An eating disorder isn’t among the list of challenges most dogs owners expect to encounter, but the problem actually plagues a surprisingly high number of animals. There’s a lot of speculation about the cause of a dog’s refusal to eat his meals - and a wide array of approaches, when it comes to how owners choose to deal with the situation.
Eating disorders may involve a perceived (or even owner-induced) behavioral problem that’s brought about by the way mealtimes happen in a household – for example, an intermittently skipped meal now and again, natural fasting on a more routine basis, a naturally minimal appetite, a reaction to hot weather, or flat-out failure to eat anything at all (which might result from something like past severe emotional trauma such as that which occurs after abandonment or cruelty, grief or illness).
But failure to eat can also be a sign of serious underlying medical issue that results in a diminished appetite over time – and the accompanying weight loss, lack of energy and general malaise. *Angie’s dog suffered with severe anorexia as a puppy, which led him to be hospitalized when his foster mom found him unconscious in his crate, presumed to be through lack of food. The cause of his problem turned out to be a food allergy, which was causing so much pain in his stomach that it simply hurt too much to eat. Now the problem has been figured out and his food sensitivities have been pinpointed, he eats just fine.
As the owner, witnessing an animal’s refusal to eat can be unnerving, or down-right frustrating depending on the cause and circumstances. Some dogs are just predisposed to eating less (smaller breeds generally have a less ravenous appetite than their usually-more-greedy, larger-breed counterparts, for example). Others dogs are just downright picky individuals and some are actually made worse by their owner’s constant worrying and watching while they try to eat – or by owners who decide to free-feed their animals rather than sticking to a more regular schedule of defined, spaced-out meal times.
It’s natural that when a dog begins to exhibit appetite problems, the owner becomes concerned. Sometimes, concerned owners hover near the dog at meal times, or even take a seat on the floor to observe the meal’s progress (or lack thereof). When the root of the problem is nervousness or anxiety on the part of the dog, of course, this owner-behavior can exacerbate the situation, by causing a further increase in anxiety and self-consciousness on the part of the dog and making him even less inclined to eat than he was before.
Some owners actually resort to hand-feeding or spoon-feeding their dogs, or offering a selection of food alternatives and unhealthy additions if a meal is refused or goes unfinished. The net effect of this can be ‘training’ the dog that if he doesn’t gobble up his whole meal right away, something better is sure to be offered by hand, or dropped into the bowl momentarily.
Tanya fell into this trap with her Chinese Crested. He would starve himself all day which she was at work, and then cause himself vomit when finally ate after she returned and fed him in the evening. She tried hand-feeding and found it to be successful in coaxing him to eat before she left for work and got him into a better routine so the vomiting abated – but now he won’t eat any other way.
Annie has a dog who simply doesn’t like to eat in the mornings and instead waits until early afternoon before partaking in his first meal of the day. He then enjoys his second meal just three hours later – and refuses all but four kinds of treats, but appears to be doing well on his own self-imposed routine and luckily has an owner who has tuned into his biorhythms, and accommodates him.
It’s important to identify what’s causing an apparent eating disorder, especially if the issue is ongoing for more than a couple of days. There could be a problem with a particular batch of food, or an allergy or food sensitivity may be present or just developing. It’s also possible the dog may have a serious underlying health concern that’s making him reluctant to eat – or trying to send a message to you that something’s wrong.
Take *Pam’s fifteen year old Sheltie as an example. She suddenly quit eating for no apparent reason, and a vet checkup uncovered a compromised liver. Dental issues and other medical problems like cancer and kidney complaints can also cause a loss of appetite. However, if a medical reason can be ruled, out, it’s generally better not to give an eating disorder too much charge, by maintaining a low-key approach to meals.
Kirsty’s Norwegian Elkhound used to fast for between one and ten days straight, but she’d sometimes be able to coax her to eat, with plain rice. Since switching to a whole food diet two months ago however, the dog hasn’t skipped a meal since. Kirsty notes that the frequent ‘grumbling stomach’, gassiness and diarrhea have also abated since the switch from a ‘prescription kibble’ designed for sensitive stomachs, to the new whole food. It could be the Elkhound’s intestinal discomfort was caused by the original food and that in turn was causing her to fast herself except when coaxed with the more tummy-soothing rice.
