Most dogs love to eat, which is why a meal that has been left untouched immediately raises concerns. An almost endless list of problems can cause dogs to go off their food — some are trivial but others are potentially life-threatening.
Determining whether immediate action or watchful waiting is the appropriate response can prevent canine suffering and unnecessary veterinary expenses. When your dog stops eating, follow these five steps.
1. Think about the last few days
Hindsight often really is 20:20. Now that you know something is up with your dog, think over the last few days. Did something occur that could be responsible for your dog’s lack of appetite, for example a change in diet or a “mysteriously” overturned trash can? Has your dog’s appetite been somewhat reduced recently? Have you noticed any other symptoms (e.g., lethargy or loose stools) that may be related to what’s going on?
Make note of when your dog’s first symptom developed. When dogs are going to get better on their own, improvement will usually be noted within 24-48 hours, but you need to know when that clock started ticking. If skipping breakfast is honestly the first sign of trouble and your dog seems to feel fine otherwise, waiting a day or two to call the vet is perfectly reasonable. If, however, a loss of appetite is just the latest in a series of symptoms that have developed over the course of a few days (or longer), the “wait and see” train has already left the station.
2. Ask other people in the dog’s life if they’ve noticed anything
Unless you are the only person looking after your dog, ask his or her other caretakers whether they’ve noticed anything unusual over the last few days. Perhaps your spouse pulled the dog out from under a bush with something “icky” in his (the dog’s!) mouth on a recent nightly walk, or your neighbor’s dog who routinely comes over to play is ill.
3. Examine the dog
Perform a “quick and dirty” physical exam on your dog. Gently push on his or her belly. It should be soft and your dog should not react in pain. Look for evidence of diarrhea in the fur around the rectum or vomit around the mouth. A dog’s gums should be pink (unless they are pigmented) and moist. Dry or pale mucous membranes can be a symptom of dehydration and/or other serious conditions. If you find anything worrisome on your physical exam, call your veterinarian immediately.
4. Inspect the food
Whether you feed a commercially prepared or homemade diet, something might be wrong with the food itself. This is especially true if you just fed the first meal out of a new batch of food, or if the bag, can, etc. has been open for quite awhile. Look at and smell the food. If anything appears “off,” try feeding your dog again from a different lot of food. I don’t recommend making a wholesale diet change at this point, since it will be difficult to determine if a dog is not eating because he or she does not like the new food or is continuing not to feel well.
5. When in doubt, talk to your veterinarian
It’s always better to err on the side of caution. Problems caught early are easier (and cheaper!) to resolve.
Dr. Jennifer Coates