My dog didn’t eat his dinner. Is he just not hungry? Is he sick? Does his food taste bad? There are many possible reasons a dog may not eat. Let’s start by taking a look at what makes your pet hungry in the first place. Hunger and the desire to eat is stimulated by a hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin is released from the stomach and travels through the bloodstream to the brain, letting it know that it’s time to eat. Meanwhile, the hormone leptin works opposite of ghrelin and decreases appetite. The combination of these hormones helps to maintain an energy balance within an animal.1 This ghrelin/leptin balance may be upset by a variety of factors and could lead to your dog not wanting to eat.
A dog declining food is a notable behaviour and may be a means of communication from your pet. Not to panic though, food refusal is quite a common occurrence in pets and is not always cause for alarm. However, it is important to be cautious and observe your dog for any other behavioural or health changes. The purpose of this article is to help you understand some of the reasons why your dog may not be eating.
The reason a dog may not want to eat could be as simple as he or she is a picky eater. Similar to people, certain dogs just prefer the taste of different food ingredients. Certain breeds/sizes of dogs may be more likely to be picky eaters than others. Often, small or toy breed dogs are more likely to refuse their food. A 2015 study by researchers at Kansas State University examined the palatability of pet food in dogs and cats. It was observed that variations in eating behaviour was not as variable in cats as in dogs. A notable difference was observed between the eating behaviours of “working” breeds versus “toy” breeds, with smaller breed dogs showing more discrimination between the food offered.2 Senior dogs also tend to have a decreased appetite as they are not as active as a younger dog and do not need to replenish their energy stores as frequently.
The most palatable ingredients to dogs are protein, fat and sugar. A picky dog will likely go for food that has a higher level of fat or protein.3 Incorporating fresh, sweet foods like apple or banana may also help encourage a dog to eat. Some dogs are also more sensitive to the size or texture of the food particles. Often if the food pieces are too large or too hard, a dog may turn down its food as it perceives the food as difficult to eat. There is variability in this statement, however, as some dogs also prefer a crunchy kibble over a soft food as well. This preference in texture may be remediated by combining a dry kibble with a fresh food topper.
Dogs are very motivated by scent. Using fresh smelling ingredients or a high protein topper may sway a picky eater. Even just heating up or moistening your dog’s food slightly can make the scent of the food more enticing (because who doesn’t love a fresh cooked meal?). The best thing to do with a picky dog is to introduce them to different pet food and canine-safe ingredients to see what they prefer. This may also help if your dog is just bored of its food. Variety can be a good way to get Fido excited for mealtime.
Most of us are guilty of giving our dogs “just a little extra”, whether that be food or treats. We love to treat our pups with food when they’re being good boys and girls. However, dogs have evolved to go for several days without eating and may not need all of the extra food or treats you’re offering. It is important to keep track of how long it has been since your dog’s last meal, as a dog should not go more than three days without eating (this timeline may vary depending on the dog’s size, health status and weight).4
Reducing the amount of treats you are feeding your dog will also help decrease the chances of over feeding. Treats contribute to the feeling of fullness and are just empty calories to your dog. If you struggle with reducing treats, give them as a topper to your dog’s food instead of feeding them throughout the day. Lastly, refrain from giving your dog table scraps. Your dog may think that leftover lasagna is delicious but it may actually be more filling and potentially toxic for dogs.
Dog foods have variable fibre levels and sources. A diet that contains a higher fibre content and more slowly digestible fibre, such as pulses, oats and barley, will keep your dog fuller for longer and may contribute to your dog declining food. A 2009 study by a team at Wageningen University in The Netherlands examined the effects of dietary fibre and voluntary food intake in dogs. The researchers observed that with increasing dietary fibre, there was an increase in satiety factors in the plasma of the research dogs. The hormone responsible for decreasing appetite, leptin, is a precursor for these same satiety factors. As a result, the high fibre diets postponed the onset of hunger in the dogs.5 The best thing to do is to maintain a strict feeding schedule for your dog and ensure that they are receiving the right quantity of food for their weight and activity level. Dogs respond well to routine. Offer your dog food for thirty minutes and if they do not eat it, remove the food until it is time for the next feeding. This routine will allow you to monitor how much your pet is eating at a given time and it reinforces consistency with mealtime.
Like people, dogs often will choose not to eat when they are stressed. During times of chronic stress or anxiety, the anorexic hormone leptin is released and causes the depression of hunger. Researchers from the University of Ulm in Germany believe that the increases in leptin circulation are the result of increases in the levels of cortisol, a hormone closely associated with stress.6 Some behavioural cues to identify stress in your dog besides the loss of appetite is excessive drooling, yawning, shedding, panting, avoidance behavior, vocalization and pacing.
A good way to mediate stress is by attempting to remove the stressor and avoiding coddling your dog. Dogs respond to leadership and if you display calm and confidence, your dog will often follow suit. A long walk or exercise will often help reduce stress as well, due to a boost in metabolism and expenditure of energy.7
On of the most common health-related reasons for food refusal in dogs is oral pain. Dental or gum pain is often aggravated by eating. Check your dog’s gums for inflammation and foreign bodies, as well as the teeth for any cracks, breaks or discoloration.8 Brushing your dog’s teeth and proper dental care is important to reduce dental problems. Dental kibble and treats may also help to keep teeth clean.
New medication or vaccinations may also alter appetite. Some medications cause nausea or alterations in metabolism as side effects.9 If anorexia is the result of new medication, the best solution is to give your dog time to adjust and consult your veterinarian.
Unfortunately, food refusal may be a sign of health problems in dogs. This could range from a minor illness to organ dysfunction, inflammation or cancer. It is important to monitor your dog for any new behaviours that may indicate a health problem, such as lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea and respiratory distress.10 If you believe that your dog’s loss of appetite is a result of any alteration in health or medication change, it is important to consult your veterinarian and to keep your pet hydrated.
While a dog turning down dinner may be a sign of a health problem, it is important to consider other factors like canine food preference, overfeeding and stress. Offering variable and more palatable ingredients are good options when dealing with a picky eater. Meanwhile, stress management and a routine feeding schedule are essential to reducing canine anxiety and overfeeding as causes for loss of appetite. Lastly, use your veterinarian or an animal scientist as a resource for more information regarding your furry family members.