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Dear Dr. Thompson,
My 15-year-old dog stopped eating yesterday. He doesn’t want his dog food or even his favorite treats. Why won’t he eat when he doesn’t seem sick? Is my dog dying? What can I do to get him to eat?
When elderly dogs stop eating for more than 24 hours, I start to suspect an underlying disease. 15-year-old dogs are at higher risk for diseases like cancer, kidney disease, heart disease and diabetes. And sometimes they act normal, not showing any symptoms until they’re very sick.
On the other hand, just because your dog stopped eating doesn’t necessarily mean he’s dying. Find out if there is anything wrong with him first then read on for my tips on what to do if your 15-year-old dog stopped eating.
How to Tell if Your Old Dog Is Eating Enough
It’s not always obvious that your dog isn’t eating well. If you free feed your dog or you have multiple dogs sharing food, it’s hard to tell how much they’re eating.
The first thing you can do is start putting a measured amount into your dog’s dish at the same times each day. Weigh the food or count the kibbles. Observe your dog while he eats and measure how much food is left after he stops eating.
To figure out how much food your dog should be eating, you need to know his accurate weight.
To weigh your dog at home, stand on a bathroom scale while holding your dog. Then weigh yourself and subtract your weight from the weight of you and your dog.
Look on your dog’s food container label to see about how much your dog should eat in a day based on his weight.
For a more accurate idea of your dog’s caloric needs, use a calorie calculator made just for dogs. Pet Nutrition Alliance has a good calorie calculator you can use for free.
Keep in mind that older dogs with low activity levels usually have lower calorie requirements than younger, more active dogs.
You can look up how many calories are in your dog’s food on the manufacturer’s website. Chewy.com also lists calorie counts for many popular wet and dry dog foods.
If you’re feeding your dog table food, use the MyFitnessPal calorie calculator or something similar to estimate how many calories you’re feeding him.
Don’t forget to add calories in for treats and supplements, including Pill Pockets.
Why Older Dogs Stop Eating
It’s impossible for me to list every reason an older dog might stop eating. It’s usually due to some underlying disease and you will need a veterinarian’s help to get a diagnosis.
Some of the common reasons I see for my elderly dog patients to stop eating include:
- Medication (especially antibiotics and NSAIDs)
- Gastrointestinal upset
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Heart disease
- Severe dental disease
- Pain from arthritis or other disease
- Trouble breathing
- Trouble swallowing
- Cognitive dysfunction (dementia)
Is Your Old Dog’s Spine Showing?
Cachexia is a condition that occurs with some chronic diseases when inflammation increases a dog’s energy requirements. Diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes commonly cause cachexia.
Dogs with cachexia lose lean body tissue even more than they lose fat. A lot of people notice cachexia when their dog’s hip bones, spine and skull become easy to feel or see.
It’s somewhat normal for very old dogs to lose muscle mass, but it usually occurs gradually over a period of years. Cachexia happens over a much shorter period of time.
Cachectic dogs lose weight even when they’re eating enough calories for a normal dog their size. They need more food than normal just to maintain their body weight.
Fish oil might be beneficial for dogs with cachexia since it helps quell inflammation. Check out my article on proper fish oil dosing for dogs and use the chart for dogs with health issues.
How to Feed a Sick or Old Dog with No Appetite
There are many things you can try if your older dog is sick and has no appetite. Since every dog is different, you’ll have to experiment until you find something that works. Here is a list of things my clients have had luck with…
- Offer canned dog food to dogs who usually eat dry food. Try this non-prescription high-calorie Royal Canin Puppy Appetite Stimulation Food.
- Warm the food to body temperature.
- Add liquid to the food–low sodium chicken or beef broth works well.
- Add some diced, cooked chicken breast or very lean beef on top of the food. Cooked sweet potato is also popular with some dogs. You can remove the peel for better digestion.
- Start making homemade food. For long-term feeding, be sure to use a balanced recipe with added vitamin/mineral supplements like the ones at BalanceIT.com.
- Rotisserie chicken from a restaurant or grocery is a particular favorite for some. Just be careful not to give a lot of skin or fat as it can cause more problems.
- Sprinkle parmesan cheese on top of the food.
- Raise the food dish so he doesn’t have to bend down to eat it.
- Put the food dish next to your dog in her bed.
- Spoon feed or hand feed him.
- Have a meal at the same time as your dog, sitting nearby so he can see you.
- Introduce a little competition by having another friendly dog to eat nearby.
- Feed your him outside for a change.
- If your dog likes games or training, get him up and go through all his tricks several times a day, using fresh lean meat as a reward.
- Take a walk in a new place. Mental stimulation can stimulate the appetite. In fact, you should try to get your pup out for a walk at least a few minutes every day even if he doesn’t really want to go at first. It will improve his mobility as well as his appetite.
- Take your dog for a ride in the car and have a passenger feed the dog tidbits during the drive.
- Go to the park and offer his food there.
- This one is for desperate situations… Take your dog through a fast-food drive-through and order him a small, plain hamburger or non-breaded chicken sandwich.
Appetite Stimulants for Old Dogs
Veterinarians have a few medications at their disposal to stimulate the appetite of dogs. The old tried and true appetite stimulating drug is prednisone. Prednisone is a steroid we use as an anti-inflammatory for many different diseases.
It has a side effect of increasing a dog’s appetite and thirst. That can be a great thing for an older dog. It often gives them more energy and makes them feel better, too. Prednisone is also very inexpensive.
