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While changing appetite levels are normal for any dog, older dogs (seven and over) can be more prone to a loss of appetite. Pet parents can feel serious concern when their beloved senior pup chooses not to eat at all for extended periods of time.
But how do you know if your dog ignoring their food is a sign of a serious health problem or just them getting pickier as they get older? And what can you do to make sure your canine child is getting all the nutrients they need when they aren’t interested in their bowl?
Read on as we go through exactly when your dog’s eating habits are a cause for concern and how to diagnose what may be causing their loss of appetite. We will go through some of the medical conditions that can cause changes in eating habits, and some of these more mundane causes for loss of appetite. We have also included advice on how to encourage your dog to start eating again in different circumstances.
Finally, we look at that all-important question. If and when your dog not eating might be a sign that they are coming to the end of their days.
SPOILER ALERT! This is not usually the case. If your dog is approaching the end of their life, there are other signs to look out for.
Contents & Quick Navigation
- What Do You Mean “Won’t Eat”?
- Visit The Vet
- Reasons For Not Eating
- What Does It Mean For End-Of-Life?
- Final Thoughts
- Save To Pinterest
- Top Picks For Our Dogs
What Do You Mean “Won’t Eat”?
Pet parents can mean a lot of different things when they describe their dog as “not eating.”
At its most extreme, this might mean they simply aren’t eating anything at all and may have been all but nil by mouth for a number of days.
For others, it can mean that an already fussy dog has gotten even fussier and is turning their noses up at kibble that they used to eat. Or, it could be that a dog that usually loves to eat anything and has suddenly become a very picky pooch.
While the dog isn’t cleaning their bowl, perhaps they still aren’t losing weight. Or perhaps they are eating, but they also seem to be undergoing dramatic weight loss.
So, what exactly do you mean when you say that your dog isn’t eating?
Visit The Vet
Whatever stage of “not eating” your dog is at, it is probably worth a trip to the vet to discuss it with them. Not eating can be a sign of serious health problems, which you will certainly want to rule out.
For example, not eating is often a sign of serious health conditions such as:
- Addison’s Disease – This is when the adrenal glands are not producing necessary hormones to control body functions, such as aldosterone and cortisol.
- Cancer – The leading cause of death in dogs over the age of 10. The most common types are lymphoma, skin cancer, breast cancer, and bone cancer.
- Dementia – A disease common in the brains of aging dogs, which affects memory, learning, and comprehension.
- Heart Problems – A group of common heart conditions for dogs including heart valve degeneration, irregular heart rate rhythm, and heart muscle disease.
- Kidney Disease – The progressive loss of kidney function until the kidneys are unable to remove waste products from the blood.
- Liver Issues – Usually genetic or caused by aging, it can affect your dog’s digestion, undermine blood clotting, and see a build-up of toxins in your dog’s system.
- Pancreatitis – Inflammation of the pancreas, which undermines dogs’ digestion and blood sugar regulation.
It can also be the result of dental problems and mobility issues, which make eating painful for your dog, even when they are hungry.
Your dog’s vet will have specific questions about your dog’s eating habits to determine exactly what you mean by “not eating.” They will ask questions such as:
- Exactly how much are they eating and how does this compare to before?
- How long has it been since they last ate?
- Are they not eating at all or are they being selective, and if so, what are they eating and what are they rejecting?
- How often are they being given food and at what times of the day? Are there certain times when they are more or less inclined to eat than others?
- Have there been any recent changes in their environment or diet?
- Is the loss of appetite accompanied by other symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea?
- What is happening with their weight? Is it stable or dropping?
- Is there anything else about their behavior or health that you are concerned about?
Your vet will probably also want to conduct blood, urine, and fecal tests, and probably conduct a dental exam to make their diagnosis.
Generally speaking, if your dog’s loss of appetite is linked with more serious health concerns, it will be accompanied by other signs, including but not limited to:
- Weight changes
- Diarrhea or constipation
Reasons For Not Eating
If your doctor rules out a serious health condition, there are a variety of reasons why older dogs might stop eating or eat a lot less. Below is a list of the most common causes of loss of appetite and some of the immediate things you can do to help your dog.
As dogs get older, they are very likely to suffer from both joint pain and dental issues that can cause them pain. This can make it painful for them to eat, which can put them off their food.
When it comes to dental issues, the source of the pain is pretty clear. If there is no dental solution to the problem, you may want to switch them to soft foods, such as pâtés, which they can eat without having to really use their teeth.
