Dog Won’t Eat Dog Food – Picky Eater or Serious Problem?

Few things are as concerning for a dog owner as when their dog won’t eat dog food.

While your initial thoughts could be that your dog no longer enjoys their food and has become a bit of a picky eater, sometimes a refusal to eat could point towards a much more serious health issue.  

To help put your mind at ease, we highlight some potential causes of your dog’s reduced appetite. From there, we’ll explain when you should be concerned and what actions you should take. 

How do you know if your dog is just picky or if you have a more serious problem?

There are many reasons why your dog might not want to eat, including health reasons, environmental reasons, and behavioral reasons.

Below, we cover these and a few other reasons and give you some tips on how you can encourage your dog to eat.

What to Do if You Suspect that Your Dog isn’t Eating

dog lying next to food bowl
If your dog has stopped eating their food, inspecting their kibble and body (such as teeth and gums) may help you pinpoint the problem.

If you believe that your dog isn’t eating its dry dog food or they’re eating less than usual, you should take the issue seriously.

It could be a mild issue, like the food being stale or having an unpleasant taste, or it could point to a serious health issue.

To help determine the causes, you need to assess the situation.

The following steps will help you determine the cause for your dog’s refusal to eat:

1. Fill your dog’s food bowl with fresh kibble & observe their behavior

Make notes on their behavior over the course of a day or two.

Do they eat some kibble, but not the entire bowl? Does the dog ignore the food entirely?

These notes will be helpful if you need to take your canine companion to see a veterinarian. 

2. If the dog Won’t Touch its kibble, inspect its teeth & gums

One of the most common reasons why dogs stop eating is tooth or gum pain. You should also check your dog’s body for lumps and any obvious signs of injury.

3. Check for issues with the food

If you can’t find any physical problems, make sure that the food hasn’t expired by checking the label.

If the food hasn’t expired and it doesn’t look or smell spoiled, you should be able to rule it out as the cause for your dog’s reduced appetite.

If you’ve recently switched your dog to a new flavor or brand of dry dog food, your pet could be reacting to the change.

This is common when dogs are switched to low-calorie, weight management food, as these kibbles are often less flavorful. 

4. take your dog to see a veterinarian

If you’re sure that there’s nothing wrong with the kibble and you can’t find any physical explanation for your dog’s refusal to eat, it’s time to take your dog to see a veterinarian.

Internal injuries, serious illness, and even anxiety-related disorders can all impact a dog’s appetite, so they must get the treatment they need.

REMEMBER: It’s important to ensure that you’re not feeding your dog people food or too many treats, as this could be why your dog isn’t eating its kibble during meal times.

To rule out simple preference issues, if you’ve recently switched your dog to a new type of food, try to feed them a bowl of their old food. 

If your dog happily eats their old food, you may have to slowly wean them onto the new food, rather than change it abruptly.

Try mixing the new kibble into their old food in increasing volumes for each meal.

Read our related article on the Best Dog Foods for Picky Eaters. If your dog just doesn’t like the taste of most foods, this guide can help! We tested the top dog foods for picky pooches.

Common Reasons Why Dogs Stop Eating Their Kibble

dog not interested in food
Dogs may stop eating for a variety of reasons such as a distaste for a new food, a temporary illness, emotional problems, or serious health implications.

The list of reasons why your dog won’t eat dog food can get quite lengthy. It can range from serious life-threatening medical issues to simple issues with the food itself.

Below, you’ll find the most common causes for a loss of appetite in canines.

Medical Conditions

In dogs, a sudden loss of appetite or a decreased appetite can indicate a variety of underlying medical conditions. 

A medical-related cause for your dog’s loss of appetite becomes more likely if the dog hasn’t eaten for more than 24 hours, as most dogs will eventually eat out of hunger, even if they don’t like the food being provided.

The following are some of the most common medical issues that can result in a dog refusing to eat its kibble:

  • Dental Disease – Dental disease happens to be one of the most common medical conditions seen by veterinarians, so it shouldn’t be surprising if some form of dental disease is causing your dog to turn away from its food bowl.

In most cases, the dog will suffer from periodontal disease, a term used to describe severe inflammation of the tissue surrounding the teeth.