Prednisone is not all good, though. It can cause significant unwanted effects on all the organs of the body, you can’t stop giving it abruptly, and you can’t give it to a dog who also takes NSAIDs.
A newer appetite stimulant is mirtazapine. It is a type of antidepressant that has the effect of increasing appetite in dogs and cats. It doesn’t always work great for dogs. It can also cause drowsiness and should not be used long-term.
The newest appetite stimulant for dogs is called capromorelin, brand name Entyce. Entyce blocks the ghrelin receptors in a dog’s body so she feels hungrier. It can be used to increase appetite in dogs with chronic kidney disease but should not be used for dogs with liver disease.
Entyce comes in a liquid form so it’s easy to give to a dog who is not eating much. Side effects may include vomiting, diarrhea and lethargy. We don’t have a lot of information about using it long-term, but it might be OK in certain cases.
Should You Force Feed Your Dog?
Force feeding a dog is a pretty extreme thing to do. I rarely recommend it since it can cause more problems than it solves. Dogs can breathe in food that you force into their mouths, causing aspiration pneumonia.
Beyond the possibility of aspiration, dogs can get their feelings hurt pretty badly when their trusted owner tries to force feed them. It can make them not want to eat even more.
If you decide to try force-feeding, I suggest you get your vet’s help. We usually use smooth, paté-type canned food that has a lot of calories so you don’t have to feed as much. One brand vets use a lot is Hill’s a/d food.
A high-quality non-prescription puppy food could also work for force-feeding. I like Royal Canin Puppy Appetite Stimulation canned food for this purpose. It has almost as many calories as Hill’s a/d and your dog might even eat it on her own. Be careful if your dog is prone to pancreatitis or diarrhea as this rich food could cause digestive upset.
The food is mixed with enough warm water to make it the consistency of a thick gravy. Then the mixture is spooned into a large syringe(one with no needle). The syringe tip is held at the side of the mouth, and small amounts of food are pushed into the dog’s mouth through the opening in the teeth.
Most dogs will lick and swallow the food once it’s on their tongue. You have to go very slowly with this procedure to prevent the dog from breathing the food in. If you try to go too quickly the dog might become upset with you and refuse to participate.
Does Your Dog Need a Feeding Tube?
This is a tough question. We know that dogs with serious, terminal diseases have a better quality of life when they get good nutrition and stay hydrated. But most people will ask themselves if it’s a good idea to prolong the inevitable.
I can’t answer that for you but I want to let you know that veterinarians can do a lot to prevent your dog from suffering too much. Placing a feeding tube into the esophagus (or sometimes through the nose) is a fairly minor procedure and it might be worth it so your dog’s final days will be more comfortable.
Once the tube is in place, you can feed your dog a liquid diet quickly and painlessly. Most dogs are not bothered by an esophageal feeding tube as it is hidden under a bandage around their neck and doesn’t cause them any pain.
Sometimes even very sick dogs feel quite a bit better once they get some calories and water in their system. A feeding tube might give your dog a longer time with you and improve his quality of life.
A feeding tube would not be a good idea for a dog who has severe vomiting, is unconscious or is not expected to survive for more than a day or two more.
Ask your vet what they think and whether they’re willing to do the procedure for you.
When a Dog Stops Eating How Long Before They Die?
Once your dog stops eating how long can he live? It depends on whether he has some underlying disease. For instance, if your dog has severe kidney or heart disease, the time between the last time he eats and death will probably be a matter of a day or two.
For dogs who are just really old and debilitated with no other specific disease, he could survive for days without eating. If your old dog is not eating but is still drinking water, he could go even longer without food, possibly up to a couple of weeks.
It also depends on how much body fat and muscle a dog has. If your dog is already very skinny when he stops eating, he will probably not survive longer than a few days.
When Should You Stop Trying to Get Your Dog to Eat?
In some cases you will have a clear cut signal that you should stop trying to get your dog to eat. Reasons to stop coaxing to eat or force feeding your dog include:
- Vomiting that can’t be controlled with medication
- Inability to swallow normally
- Unconscious or significantly decreased consciousness
There are also plenty of cases where it’s not so clear cut. A lot of geriatric dogs have good and bad days. Just when you’re ready to throw in the towel, the next day your dog eats like a champ. Be ready for that roller coaster and try to take things day by day.
When your dog has more bad days than good days and you’ve done everything you can think of to help him feel better, it’s probably time to stop trying. If your dog is getting upset with you, avoiding you, etc. because you’re trying to feed him all the time, it might be time to stop trying.
I’ll also tell you this:
I’ve had many clients tell me they felt they prolonged their dog’s life too long after all is said and done. They say they feel badly because they did it more for themselves than for the dog.
I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve heard it over and over too many times not to consider it when someone asks me what to do for their old dog when they stop eating.
Losing a friend is always painful. Having to make a decision to let a friend die is even harder.
You know your dog better than anyone. Think about what he or she would have wanted if they could express it to you. Can you make them comfortable enough that they look forward to each day?
Here is a summary of what you should do if your older dog stops eating.
- Find out if your dog has a treatable disease by consulting with your vet.
- Try different foods, settings and activities to increase your dog’s interest in eating.
- Talk to your vet about an appetite stimulant.
- Consider force-feeding or placing a feeding tube.
- Think about signs your old dog is giving you to stop trying to get him to eat.
M.K., I hope I’ve given you some tips you can use. Get your veterinarian to help you figure out if your dog has a treatable disease. Try a bunch of different ideas I mentioned and enjoy every minute you have with your buddy.
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