Why Is My Dog Refusing Dinner?
It may be tempting to call the vet the second your pooch refuses dinner, but it’s perfectly natural and ordinary for some dogs to skip a meal or two on occasion. She may have simply filled up on a few too many treats that day, or she might be feeling a bit bored with her kibble.
If your dog goes more than 48–72 hours without eating anything at all, you should at least call your vet to inform them of the situation. A healthy adult dog can go a few days without a meal if she absolutely has to, but if you have a puppy, adult dog with a known medical condition, or a senior dog call sooner.
Most dogs are foodies, so missed feeding times can be alarming. Waiting to see if things clear up on their own can be quite stressful for any pet parent. You can prevent a heap of worry, canine suffering, and unneeded veterinary expense if you can determine the appropriate response: waiting or taking immediate action.
How Do I Rule Out Common Medical Reasons?
Carefully observe your dog for other symptoms along with her lack of interest in food. If loss of appetite is just another sign of trouble in a long list of issues like vomiting and diarrhea, then it is past time to call the vet. If she also refuses to drink, for example, then it is time for medical attention.
Perform a quick physical exam on your dog. Apply a little bit of gentle pressure on her abdomen. Her midsection should feel soft and smooth, not firm or bulgy in any way. Touching it should not cause your dog to yelp or react in pain or surprise. Call your veterinarian immediately if you notice any abnormality here, as it may point to an illness or other serious condition.
After you've inspected her stomach, slowly and gently check in and around your dog's mouth. Rotten or broken teeth will definitely cause your dog pain, and dental problems will need expert attention before she feels like eating again. A soft, mild diet may help somewhat in the short term if the dental issue is minor, but if you come across anything worrisome, reach out to your veterinarian right away, as dental issues can be more serious than they appear.
If all seems normal, then think back over the previous few days. Is it possible that your dog ate something she was not supposed to, like human food? (Stolen cheeseburger, anyone?)
Even if she joyously gobbled up some of your food, she may feel a little sick for days afterward. Dogs thrive best on a regular diet, and any sudden changes can cause tummy issues, even if those changes are accidental. If there are other caretakers or people who regularly interact with your dog, then you’ll also want to ask them if they’ve noticed anything suspicious.
If you have ruled out the basics and you still have a lingering feeling that something may be medically wrong, it’s always safest to consult with your trusted veterinarian. It’ll cost you less in the long run, and it will be easier to take care of if you notice a problem early on. It’s best to err on the side of caution if you suspect your dog may need to see the vet for any reason.
However, it is also entirely possible that your dog may be refusing to eat for other, less medically urgent reasons. If that is the case, then it may be several days before she resumes eating.
How About More Behavioral Reasons?
Often, refusal to eat is a chosen behavior for a dog. Usually, we refer to this as simply being picky. Some people might even call it being spoiled or bratty, but pickiness is usually a learned behavior, so we have to keep our own accountability in mind, as pet parents. After all, it is our responsibility to establish consistent feeding routines to prevent poor eating habits from forming in the first place. There may be other causes at play that aren’t necessarily grounds for calling the veterinarian immediately.
This may seem too obvious to be true, but there may simply be something wrong with the food that’s causing your dog to avoid it. This holds true especially if you just served from a brand new wet food or when a bag of dry food has been open for a long time. Closely examine the dog food, and if you notice anything off, discard it.
Another relatively simple possibility here is that your dog’s food portions may be off. As Dr. Shmalberg discusses here, many of the popular mass-produced dog foods on the market overestimate the amount of food a dog typically needs to consume. This is because people often worry if their dog loses even a little bit of weight after switching to a new food.
Manufacturers do not want any panicked pet parents switching back to the original food not produced by their company, so they usually ensure that their recommended portions are more than generous. However good this strategy might be for a mass-manufacturers bottom line, this is far less than ideal for our furry friends.
Not only does overfeeding contribute to excessive weight gain, but by routinely feeding your dog too much, she may be less and less interested in her food each time you feed her. In this context, a dog who skips meals is healthier than a dog who eats every meal put in front of her.
Environmental Stress + Anxiety
Although stress and anxiety are technically medical issues, they are not an urgent emergency situation in the same way that an intestinal blockage, infection, or an extremely painful broken tooth would be. Problems related to stress and anxiety are common, particularly in cases where there is any sudden change in the canine’s environment or routine.
Prolonged separation from family, moving, or travel all may trigger loss of appetite, even vomiting. Dogs will often refuse to eat while their beloved pet parent is away, so if you come home from vacation to find that your dog is a little thinner and slow to eat, she may have been simply too stressed by your absence to eat. Other common sources of anxiety include fireworks, thunderstorms, and other loud or disruptive events.
If you suspect that your dog’s lack of appetite may be linked to an environmental or situational stressor, do your best to address the issue and monitor her food intake. If her disinterest in food persists, you may wish to consult with your veterinarian about ways to support your dog through her struggles with anxiety.
Encouraging Eating When Your Dog Has Skipped A Meal
If you’ve ruled out all of the above possible factors, your dog seems completely fine, and there are no other symptoms or unusual circumstances, you can try a few simple things to get your dog to eat:
- Try a different dog food, possibly one that is fresh and more palatable. (Keep in mind, however, we as pet parents tend to reinforce "picky" behavior by constantly changing food to something more appetizing each time our pets refuse to eat. Don't fall into this trap.)
- Warm the food before you serve it. This can sometimes help to entice a fussy eater. Also, add some NomNomNow flavor flakes to the food to make it more appealing!
- Eliminate treats for a week or so. Just as overfeeding meals can contribute to loss of appetite, so too can excessive treats.
Most of the time, picky eating is a phase that will go away on its own. Dogs may skip one or two meals on occasion but behave enthusiastically at the next meal time. Keep lots of fresh water available at all times, and keep a close eye on your dog for a few days. If you are still concerned and unsure about your dog’s lack of appetite, read more about picky eaters.