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Myths About Dog Starvation

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It is a common misconception that dogs will starve when they skip meals. Many pet parents see their precious pup miss a meal or two and may feel as if they should call the vet immediately if he skips breakfast or dinner, or they may even overfeed at the next meal to compensate for the missed calories.

However, as we have discussed elsewhere on the site, it is perfectly natural for some dogs to skip meals on occasion. This behavior is rooted in nature and in the way dogs have evolved from their wolfy predecessors. It is simply something that happens from time to time, and it can sometimes even be a good thing.

The opposite behavior, overeating, does have the potential to harm a dog, but canine “starvation” due to “picky” eating behavior is for the most part a myth.

Dogs are quite resistant to starvation when compared with humans, so unless you are deliberately depriving your dog of food for days and weeks on end, he is unlikely to starve. Some studies have even shown dogs can survive medically supervised fasts of up to 117 days—and although we obviously do not suggest you attempt this under any circumstances, it should be of some comfort if your dog happens to turn his nose up at a meal or two!

The next time your dog refuses dinner of his own accord, remember the following two things:

  1. It is likely completely natural behavior.
  2. It is highly preferable to the opposite.

Wild Eating: Feast or Famine

In the wild, wolves do not eat every single day. Depending on the availability of their prey, weather conditions, and even the size and skill of their pack, they may not be able to secure fresh prey for several days at a time, or even a week or two. Their bodies have adapted well to this eating schedule, and they are able to function perfectly fine without a bowl of food in the morning and evening.

Though your dog should definitely have a regular feeding schedule, he may occasionally refuse meals as a call back to his wild instinct. Certain breeds are more famous for this than others—for example, Siberian huskies and other northern breeds in particular sometimes partake in voluntary fasting for seemingly no reason.  This may be due in part to the fact that sled dogs are sometimes fed only intermittently, especially during the off season.

Long-term canine anorexia can be dangerous, but it is relatively uncommon. If a dog is truly unable to eat for a long period of time, it is likely related to an underlying medical issue. Most of the time, however, dogs simply need to get a few meal skips out of their system, and they should resume eating soon enough.

When this happens and your vet determines there is no underlying medical issue, simply stick to your dog’s regular feeding schedule as much as you can. Eventually, he should start eating again, whether at the next meal or the one after—though every once in a while an especially stubborn pup may need a few days to get the idea.

The Dangers of Overeating

Just as periodic fasting comes from the wild, so too does overeating—its exact opposite. This means sometimes this behavior shows up in our domesticated friends as well. However, too much food (or too much eaten too quickly) can be highly dangerous for dogs and should worry pet parents much more than skipped meals.

A dog who scarfs down his food too quickly may develop bloat, a serious and often fatal condition where the stomach fills with air and contorts against other internal organs. Although veterinarians do not fully understand why bloat happens, fast eaters are known to be among the most at risk. This means that if your dog is more likely to show little interest in his food rather than wolf it down immediately, it may be a blessing in disguise.

Furthermore, habitual overeating contributes to obesity. It may seem harmless for your dog to have a few extra pounds on his body, (and if he is a cheerful overeater, it may seem as if it makes him happy), but obesity in dogs is connected to arthritis, hypothyroidism, diabetes, autoimmune disease, and shortened lifespan. Many dogs are happy to overeat if they get the chance, but it is much better for their health if you control their portions.

It can be a little scary to see your dog not showing much of an appetite, but it is important to remember that the most likely explanation is that he is simply not very hungry today! When in doubt, talk with your vet about your dog’s behavior, and keep a close eye on him.


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