Eating is one of the most basic needs of any animal’s body, including us! Not only is it necessary to provide us with energy, micro and macronutrients, but it also tastes good and nourishes our soul. As humans, we enjoy feeding and being fed, and most of our cultural and social experiences revolve around food.
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Noticing our dog’s tail wag every time we pronounce a word that vaguely resembles “biscuit”; the joy running through their body as we open the bag; or the overblown obedience when we hold said treat in our hand, is not only amusing but also fills our heart with love and delight. After all, a good appetite is a sign of good health. Seeing a loved pet happy and well-nourished feels nothing short of great to any dedicated, responsible owner.
But what if the opposite happens?
You walk towards the cupboard and your dog lays there, unbothered; open the bag and they don’t even lift their heads. They finally come when you lay the food on the bowl. But, surprise surprise, they walk away after a couple of uninterested sniffs. You ignore this behaviour the first day, maybe they are tired or just don’t feel like eating and, thinking about it, it’s not even the first time it happens. However, the second day comes and the same sequence of events occurs. What should you do? Should you worry? Take them to the vets? Give them something better?
Classic answer: it depends!
When should we start worrying about a loss of appetite for food?
Anorexia is described in medical terms as a lack or loss of appetite for food. It can be the first sign something is wrong with your dog’s health. Dogs can stop eating when they’re painful, hot, nauseous, overfed, nervous, if they have difficulty smelling, chewing, picking up or swallowing food or a preference for different food.
A few of the above mentioned reasons are behavioural. Although addressing them is still necessary, they do not require emergency treatment. However, there are several life-threatening and chronic diseases that lead to nausea or pain. For example kidney disease, several forms of cancer, bowel obstruction and diabetes mellitus, to name a few. For this reason, if your dog stops eating for two days you should always seek veterinary help to investigate these conditions.
Can a lack of appetite ever be ignored?
There are other factors you can consider when your dog ignores their food.
How is their demeanour?
If they are still bouncy, well in themselves and begging for your food at the table, these are all good signs. A dog that stops eating as a result of a disease process usually feels lethargic, you can see them licking their lips (a sign of nausea or pain) or looking at their abdomen or hunching their backs.
Can you notice a behavioural pattern?
Maybe every time your dog does not eat, they receive a more palatable food and this is encouraging them to not eat their own, samey diet. This is incredibly common, especially with younger dogs that are used to receiving a variety of diets or human food. Dogs that choose not to eat will usually show enthusiasm for food until they look at the bowl and see that what’s there isn’t as interesting as they were expecting and will beg for food outside mealtimes.
Do they have an appropriate weight?
We assess whether a pet’s weight is healthy using a body condition score. If your dog has an overall reduced appetite and is overweight, chances are you are overfeeding them without realising it. Have a look at the label of their food bag. Most commercial diets have a chart showing how much to feed according to the dog’s body weight. Remember calories in treats, chicken and pouches of wet food also count and should be considered when measuring your dog’s ideal daily intake.
You can ask your vet for help in calculating a suitable diet for your dog. Some practices also run nurse weight clinics that are perfect for dogs that need to lose or gain weight. Dogs with hypothyroidism will gain weight and have a reduced appetite despite being fed appropriately; if you think this may be happening to your dog, have a discussion with your vet, as hypothyroidism can be confirmed or ruled out with a single blood test.
Although the tips above can help you determine how urgent anorexia might be, medicine is not maths and, even in cases where everything points towards a behavioural problem, something more sinister may be the real culprit. By ignoring your dog’s lack of appetite, you may inadvertently allow a disease that could be detected and corrected in the early stages to progress and become a real problem. For this reason, anorexia in dogs that lasts more than one day should never be ignored and veterinary attention should be sought in all cases.