Joint pain can also be problematic because it can make it difficult for them to get to their bowl. An immediate solution to this can be to elevate their bowl to a level that is comfortable for them. You may also want to talk to your vet about anti-inflammatory and pain relief medication, since they will not want to be in pain while eating.
Older dogs tend to have less energy than when they were younger, so they are burning less energy running around the house, garden, and park. They also have slower metabolisms, which means they need fewer calories to maintain themselves. As a result, they are less hungry.
Their reduced appetite is a natural response to this change in their bodies, and as long as it is not accompanied by dramatic weight loss, it is generally not anything to worry about. A bigger concern with senior dogs is generally when their appetite doesn’t respond, they eat too much and gain excessive weight.
But if your dog is eating less, you may well be worried they are not getting all of the nutrients that they need. You can help with this by feeding them dog foods specifically for seniors.
This generally means a food that is higher in quality proteins and low in carbohydrates and calories. You will also want to find something with a very good nutrient pack, which covers them for anything that they might be missing. Nutrient packs that contain metabolism boosters, such as L-Carnitine, and Glucosamine for joint pain are a good choice.
You can also try and get your dog moving and exercising more to help boost their appetite. But this will depend on the overall health of your dog.
You can see our recommendations for the best dog foods for senior dogs here.
You can read more about proper nutrition for senior and elderly Labradors here.
Older dogs are also more likely to suffer from constipation. This can leave them feeling full and heavy, and therefore, disinclined to eat. It can also make for a messy and smelly bathroom break when they do manage to pass whatever is holding them up.
These dogs benefit from more moisture in their diet. If they aren’t big drinkers, you can add moisture by mixing gravy into their kibble or switching them to a wet food diet.
It is also a good idea to look for foods that are high in fiber and which contain digestive assistance such as prebiotics and probiotics, which help ensure that the stomach has the right good bacteria to successfully digest meals.
Loss Of Taste And Smell
Eyesight and hearing are not the only senses that start to weaken as dogs get older. They also tend to lose their sense of taste and smell. As a result, whatever is in their bowl will suddenly seem less appealing.
You can take steps to make your dog’s dish more appealing to them. Again, consider mixing gravy into their kibble or moving them onto a wet food diet. You can even add a bit of chicken broth to their water if they have started to drink less.
Old dogs can be a lot like older people, a little set in their ways. They do not always respond well to change.
Significant changes such as moving house, new people or new pets entering the house, new foods, a change in schedule are all factors that can cause your dog to go off their food.
There sometimes isn’t much you can do about this aside from wait for them to adjust to the new changes and support them to do that as quickly as possible through training and a lot of love and affection.
Low Blood Sugar
Your dog is likely to lose their appetite if they have low blood sugar. This causes their levels to drop even further, which can make them even less interested in eating. Before you know it, you have a serious problem.
If their blood sugar drop isn’t linked with a more serious medical condition but rather having treated themselves to something they shouldn’t, boosting their blood sugar levels can get their appetite to return. Rub a little bit of honey into their gums to safely raise their levels.
Side Effects Of Medication
Certain medications that dogs might start to need when they get older can also have a dampening effect on their appetite. Common culprits include anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, certain painkillers, and some common urinary tract infections.
You can speak to your vet about changing their medication to something that won’t affect their appetite. If this is not possible, your vet might also be able to give you an appetite stimulant.
However, if the last thing you want is to fill your dog with more drugs, make sure you feed them appealing wet meals and give them praise and rewards when they eat, to encourage them to keep on eating.
OUR EXPERIENCE: When Linus was diagnosed with congestive heart failure the meds our veterinarian prescribed suppressed his appetite. As far as we could tell it wasn’t the hard condition that caused him to stop eating, but the drugs he had to take for has ailing heart.
What Does It Mean For End-Of-Life?
The big question a lot of pet parents have is whether their dog’s loss of interest in food is a signal that they are approaching the end of their lives. The answer to that question is it’s complicated.
As we have already discussed, older dogs start eating less as a natural response to their drop-in metabolism and activity levels. So, yes, a drop in appetite can be a clear indicator that your dog is entering their senior years.
However, dogs are generally considered senior from about the age of seven, and you can expect to see changes in their energy levels from around this time. But they could still have five, ten, or more happy and healthy years in front of them. So, this normal drop in appetite is hardly an “end-of-life” sign.
