When Your Dog Stops Eating, What Should You Do?

The physical condition of a dog who has no appetite can go downhill rapidly. By: litthouse

Did you know veterinarians have different words to describe a pet’s lack of appetite?

There’s actually a spectrum of inappetence, and it’s important that we address any change in appetite quickly and with action.

  • Hyporexia means a decreased appetite.
  • Dysrexia means a change in eating patterns or preferences.
  • Anorexia means the pet has no appetite at all.

Today, let’s focus on dogs’ inappetence.

Weight Changes

Often, my client is aware of a change in Piggy’s appetite and makes a vet appointment just for that reason, but not always. At an annual checkup, for instance, many people are surprised their dog has lost weight.

After I check my patient’s age, I’ve been trained to always look at the weight. Has there been any change in the pet’s weight? If so, in what period of time? That may be one of the biggest clues in how we begin our exam.

If a pet exhibits weight loss, it’s important for the vet or vet tech to ask many questions about changes in appetite. Do we have a case of hyporexia, or does the client actually say, this?: “You know, he hasn’t been eating at all for about 10 days. I thought it was the heat.”

It might be the heat, but most dogs want to eat even in 90-degree weather.

You’ll need to answer a lot of the vet’s questions to get to the bottom of your dog’s inappetence. By: eminens

Waiting Too Long

Pet food and feeding are so important to most clients, and yet many wait too long when their dog changes eating behaviors, has an obviously decreased appetite or stops eating entirely.

The take-home message here is twofold:

  1. If your pet has a change in eating behavior or loss of appetite, we need to get to the cause. There are about 1,000 reasons why a dog might not be eating normally. Once we get to the cause, hopefully we can turn everything around.
  2. The longer your pet isn’t eating normally or is truly anorexic, the harder it is to get them back to health. Starvation on any level makes everything worse. Prolonged inappetence can be devastating to a dog’s body.

Slow Starvation

If a dog is eating poorly, eating selectively or eating a completely imbalanced diet because of a poor appetite, this puts them in a catabolic state, meaning their body is slowly breaking down.

Poor nutrition leads to weakness, loss of muscle, inability to metabolize medications, decreased ability to heal if the patient is fighting other diseases or syndromes, and it makes the patient a poor candidate for surgery if indeed surgery is indicated to address the primary problem.

Simply stated, if your vet is going to succeed at diagnosing and treating the reason for the lack of appetite or anorexia, the length of time the dog has been in this “breaking down” state gives us less chance of success all around.

Help your vet put your dog back on the road to health by bringing them in early on in their problems with food. By: alainaudet

Diagnosing Changes in Appetite

If I don’t ask enough questions, big changes in appetite or food preferences might go undetected because the person considers these variations as normal.

And let’s face it: If a client is going to be too vague in answering, or if PorkPie was brought in by the person’s teenager and doesn’t know if the dog’s last meal was yesterday or yesteryear, or what that meal consisted of, can the vet get frustrated?

You bet. Vets hear a lot of inadequate answers when trying to get to the bottom of an eating disorder.

  • “I buy her that stuff in the red bag. I don’t think she likes it.”
  • “I got that food from you in that big black bag, but then she stopped eating it, so I bought her something else.”
  • “She’s always been picky, but now she’s pickier.”
  • “I think she’s not eating because the other dog died.”
  • “I think she’s eating better because the other dog died.”
  • “She’s eating every other day, but only if I put organic chicken and some sweet potato in it. Oh, and salmon once. Without the skin. Wild-caught. From Whole Foods.”

What vets need to figure out is:

  • If the inappetence is real or unreal.
  • If it’s significant or insignificant.
  • If it’s hyporexia, dysrexia or true anorexia and for how long.
  • The client’s perceptions of the dog’s appetite.
  • An accurate account of what the dog is eating from the client.

Vets also ask clients to bring in labels from bags or cans and accurate measurements of each food item.

Nutrition Is a Science

Veterinarians take a pet’s appetite, diets and changes in weight very seriously.

Your local vet is not, most likely, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, but our profession has taught us to be as scientific as possible about your pet’s nutritional needs and if they are being adequately met.

Veterinary nutritionists want us to do a full nutritional assessment in all our exams — a near-impossible task when it’s difficult to figure out what and how much the pet is actually eating. Clients may actually get angry at vets when we ask too many questions about diet that can’t be answered.

We’re not trying to make you feel inadequate or careless — we’re just trying to find out the nutritional status of the pet so we can intervene earlier, not later, if there’s a problem.

This puppy is having a field day with this meal:

Don’t Wait

I’ll end with a syndrome I’ve seen far too many times. This one breaks my heart.

I have a client who loves her dog. The dog hasn’t been eating normally or well and has been completely anorexic for too long.

The person is terrified there is something really wrong, but instead of early intervention, she waits. She doesn’t want bad news, so she lets her dog get into a broken-down state where the poor appetite has just made everything worse.

A poor appetite or anorexia is not a death sentence. Yes, it might be serious. Yes, it will require a work-up and diagnostics to get to the bottom of it.

But your pet has a greater chance of resolving the poor appetite or the primary disease if we get to it early. Don’t wait when PorkPie has no interest in his pie. Let’s get him back to his porky self as soon as possible!


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Aug. 8, 2018.

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