A sudden appetite change is concerning for any pet, but can be particularly worrisome for an older dog. Unfortunately, answering “Why is my old dog not eating?” is not always straightforward. With a combined 30+ years of experience caring for senior dogs, veterinarians Dr. Erica Irish and Dr. Julie Buzby team up to share helpful, actionable tips along with underlying causes for decreased appetite in an older dog.
When a concerned pet parent asks me why his or her beloved old dog is not eating, I look into the greying dog’s eyes and ask myself, “What are you trying to tell us?” It’s one of those times when I wish my patients could speak! I recently wrestled this conundrum with a senior dog in my own (extended) family.
- Meet Boss, a senior dog who wouldn't eat
- What causes decreased appetite in old dogs?
- What are the next steps?
- Back to Boss’s story
- Trust your intuition and team with your vet
- Has your dear old dog's appetite diminished?
Meet Boss, a senior dog who wouldn’t eat
Boss, a lovable Pit Bull/Shar-Pei senior dog, was a happy member of my sister’s family. He enjoyed his meals and the occasional treat but was never a dog with a ravenous appetite. This made it more challenging to notice when his appetite gradually diminished. But it wasn’t until the day that he had a seizure—his first ever—that he lost interest in food altogether.
My sister brought this to my attention right away, and I gave her a few suggestions to compel her elderly dog to eat his breakfast. While I waited for my sister to bring him to see me at the clinic, my mind raced through all the underlying conditions related to this symptom.
What causes decreased appetite in old dogs?
Lack of appetite in dogs is not itself a diagnosis; it is a symptom. It gives us a clue that something else is going on that is making the dog feel unwell. Many other underlying medical conditions can contribute to appetite changes in senior dogs.
Generally, a dog with a decreased appetite has other symptoms as well. Putting the symptoms together can be like putting a puzzle together, helping us figure out what the actual health problems may be. Once we know what is causing the appetite loss we can treat it directly, rather than symptomatically.
Let’s dive into some of the underlying causes behind why a dear old dog won’t eat.
1. Gastrointestinal disease in dogs
As you might expect, a dog’s appetite can be affected by any issue with its GI tract. Often diseases affecting the GI tract cause other symptoms such as vomiting and/or diarrhea.
Pancreatitis in dogs is something that certainly impacts appetite. Dogs of any age may develop pancreatitis, but it’s more common in middle-aged to older dogs. Symptoms can vary, but vomiting, diarrhea, and appetite loss are associated with this condition.
Older dogs may also lose their appetite if they have something obstructing their GI tract. This may be a foreign body from eating something they shouldn’t have, or a cancerous tumor blocking food from moving through their intestines. Vomiting is a hallmark symptom of GI obstruction.
2. Pain in dogs
Let’s consider a dog who is bright and alert but is reluctant to eat or drink water. Pain and discomfort are possible factors when additional clinical signs are not obvious.
Arthritis in dogs is a very common health issue. If your senior dog is suffering from joint pain, then you might see him limping or walking with stiffness. Could it be difficult for him to get up from his bed and navigate to his food and water dishes?
Sometimes, especially in large breed dogs or other dogs with neck pain, arching their necks to reach bowls on the floor when they’re standing can be painful. You could try bringing his dishes bedside to see if this revives his interest in food. If this seems to solve the issue, then your veterinarian can help you develop a pain management plan to improve your dog’s mobility and willingness to move around your home.
Furthermore, sometimes food and water bowls are located on slippery surfaces that can make it difficult for an older dog to traverse or feel stable while eating. ToeGrips® dog nail grips can improve traction and confidence on slippery surfaces in your home.
In addition to the pain of arthritis, don’t discount dental disease and the subsequent oral pain as the reason a dog refuses to eat. Your dog’s appetite might be just fine, but if every bite hurts, he might learn to avoid the dishes altogether because he remembers that chewing caused pain. This is often the case for dogs that refuse to eat dry food but will eat soft food and treats.
A new canine patient of mine named Sister is the poster child for this PSA. Sister hadn’t been eating well on and off for months. However, since she was 18 years old (yes, you read her age correctly), her conscientious mom was trying to keep her dear old dog comfortable. She brought Sister to me for acupuncture and appetite stimulants to help improve her dog’s quality of life.
When I met them in the parking lot, I was taken aback. I knew Sister was 18, but she pranced down the sidewalk toward me like she was a youngster at Westminster! Her physical exam was unremarkable (very happy news for 18!), and her bloodwork looked great.
Sister’s only issue was severe dental disease—tartar build-up, chronic infection, and inflamed gums. Her owner described the classic symptoms: Sister drooled when she ate and would sometimes not eat much for a couple of days.
In light of her physical exam and lab results, I was convinced that oral pain caused by her dental disease was the most likely reason behind her disinterest in food. Fortunately, it’s a treatable one!
Her mom and I both teared up a little bit as I presented the option of seeing a specialist at a referral hospital for dental care under anesthesia, hopefully completely restoring Sister’s interest in food. Yes, there’s a risk to anesthesia for older dogs, but there’s also a high likelihood of life-changing success for Sister.
3. Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
Another possible contributing factor to why an old dog may eat less may be canine cognitive dysfunction in dogs (CCD), which is essentially doggie dementia.
CCD may or may not directly affect your dog’s appetite, but dogs with CCD who experience restlessness and anxiety may have very little appetite. If they are confused, then they may not remember where to find their food bowls.