In the hours and days before your dog actually does pass of old age, they are also likely to be very uninterested in food. The key sign that the end is approaching is extreme lethargy. They are likely to have no energy and want to sit alone in a quiet, out of the way spot, and the last thing on their mind will be food.
So, while in this case, a lack of interest in food can be a sign that your dog is going to pass very shortly, it is probably not the first or the most prominent sign you will see.
OUR EXPERIENCE: Stetson was diagnosed with cancer and our vet told us he had a few more months to live. He didn’t see all that different for the first month and ate his meals with the same enthusiasm of a Lab. However, one day he started having more difficulty getting up and a day or so later he stopped eating and within another half a day he couldn’t get up and we had to take him to our vet to be euthanized. It was a very sad, emotional few days for us.
What about everything in between? The answer is that it depends. As we have seen, loss of appetite can be a symptom of many things. It could indicate serious medical conditions such as cancer.
It can alert you to your dog having painful dental problems. It may be a sign your dog is suffering from depression, perhaps related to someone leaving the house. Their metabolism could also just be slowing down, making them less hungry, and therefore, pickier.
The best thing you can do is treat their change in eating habit as a symptom and go from there to figure out what exactly is happening with your pooch.
How Long Can An Old Dog Go Without Eating?
Older dogs can generally go three to five days without food, but you will probably want to speak to your vet if they have not eaten anything for 24 hours. More concerning than not eating can be not drinking. Dogs can die of dehydration within less than two days.
What To Feed A Senior Dog Who Won’t Eat?
What you should feed a senior dog that isn’t eating depends on why they are not eating. For example, if it is dental pain that is curbing their appetite, they will want a soft food like a pâté.
If it is a general loss of appetite and interest in food, you will want to feed them the most appealing food possible.
This generally means strong-smelling wet foods. Every dog likes a nice steak! We’ve found that our dogs love the stinky stuff. Linus’ favorite was this super stinky salmon treat. However, cutting up a hot dog may work just as well for your dog.
If they aren’t drinking, try adding a little bit of chicken broth to their drinking water.
When Should I Worry About My Dog Not Eating?
If your dog hasn’t eaten anything at all within 24 hours, or they are eating, but their weight is dropping, it is definitely time to take an emergency trip to the vet.
If they are just being picky with their food, but they are eating enough to get by, you might want to spend some time trying to identify the problem yourself. You can try changing their food and identifying any environmental conditions that may have caused the change in behavior.
But if it persists, see your vet. While it might not be anything serious, they can still help you identify the best course of action.
How Can I Stimulate My Older Dog’s Appetite?
If your dog is suffering from a serious lack of appetite, your vet may give them an appetite stimulant. But for home remedies, you need to make the food as appetizing as possible. This often means mixing wet food in with dry kibble, or, if they are already on a wet food diet, heating it up a little to release the smell.
You can also stay close, and offer praise when they do eat to help reinforce that this is a good thing for them to be doing.
What Are Signs Of A Dog Dying Of Old Age?
The main sign your dog might be approaching the end of their days as a result of old age is lethargy and lack of energy. This is more than the usual drop in energy that all older dogs experience.
You will probably find them spending most of their time lying down in a quiet corner. This loss of energy will probably also mean they are not very interested in eating.
Fortunately or unfortunately for us there were signs with our last two dogs Linus and Stetson before they stopped eating. They both started with a hacking cough that required a visit to the vet. That’s where they were both diagnosed with more serious conditions: Heart disease for Linus and cancer for Stetson.
Rest In Peace my two buddies.
A change in appetite can be a warning sign for dogs of any age, but it is more common and can be more concerning as dogs get older.
It may be a sign of a serious medical condition or just a change in appetite as a response to their reduced metabolism and energy levels.
If your dog has suddenly stopped eating altogether or has undergone noticeable weight loss due to a reduced appetite, it is a good idea to consult your vet immediately.
Try and identify what has put your dog off their food and see what you can do to improve the situation.
Are they having dental problems? Give them soft foods like pâtés that they won’t need to chew much. Are they losing their sense of smell? Switch them to a “smellier” wet food diet that they are likely to find more appealing.
As is the case with many things canine-related, since they can’t tell us what is wrong, it is often a case of trial and error to identify the problem and find the solution.
Do you have any experience dealing with an older dog who has decided that they don’t much like what is in their bowl?
Share your experience with the community in the comments section below.
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