You can usually inspect the gums for obvious signs of discoloration and inflammation.

While you do so, also check for chipped and broken teeth, which can also cause significant pain whenever your dog attempts to chew hard kibble.

  • Cancer and Tumors – While it’s an unpleasant thought, most dogs will lose their appetite if they suffer from cancer. You should inspect the body for tumors, lumps, and other signs of cancer.

This is a reason why it’s so important to take your dog to see a veterinarian if they won’t eat their regular food, especially if nothing has changed after 24 hours.

REMEMBER: With any cancer, the sooner it’s identified, the faster treatment can begin, which increases the likelihood of a positive outcome.

  • Severe Allergies – In some cases, a dog will lose its appetite as a result of severe allergies. Whether they’re seasonal allergies from the dog’s environment or food-related, the irritation can put a dog off of eating.

Read our related article on the Best Hypoallergenic Dog Foods. These tried and true dog foods have been put to the test to see how they can improve food allergy-related issues in dogs.

  • Upset Stomach & Other Non-Serious Health Issues – Dogs can experience stomach aches and other temporary health issues.

If your dog tends to eat scraps from the garbage, they could be experiencing stomach pain as a result of eating something they shouldn’t have.

Food poisoning can result in stomach pain, diarrhea, and, you guessed it, a loss of appetite.

Dogs can also get colds, especially if they spend a lot of time around other dogs or share a water bowl. With any luck, your dog should recover after a day or two, but it can still be worth taking them to see a vet to play it safe.

Listed above are the most common medical explanations for a loss of appetite, but they aren’t the only ones. Your dog could also be suffering from intestinal parasites, a severe infection, or one of many autoimmune or neurological diseases.

Your dog’s refusal to eat could be linked to pancreatitis, liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease, congestive heart failure, and more, but it’s incredibly important that you seek out professional veterinary care if your dog’s appetite doesn’t return after 24 hours.

Environmental Explanations for a Loss of Appetite

Dogs are creatures of habit and routine, so significant environmental changes can profoundly impact their behavior.

While it may sound trivial to us, even small changes in the environment could alter how a dog behaves, including how much they’re willing to eat.

If you’ve recently moved or even just completed a major renovation, your dog might be less willing to eat their food.

Less drastic environmental changes, such as traveling, the absence of a family member, an altered feeding schedule, the introduction of another pet, or even just significant changes in the weather can also impact your dog’s appetite.

While it can be difficult to narrow down the exact cause, you should still think critically about any environmental changes your dog could be reacting to.

KEEP IN MIND that your dog will not always understand what’s happening. What might seem insignificant to us could be incredibly confusing and scary for our dogs.

With any luck, your dog will get over the environmental change that’s causing them to behave differently within a day or two.

Anxiety and Other Behavioral Causes

Just like emotional distress in people, dogs can suffer from anxiety, stress, and depression.

There’s still a lot to learn about canine mental health, but animal behaviorists make new discoveries regularly.

Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavior issues that affect dogs.

Some dogs become extremely distressed when they’re left alone and this anxiety can present itself in a wide range of destructive and abnormal behaviors, including a refusal to eat.

If a dog has separation anxiety, there’s a good chance that it also has other symptoms, including increased barking, regular pacing, urinating indoors, and various types of destructive behaviors, like chewing objects and digging holes.

Fortunately, there are many ways for you to help your dog overcome separation anxiety and other behavioral issues.

Most of the time, you can treat these issues with training and prescription medications.

If you suspect that your dog isn’t eating from stress, anxiety, or depression, speak with your veterinarian about your options.

Read our related article, How Long Can Dogs Go Without Food? Discover the risks and signs to watch out for.

Other Reasons Why Dogs Stop Eating

dog laying next to food bowl
Surgery, pregnancy, and aging can all play a role in how your dog’s appetite changes.

While those listed above tend to be the most common reasons why dogs stop eating their kibble, there are other causes.

Age-Related Issues

Age can play a big role in how your dog interacts with food.

When dogs reach their senior life stage, they can begin to suffer from age-related cognitive decline, mobility issues, and vision loss, all of which can disrupt their eating habits.