Even though we typically associate “dietary indiscretion” with younger dogs who may still need some training, senior dogs with CCD may get confused and eat something they shouldn’t. Whether they get into the trash, eat something potentially toxic, or eat something that causes an obstruction in their GI tract, CCD can definitely lead to appetite loss.
4. Reaction to medications
Certain medications and supplements can cause vomiting due to an adverse reaction or irritation to the lining of the stomach. Antibiotics and pain medications—commonly prescribed to older dogs—can cause tummy upset as the number one side effect.
If you suspect that your dog is having a problem with his medication, ask your veterinarian right away for recommendations. He or she may advise you to skip a dose or stop the medication altogether, but it is important to ask first because simply stopping a treatment regimen may be detrimental to your dog.
5. Non-GI illnesses like kidney disease, cancer, or heart disease
As we know, senior dogs are susceptible to a variety of systemic illnesses as they age. Kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes, and even cancer can all cause decreased appetite. It is important to quickly identify the cause of your dog’s illness in order to prevent further complications and maintain an excellent quality of life for your senior dog through appropriate treatment.
Decreased appetite due to heart or lung disease
Breathing is a higher priority than eating. If your dog has advanced heart or lung disease, his heart, and lungs must work harder to get oxygen to other internal organs, so the brain might tell the body to slow down in order to play catch-up. This slower metabolism may manifest in sleeping more and eating less.
If your dog has been diagnosed with heart or lung disease and he or she stops eating, definitely call your vet right away! Even without a prior diagnosis, decreased appetite, increased sleeping, and increased respiratory effort certainly warrant a vet visit.
What are the next steps?
Your veterinarian is the best person to help you figure out why your old dog won’t eat. After a thorough physical examination, your vet may recommend baseline blood and urine testing in order to make sure that your dog’s internal organs are functioning correctly.
Depending on what those initial tests show, and what your vet determines is the most likely cause of your dog’s appetite loss, you can discuss various treatment options.
If it seems as though arthritic pain is the culprit, you can consider how to relieve arthritis pain in dogs. This may involve medications, physical therapy, acupuncture, environmental modifications (like adding ToeGrips® for extra traction!), or other methods.
A professional dental cleaning (likely with extractions) may be necessary if dental disease is causing your dog’s appetite loss.
A dog that has stopped eating and is vomiting should have some abdominal imaging—X-rays, ultrasound, or both. In an older dog with these signs, we need to rule out causes like GI foreign bodies or cancer.
If your dog is having breathing problems, your vet may recommend chest X-rays to evaluate the heart and lungs.
If lab work is unremarkable, then your veterinarian may recommend further diagnostic testing to get to the bottom of the issue or conservative supportive care to maintain hydration, reduce nausea, and promote comfort.
What else can you do to help a dog who’s not eating?
As a conscientious pet parent, I know you worry when your dog is not eating. The daily tracking of food intake (and whether our dogs are peeing and pooping) are things that we subconsciously track in our pets. If our dogs are failing to eat, we feel like we are failing them as their caretakers.
As veterinarians, we recommend “tricks” to tempt a dog who isn’t eating to take a few bites. However, the emphasis must be on discovering the underlying cause of the loss of appetite, as discussed above.
If your grey-muzzled companion is having trouble eating dry dog food or simply isn’t interested, then offering high-quality wet food or soaking the dry kibble in some warm water can help encourage him to eat.
Some dogs may benefit from veterinarian-prescribed appetite stimulant medication
For a senior dog who needs a little help regaining an interest in food after an illness or due to declining health, your vet might prescribe an appetite stimulant medication. Mirtazapine, which is actually a human antidepressant, can work as an appetite stimulant in dogs and cats. Another option is a newer medication called Entyce.
Remember though, that getting your dog to eat doesn’t address the underlying cause of why he or she stopped eating in the first place.
Back to Boss’s story
As much as I wish that Boss’s story had a happy ending, life’s twists and turns don’t always go that way. After my sister brought him into the hospital, we noticed that some of the lymph nodes below his neck were enlarged.
Even though most of his blood and urine tests were normal, X-rays showed that his liver and spleen appeared enlarged. Boss’ lymph nodes were aspirated and this confirmed that he had lymphoma in dogs, a type of cancer. Sadly, it was already at an advanced stage, affecting his internal organs.
My sister was worried about the effect that chemotherapy might have on Boss’ heart, so we elected to give him prednisone, a steroid, to keep him comfortable.
Steroids like prednisone are powerful anti-inflammatories and can have the side effects of an increased appetite. As soon as we started the medication, Boss started eating again! We focused on his quality of life, making sure he was happy and loved in his final weeks.
What can we learn from our beloved Boss-man’s story? Boss had a very serious illness. By bringing him to be evaluated and tested as opposed to taking a “wait and see” approach, we were able to quickly figure out the cause and get Boss the care that he needed. He was happy and comfortable for the rest of the time we had with him.
Saying goodbye to our dog was very difficult, but we have fond memories and enjoyed spoiling him to the end.
Trust your intuition and team with your vet
You know your dog’s routine best. You know what is normal and not normal. You know when there is a change in his appetite. If you sense that something is amiss, please contact your veterinarian right away. Your veterinarian will let you know if the signs you describe warrant an emergency visit or an appointment.
Working closely with your veterinarian will bring you priceless peace of mind, and ensure the best plan to maintain your senior dog’s health and wellbeing.
Has your dear old dog’s appetite diminished?
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