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It can be distressing when a pet won’t eat its food. Inappetance, or anorexia if the dog is not eating at all, can signal underlying conditions that need to be addressed expediently. Given that our dogs usually munch down the food we give them and are usually hungry animals, a disruption should be treated with concern. 

There can be a number of reasons your dog isn’t eating - both psychological and pathological - and the degree and duration also varies. In uncomplicated issues, appetite may decrease slightly for a couple of days. This could be a mild gastrointestinal issue or precipitated by a change in the environment or other stressors such as the absence of an owner. It could also be that your dog is not fond of the food that you are providing; usually something tasty and less dry can act like a buffer and encourage the dog to eat. 

If you notice that your dog’s appetite has gradually been on the wane and there are accompanying symptoms, you must visit your vet. Weight loss of more than five percent of its body weight is likely to be caused by an underlying health condition. If your dog is also rejecting water, is generally lethargic and displaying other signs of distress, then it is cause for concern.

Owners notice something amiss when a pet turns its nose up to food. While it is indeed an unwelcome situation, prompt attention will drastically improve prognosis.

  1. Causes for dogs not eating
  2. Other symptoms to look out for if your dog is not eating
  3. Diagnosis: what to expect at the vet's office
  4. Treatment for loss of appetite in dogs
  5. Management and solutions to help your dog eat well again

Inappetance is usually the culmination of something more serious going on in your dog. Chronic pain or the body fighting off an infection discourage hunger. Here are some of the reasons your dog may not be eating:

  1. Dental problems: Dental diseases in dogs could range from gingivitis to periodontitis, periodontal abscess, cavities and general toothaches. If your dog is having trouble chewing or experiences pain while eating, then naturally he/she will avoid it. If you notice swelling around the gums or your dog reacts aggressively when you try massaging the jaw, then take him/her to the doctor asap.
  2. Salivary gland issues: Similarly, if there are issues in the salivary glands, such as Addison’s disease, then your dog may avoid the food it is given. 
  3. Muscular pain around the mouth: The masticatory muscles may be inflamed or injured, or there may be pain in the temporomandibular joint, which connects the jawbone to the skull. 
  4. Ear infections: Ear infections can sometimes be caused by food allergies. If they are allowed to progress and penetrate the inner ear (otitis interna) there are vestibular symptoms as well as severe pain. In some cases the dog may refuse to open its mouth as it hurts to unclench the jaw. 
  5. Side effects of drugs: NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) such as aspirin may cause your dog to be less hungry. Several other drugs, including the regimen involved in chemotherapy, will make your dog feel sick and not want to eat. Also, while vaccines play life-saving prophylactic roles, they can temporarily cause hyporexia (some resistance to eating, so your dog has decreased appetite).
  6. Toxins: Your dog may have ingested something that was disagreeable. This could range from rat poison to electrical wiring. This will cause gastritis and uneasiness and your dog will abstain from eating for a while. 
  7. Psychological causes: The loss of a fellow pet or family member may depress your dog and it will refuse to eat. Unfamiliar surroundings, emotional abuse will also affect your dog’s eating habits.
  8. Menstruation: Female dogs may be less hungry around the time of menstruation or when they’re in heat. Similarly, male dogs may have less of an appetite when they are around females in heat. However, you must still monitor your dog since an underlying condition known as pyometra (infection of the uterus) is life-threatening if not treated. Pyometra is most likely to infect a dog when on heat.
  9. Dietary changes: If you have switched to a new kind of dog food or are providing a diet prescribed by the doctor, your dog may not like what is offered on the plate. If it is a diet recommended by the doctor, you must not starve your dog of other food until it eats the prescribed meal. Instead, try feeding the dog slowly by making small bits and feeding straight from the hand. Also, try some treats or food that you know your dog is fond of. 
  10. Infectious diseases such as lyme disease or rabies: Tick-borne diseases and rabies wreak havoc to the dog’s body and significantly suppress hunger.

