Many of you are dealing with a pup who has lost his appetite, and are struggling with how to get an old dog to eat. I know from my own experience how challenging and worrying that can be. Dementia, medications and some health issues can be blamed, and we’re left trying to figure out how to ensure our pets are getting the nutrients they require.
Every day has become a “will she or won’t she” situation
Red has always loved her food, and that was evident in her 18lb body when she was first brought to the shelter. I should add she’s not meant to weigh more than 10!! Staff had to literally feed her in the bathroom, otherwise she would eat all the other dogs’ food. The fact she was blind didn’t hinder her abilities one bit. Such a talented girl!!
Anyway, since the day we brought her home 8 1/2 years ago she’s been a vacuum cleaner – sucking up anything in her path. For years she ate with gusto, never knowing her to ever lose interest, so I knew if there ever came a time when she turned her nose up at food, she had a problem.
Then the problems started…
Very long story short, she now has trouble eating because of dementia. I feed my dogs set meals, so it’s not like she has to find her way to her food bowls. I have always sat with her on the floor while she ate, and over the past couple of years I’ve been elevating her food and water bowls so she doesn’t have to stretch to reach.
I’m not quite sure if it’s her sense of smell that has changed, she can’t quite figure out what she’s supposed to do with the food or her mood changes. The truth is I think it’s all of the above separately, sometimes in combination.
For a few months she was eating a whole foods home cooked diet, and she gobbled up every bite. She loved it and I thought she was doing well until test results showed high urea levels. The diet was created specifically for her kidney condition but unfortunately my regular vet recommended I go back to her prescription diet. I did and within two weeks her levels were back to normal, and since that was the only change I made…I don’t believe in coincidences!
Here are the things that work for me because she won’t eat her food straight out of the can
I cut it into pieces and bake it. Not only do I use them for treats but also her meal when she won’t eat, and thankfully never turns her nose up at that.
When I give her food from the can I warm it for a few seconds in the microwave on a very low setting.
I hold the bowl quite close to her mouth because sometimes it takes her a few tries until she takes a bite.
Adding some human food helps at times – broccoli, cooked quinoa, cooked rice, raw apple, raw carrot, a bit of chicken.
If I boil chicken for her I pour the “soup” into ice cube trays and freeze them, then defrost a cube as needed and add a little to her bowl.
The importance of taking action
Please, please don’t assume all changes in your dog’s behaviour are natural signs of aging. Often they indicate a problem, and something caught early has a better prognosis. In the case of a senior dog, especially one with health issues who won’t bounce back as quickly as a younger or healthier dog might, it’s extremely important.
If your dog is not eating or seems less enthusiastic than normal, I recommend you contact your vet. It doesn’t mean there’s a health problem, it could be the result of:
- Changes to your dog’s normal routine
- Recently moving house
- The addition of a new family member (2 or 4 legged!!)
- Eating something during a walk or outing that has caused an upset stomach
Reasons why a dog may suddenly lose interest in eating
- Nausea due to illness, new medication or eating something he picked up outside
- Dental disease
- Urinary tract infection
- A consequence of aging when sense of smell and taste decline
- Discomfort or pain
- Changes in environment/living conditions/routine
- Stiffness making it difficult to reach food and water bowls
Dangers associated with loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Dehydration – which is life threatening
Okay, so what’s the culprit?
As I mentioned a bit earlier, you may have an explanation for this loss of interest and things will settle down with or without medical intervention (depending on the reason). If you’ve wracked your brains and can’t think of a possible explanation then…
During your appointment your vet will examine your dog (heart, temperature…) and ask when you first started noticing his lack of appetite, has something different been going on, any other behaviour changes you’ve noticed and the like. Then blood and urine tests would typically be done, with some results ready in just a few minutes. They would usually be enough for a diagnosis, but your vet may also want to send them away to a lab for more detailed testing.
Your vet will/should have enough information to get you started on some kind of treatment right away. Whether that’s an anti nausea medication, appetite stimulant, condition specific diet, or something else will depend on his findings.
If your dog is dehydrated, your vet will more than likely keep him in the clinic on IV fluids for a few minutes or a few hours, depending on the severity. He may also give you electrolyte crystals to add to your dog’s drinking water.
If your vet hasn’t found anything medically wrong (which would be great news!), but your dog still isn’t eating…
Your dog needs to start eating there are no two ways about it, but you may have to get creative.
Varying the foods you add, so he never knows what yummy treats await.
Putting all or part of his meal in a Kong or other treat dispensing toy to change up an old routine.
Microwaving his food for a few seconds – warming it slightly releases the smells and may entice him.
Adding a bit of water to his dry food then microwaving it for a few seconds or adding a little boiling water will make gravy and soften the food a bit (well, not gravy like you and I know it, but something vaguely resembling it!!).
Changing her feeding times slightly, or take notice if there are certain times of the day she seems to be more interested in eating than others.
Offering smaller meals throughout the day. Your dog’s appetite may be waning for no real reason and is finding a full bowl too much for one sitting.
If you usually put medication in her food, try giving it separately and see if that makes a difference. It may be changing the taste of the food, and while it didn’t bother her in the past, if she’s finicky now, that could be all it takes. Try putting her pills in some cream cheese, chicken or peanut butter if allowed.
Perhaps reaching down for the food bowl has become uncomfortable, elevating it will help. Try out different heights to find the best one, just make sure he/she doesn’t have to reach too high.
Exercise stimulates appetite, but just because your dog can’t run like he used to doesn’t mean he can’t go out for short walks, or even a swim. Mental stimulation works too and use some dog food or a healthy and nutritious homemade treat as a reward. Hide it under a cup and let him find it, practice some training, add it to an interactive toy.
If your dog eats canned food, cutting it into pieces and baking it may help as it does for Red!
This adorable video is of Snow. He was having trouble eating so this is what his Mom did and it worked like a charm!!
Foods you can try adding to his regular diet
Depending on your dog’s dietary restrictions, there are potentially tons of foods that can be added to make it more palatable, so don’t despair.
Vegetables (steamed or boiled to improve digestibility)
- Canned pumpkin
- sweet potato
- green beans
- White fish
- Some tuna oil
- A drop of fat free cottage
- Canned food if he’s only getting dry
- White part of a boiled egg
- Plain non fat yogurt
- White rice
- Baby food (I have read of many senior pup parents who add chicken or meat baby food to their diet)
Boiling some chicken with carrots and sweet potatoes is a great addition. Freeze the soup in ice cube trays and defrost as needed. A little splashed on his plain food adds a bit of interest.
How to get an old dog to eat – conclusion
I understand all too well how frustrating and even stressful it can be, watching your dog turn his head away from the bowl he used to dive into. Sometimes it’s just a passing phase – a skipped meal due to an upset stomach or feeling under the weather. When it comes to Red I call my vet immediately simply because it’s too out of character, and I’m not willing to take a “wait and see” attitude given her age and medical issues.
If it’s just a case of your dog getting bored with the “same old same old” the suggestions listed here will help.
Have you had challenges with your old dog not eating? What were the reasons and how did you get him eating again? Why not share your story in the comments section below or on my Facebook page.
I would like to invite you to join Senior Dog Care Club, a new Facebook group for senior dog parents. There you will find lots of helpful tips and advice, a place to ask questions and share experiences. I look forward to welcoming you.