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A reader wrote in with this question:
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?
Senior dogs are the best, am I right? But when their age catches up to them, things change. And if you’re like me, you tend to worry when things change!
Your main concern should be determining if your dog has a health problem causing a poor appetite. It could be a simple problem like a sore tooth or joint pain. Older dogs are also more likely to have major diseases including cancer, liver disease, kidney disease and diabetes.
You should definitely take your senior dog to see a veterinarian as soon as possible. They will help you get things sorted with a physical exam and diagnostic testing.
Once your dog gets the right treatment, their appetite might fix itself. But if you need some tips to improve their eating habits, I’ve got plenty of advice for you.
- Decreased appetite is common in elderly dogs and has many possible causes from serious diseases to cognitive problems.
- Sometime you need to be creative in your approach to feeding to get an older dog to eat.
- You should seek urgent care from a veterinarian if your dog has not eaten for 24 hours.
What causes poor appetite in older dogs?
Senior dogs are often less active and don’t require as much food to maintain a normal weight. It’s normal for a senior dog to eat less than they did when they were young. If your senior is not eating at all, that’s a concern. And if they’re losing weight, that’s also a problem.
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.
Pain from arthritis or dental disease
Osteoarthritis is common in elderly pups and may lead to debilitating pain. Other symptoms include decreased mobility and limping. Dogs with severe diseases may even eat less.
Dental disease causes pain and decreased food intake for so many senior dogs. You may notice a bad odor from the mouth, drooling or gum inflammation. But some dogs only have problems under the gumline where it’s impossible to see without X-ray imaging.
Medication side effects
Some of the most commonly prescribed dog medications are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs. These meds improve the quality of millions of arthritic senior dogs. Even though dog NSAIDs are made to be gentle on the stomach, they still cause problems in some cases. Decreased appetite is a common side effect.
Kidney and liver disease
Kidney and liver problems are much more common in senior dogs than in youngsters. The symptoms often come on gradually over a period of months so they may go undetected. Changes in drinking and appetite are present in most dogs with kidney or liver disease. You may also notice vomiting, diarrhea and weight loss.
Heart and respiratory disease
Congestive heart failure, asthma and laryngeal paralysis affect older dogs. In addition to decreased activity levels and coughing, most dogs have a loss of appetite.
Diabetes mellitus causes many symptoms and severe illness. Almost all diabetic dogs have increased drinking and increased appetite in the early stages of the disease. As they get sicker, they may stop eating.
Cancer is caused by the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. It affects dogs over about 10 years old much more than younger dogs. Dogs with cancer lose their appetite from altered metabolism of body waste and by-products of their cancers.
How to help an older 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…
Change the food
- Offer canned dog food to dogs who usually eat dry food. Try 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. Remove the peel for better digestion.
- Start making homemade food. For long-term feeding, be sure to consult your vet for a balanced recipe.
- Try feeding rotisserie chicken meat only. Don’t include any skin or fat to avoid digestive issues.
- Sprinkle parmesan cheese on top of the food.
- Save this for desperate situations… Take your dog through a fast-food drive-through and order him a small, plain hamburger or non-breaded chicken sandwich.
Change the feeding environment
- Raise the food dish so they don’t have to bend down to eat it.
- Bring the food dish to them in their bed.
- Spoon feed or hand feed them.
- Eat at the same time as your dog, sitting nearby so they can see you.
- Introduce a little competition by having another friendly dog to eat nearby.
- Feed them outside for a change.
- If your dog likes games or training, get them up and go through all their tricks several times a day, using cooked lean meat as a reward.
- Take a walk in a new place. Mental stimulation can stimulate the appetite.
- Take your dog for a ride in the car and have a passenger feed them lean meat treats during the drive.
- Take a field trip to a park or other favorite place and offer a meal there.
Prescription appetite stimulants
Capromorelin (Entyce®) is a prescription appetite stimulant for dogs. Entyce blocks the ghrelin receptors in a dog’s body so they feel hungrier. (1)
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. It can be used in dogs with chronic kidney disease but should not be used for dogs with liver disease.
Force-feeding and feeding tubes
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, causing aspiration pneumonia. If you’re thinking about trying to force-feed your dog, ask your vet to walk you through the safe way of doing it.
A safer long-term solution is to have a feeding tube placed. Dogs with serious, terminal diseases have a better quality of life when they get good nutrition and stay hydrated. The procedure to place the tube is relatively minor and it can help your pup feel better even if it doesn’t cure their disease.
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.
When should I worry about my senior dog not eating?
Dogs will occasionally miss a meal. That’s normal and to be expected. But when should you worry and when is it an emergency?
If your dog is normal in every other way and skips a meal, it’s OK to monitor them for the next 24 hours. If they haven’t eaten at all within 24 hours, seek veterinary help.
If your dog is missing several meals a week or eating so much less food that they’re losing weight, it’s cause for concern. Make an appointment to see your vet within the next few days.
When your dog has other symptoms such as lethargy, changes in thirst, vomiting, diarrhea, or rapid breathing you should get them to the vet as soon as possible. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Go to your local veterinary emergency clinic if you can’t get in with your regular vet.
When you have a senior dog, you’re likely to face the problem of decreased appetite eventually. Here are the steps you should take when it happens to you:
- 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.
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 some of the tips I mentioned and enjoy every minute you have with your buddy.
- Zollers, B., Wofford, J. A., Heinen, E., Huebner, M., & Rhodes, L. (2016). A prospective, randomized, masked, placebo‐controlled clinical study of capromorelin in dogs with reduced appetite. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 30(6), 1851-1857.