dog to eat by offering table scraps, gravy, treats, etc., the more he or she is actually training you. Of course, it′s all based on good intentions, but giving dogs what they want instead of what they need can lead to obesity and other health issues.  

  • Illness or Other Physical Discomfort 

Unfortunately, sometimes there is a medical condition behind a dog′s refusal to eat. If your dog shows other symptoms, or if the appetite loss lasts more than three days, see your vet.  

Possible medical causes range from dental problems to metabolic disease, heart disease, cancer, endocrine disease, infection, GI obstruction and parasites. Your vet is the best person to help identify the problem and recommend a solution. 

  • Negative Associations 

If your dog was recently feeling ill, he or she may associate that feeling with whatever food was served during that time. That can be true whether the food had anything to do with the sick feeling or not. 

How Can I Get My Dog To Eat? 

If your vet has found an underlying medical reason that your dog has no appetite, he or she can advise you on how to treat the root problem and also help ensure your dog gets adequate nutrition. 

You can also consider the tips below — but do still check with your vet first, just in case. Some medical conditions require a limited diet and could be worsened by foods that are OK for healthy dogs.  

  • A Strict Schedule 

If your dog has been ′′trained′′ to be finicky about food, you′ll need to teach him or her that holding out won′t lead to more options anymore.  

When it′s time to eat, put food out for 30 minutes. Then pick it up whether it′s been eaten or not, and don′t offer an alternative. Do the same each mealtime, at the same times every day. (Adult dogs should be fed twice a day. New puppies should be fed two to three times a day, based on your vet′s recommendation.) 

Resist any begging for snacks or treats between meals. Remember: You′re not being harsh. You′re doing what′s best for your dog. Just like cookies and candy can spoil a child′s appetite for a real meal, treats and snacks can spoil your dog′s appetite. And whether they have two legs or four, all our kids need balanced nutrition. If your dog is actually hungry, he or she will eat the healthy dog food you offer. 

Important tip: Make sure every two-legged type in the household sticks with the plan, because just one person giving in to those puppy-dog eyes will undermine your whole effort to get your dog eating right.  

  • A Designated, Distraction-Free Eating Area 

Nearby human food, other pets or foot traffic can all distract dogs from eating their food — or worse, make them feel threatened.  

Sometimes a rescue dog won′t eat right away out of a lingering fear that a predator could sneak up and attack while they eat. As much as dogs are hunters, they know instinctively that they can also be hunted. So some dogs just need extra reassurance.  

Try giving your dog a dedicated ′′safe space,′′ such as a kennel, to eat and sleep in peace. A closet can also work. (Dr. Hancock-Monroe′s dog prefers to eat and sleep in the closet to hide from her ′′killer rabbit.′′ Too cute.)  

Also be sure not to interrupt or distract your dog while he or she is eating. Instead, offer attention when it′s not mealtime.  

  • Pre-Meal Walks 

A little physical activity can be a great way to work up an appetite. Plus, it can satisfy a craving for quality time with you, so your dog won′t be seeking attention instead of eating during mealtime.   

  • Add-Ins — Only If You Must 

The best dog food for picky eaters is still a commercially made recipe without anything added. That′s because the recipe should already be complete and balanced, meaning it should contain all the nutrients your dog needs in the right proportions. Adding to it could be unhealthy — or downright dangerous. 

For one thing, certain people foods are toxic to dogs. Plus, if your dog didn′t like the flavor or smell of a food before you added to it, that could mean it somehow got contaminated or went bad. Masking the flavor encourages your dog to eat it anyway.  

If you do resort to modifying pet food, be sure the food itself is safe and fresh, and that you′re only adding a small amount of food or treats that are known to be safe for dogs. Treats, snacks and food add-ins combined should make up no more than 10% of a dog′s total calories per day.  

Check the chart below to see how many calories your dog should get from food vs. treats and add-ins, based on body weight.

Daily Caloric Needs For Active Adult Dogs at Their Ideal Body Weight

 

Current Ideal Body Weight
Estimated Maintenance Energy Requirements (MER)
Calories from Dog Food
Treat & Food Add-In Allowance
In Pounds
In Kilograms
Calories*
90% of Daily Calories
10% of Daily Calories
11
5
374
337
37
22
10
630
567
63
33
15
854
768
85
44
20
1059
953
106
55
25
1252
1127
125
66
30
1436
1292
144
77
35
1612
1450
161
88
40
1781
1603
178
99
45
1946
1751
195
110
50
2106
1895
211

Explore Nutritious Recipes and Find One Your Dog Loves 

Rachael Ray® Nutrish® dog food comes in a wide variety of kitchen-inspired recipes to satisfy different doggie preferences. There are wet and dry options, and even specialty options. 

Every Rachael Ray® Nutrish® recipe is made with ingredients you approve of — for nutrition you trust and taste your dog loves.  

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