Systemic issues can also cause inappetence in dogs:

  1. Any type of cancer: Cancer shuts down the body and causes a host of symptoms and complications. A common consequence is a reluctance to eat food.
  2. Diabetes: Diabetes in dogs, kidney and liver failure, all affect appetite. 
  3. Neurological disorders: Health issues related to the nerves, spine and brain such as Wobbler Syndrome in large and giant dogs can reduce appetite in dogs. Some conditions related to the nervous system can also cause vomiting. If you notice that your dog is vomiting, having trouble standing or walking or having seizures, take him/her to a doctor immediately.
  4. Gastrointestinal blockage: This can be caused by a lesion, gas or foreign substances and needs to be addressed promptly. A blockage can be extremely painful for dogs - and it can happen without much warning.

As can be seen, there are various issues that can cause your dog to feel distress and not eat. The key is to keep an eye on other symptoms and monitor weight loss. Temporary fluctuations are fine - sometimes there is a natural desire to not eat as much.

As mentioned above, food-averse behaviour is usually accompanied by other symptoms and it is vital to keep a tab on those as they indicate the nature of what is wrong.

  • Diarrhoea in dogs and puking may suggest gastritis or ingestion of toxic products. However, it can also suggest something more serious if the diarrhoea is severe or blood-tinged. Also, if your dog appears bloated and is trying to vomit but cannot, it could be a gastrointestinal blockage or bloating in dogs, which warrants veterinary care immediately. 
  • Swelling of the areas around the mouth could indicate gum/teeth issues or salivary gland disease. It can also be a tumorous growth. Again, it is important to take your dog to the vet if this is the case.
  • Generalized lethargy in dogs can result from chronic pain or a systemic issue as well. If your dog is less active and alert than usual and not eating appropriately, it could mean something more serious.

Panting, restlessness, and anxiety are all signs of underlying issues.

The vet will suggest conducting routine blood work, imaging tests, urinalysis before proceeding further. The vet will ask for the medical history and whether the dog is on any drugs or undergoing treatment for any underlying issue so be ready with this information.

  • Blood work should reveal hormonal balances and toxicity, and will eliminate endocrine and poisoning diagnoses. Imaging tests such as X-rays, ultrasounds, radiographs will show if there are structure issues in the mouth, throat, or gut. Additionally, they will be used to check for other tumours in the body that may be putting a strain on appetite by causing pain or a more direct mechanism.
  • A physical exam will look for dental issues, structural issues with the jaws or ear infections. Debris may be collected from the ear to check for mites or yeast as that might explain further complications. 
  • A tick blood panel may also be conducted to check for lyme disease. Testing for Addison’s disease (which affects the salivary glands) will also be conducted.
  • If nothing comes from this the vet may ask about the kind of food you are providing, at what time of the day and if there are stressors in the household environment that are impacting the dog.

Depending on the reason behind your dog’s refusal to eat, the vet would advise appropriate treatment:

  • If there is severe nausea, then that will be brought under control first. If a blockage is found and there is bloat then emergency surgery or ‘pumping’ of the stomach may be required. 
  • For orodental issues such as an abscess, the dog may need to be sedated before isolating the infection and treating it. If this is the case then prompt medical treatment should offer a good response and prognosis.
  • Ear infections also vary in severity. Deep ear infections are more likely to cause eating problems, however. Usually, an antibiotic regimen of at least a couple of weeks is required to eradicate the infection. Some mild analgesics may also be prescribed which would take care of the pain and hopefully the dog will resume eating again.
  • For systemic issues such as diabetes, liver or kidney disease treatment may be lifelong and prognosis will depend on the severity of the disease. 
  • The story is different if cancer or tumours are diagnosed. There is always the likelihood that the tumours found are benign - they may simply be causing a blockage. If this is the case, then they will be excised. For cancerous tumours and metastasis, treatment gets trickier. If detected early, tumour excision and chemotherapy may be effective.

There are some things that you can do at home if your pet is not eating with as much relish. 

  • For starters, maintain proper timing to their meals and vary what you provide. 
  • Kibble can be given with some unspiced gravy and snacks can be given occasionally as well. 
  • Make sure that your dog has ample water at all times. 
  • If your dog gets sick after consuming a certain product it is best to leave it out of the meal; milk, for example, does not suit some dogs.
  • It is good practice to make eating a stress-free activity. If you have other dogs in the house that may compete over food, it is better to separate them so they can eat food at their own pace and comfort. 

It is crucial to track your pet’s eating habits. Given the dearth of other evidence suggesting that something is amiss, food avoidant behaviour is one of the unambiguous ways dogs communicate with us.

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