If you suspect this could be why your dog isn’t eating, consider speaking with your veterinarian about switching your senior dog to a more age-appropriate diet.

There are also raised dog food bowls and gripped mats that help senior dogs eat their food without slipping or craning their neck.  

Pregnancy

Some dogs experience a severely reduced appetite during the early stages of pregnancy.

In some cases, just being in heat can be enough to decrease your dog’s appetite.

If your dog isn’t spayed and she isn’t eating, you could have a pregnant dog on your hands.

Recent Surgery

Dogs often lose their appetite for a day or so following surgery.

The mixture of various medications, the use of e-collars or cones, and the after-effects of anesthesia can make a dog feel very nauseous, greatly reducing how hungry they feel.

If your dog won’t eat kibble following surgery, consider trying out softer dog food, or a small bowl of cooked and diced chicken with rice.

What Should You Do if Your Dog Will Not Eat?

If your dog won’t eat dog food for over 24 hours and they won’t even touch their treats, you should contact your veterinarian right away.

This is even more pressing if the loss of appetite is accompanied by other symptoms, like lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, or irregular vocalizations.

If there are no other symptoms and the dog will eat treats and human food but just won’t touch their kibble, you can try to encourage them to eat in the following ways:

Add Moisture to the Kibble

Consider adding a quarter of a cup of water to the dog’s kibble, as this will help soften the dry kibble and make their food more palatable.

A low-sodium chicken broth tends to work even better, as the scent can be very appetizing to dogs.

Mix Canned Soft Dog Food in with Your Dog’s Kibble

The scent and texture of the soft food can be more appealing than plain kibble, so mixing a small portion into your dog’s kibble can be a way to motivate them to eat.

You shouldn’t need to add much, especially if your dog was raised on a strict kibble-only diet. One-quarter of a can should do it.

The aim isn’t to switch your dog over to soft food. Dry kibble offers many health benefits, like scraping plaque off the teeth.

Instead, you’re just using soft food to entice your dog to eat their regular diet, so you should only use small amounts of soft food.

Mix Chicken and Rice into the Dog’s Kibble

You can also try mixing some boiled chicken and rice into the kibble. Make sure you do so in your dog’s regular food bowl.

WARNING: Make sure that the chicken is unseasoned, boneless, and skinless, as you don’t want to irritate your dog’s stomach or create a potential for choking. 

Just like with soft dog food, you’re not looking to replace your dog’s regular diet, so you don’t need to use a large volume of chicken and rice. Simply mix a small portion into their kibble.

Most dogs will react by eating the entire bowl, especially if the chicken and rice are thoroughly mixed in with the kibble.

Try a Probiotic Supplement

There are quite a few canine-specific probiotic supplements on the market that can help to encourage your dog to eat.

Not only do these flavored supplements make the food have a more appealing scent and taste, but they can also help restore and rebalance your dog’s gastrointestinal flora.

Probiotics can improve the overall health of a dog’s digestive system, which is why they’re commonly added to various types of high-quality dog food.

Using a supplement can give your dog’s digestive system the boost it needs, and as a bonus, these supplements can also encourage the dog to eat.

Cut Back on the Number of Treats You Offer Your Dog

Just like how candy can spoil a child’s appetite, overfeeding your dog treats and table scraps can impact their hunger levels.

WATCH OUT! If you feed your dog treats too often, they can even begin to resent the taste of their kibble and become far too accustomed to the more appealing flavors they get when they eat their treats.

Not only can excessively offering treats and table scraps ruin your dog’s appetite and willingness to eat their regular food, but it can also lead to unhealthy weight gain, as most dog treats are incredibly high in calories and low in nutrients. 

Follow a Stricter Feeding and Exercise Schedule

Consider switching your dog over to a more regular feeding schedule, as this can help regulate their appetite.

Some dog owners also find that taking their dog for a walk before each meal helps to stimulate the dog’s appetite.

Feeding an adult dog twice a day is usually enough. Speak with your vet about the caloric requirements for your dog’s breed, size, and age.

These tips and tricks can help motivate if your dog won’t eat dog food, but remember that a sudden loss of appetite can signal a serious health problem. Treat it as a potentially serious issue and seek out veterinary care.

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