In some cases, grief can cause a dog to fast, and in this situation, lots of patience and the use of complementary therapies such as flower essences or homeopathics, can help with the emotional aspects of the problem. If the grief is for another pet, introducing another new puppy to the home when the time is right, can (in addition to providing some companionship and a new ‘pack’) create a little bit of healthy ‘competition’ for food, which usually helps to improve appetite. Other dogs however, actually become more nervous or distracted when there multiple animals in the household. For some dogs, this problem may originate from a past situation where the dog has been attacked by another animal who wanted to steal his dinner. It’s helpful to experiment by feeding dogs in a crate, or other isolated environment, versus in a group setting.
Kristen, for example, has a Siberian whose eating disorder really does appear to have emotional or psychological roots; Cheyenne would literally ‘shut down’ if fed while other dogs in the house were also eating. Kristen figured out she had to close Cheyenne in the crate and cover it with a blanket, then get the food and serve it inside. Gradually this ritual has been adapted over time, by first leaving the crate door open, then removing the blanket, then moving her to the room with the others – and now she eats just fine, in the company of the rest of the gang.
For those animals who have some kind of psychological issue surrounding meal times, another tactic is making meals into a ‘game’, for example placing the food into a ‘stuffable’ plastic or rubber toy to help take away some of the emotional pressure of eating and make it a more light-hearted affair . Another option is to ‘hide’ small portions of the meal in different places for him to seek out. This doesn’t always have to be undertaken long-term and the idea is that once the appetite starts to pick up, it’s possible to gradually ease back on the ‘tactics’ and slowly transition back to normal mealtime behavior, such as putting the food in a dog bowl!
Occasionally, the bowl itself is the issue, however. Some dogs can’t stand the jangling noise their tags make, bumping against the side of a steel dish. Other dogs are averse to plastic and the taste that appears to permeate from it, into their food. A tough pyrex or glass bowl may help with this situation. For dogs with flatter faces, any sort of bowl maybe off-putting, and a plate is more comfortable to consume from. Offering much smaller portions can help a sensitive dog feel less overwhelmed compared with a giant bowl of food, as well; a routine of three petite meals might be better tolerated than one or two larger ones. Spoon- or hand-feeding should really be avoided, however, except in extreme circumstances.
Sometimes, a dog simply doesn’t like his dinner – or he’s been fed the same food for so long that he just can’t stand the thought if it for one more day. Sheer boredom with food is quite common in dogs, and it’s hardly surprising, when so few domesticated canines get to enjoy any dietary variety whatsoever because a monotonous, homogenous diet has gradually become the socially acceptable ‘normal’ way to feed dogs in this country. A more varied diet is great for alleviating boredom, and provides different foods (and a broadened array of nutrition) every day or two. Simply rotating the protein or varying the mix of ‘add-ins’ can help – a spoonful of plain yogurt, a little cottage cheese can work wonders.
The quality and over all taste of the food of course play an essential role as well – a poor quality food that’s made with lots of by-products, fillers and cheap cereals might be a lot less appetizing than a higher quality meal that’s made with whole food ingredients and contains plenty of real meat. Of course many dogs are scavengers and there are those who love the cheaper foods because of all the added salt, sugar and sprayed on flavorings that the manufacturer applies to entice their taste buds - but as a general rule (as with human food), a quality meal is much more delicious than a cheap alternative.
There’s a balance between pandering to a picky pet, and paying attention to a situation that actually needs some corrective action. A low key approach or a simple adjustment to routines may be all that’s needed to resolve the problem for good. Kat, a pet-sitter, discovered that a client’s dog with psychological issues around eating (also a rescue dog, with an unknown past) ate his meals much better if she served his food at the same time she was sitting down to her own meals.
Marni concurs; she calls it ‘Gesture Eating’ and likens it to the leader of the pack eating first, which then signals to the rest that it’s alright to partake in mealtime. Provided that major weight loss isn’t occurring and a routine vet exam has been done to rule out serious problems, it’s generally better to stand back and allow the dog to regulate his own intake without too much outside interference, which could entrench the problem for the long term.
Brandy Vachal Moore is a dog mom to three pint-sized dogs: Donnatella the Maltese, Ernie the Yorkie-Maltese mix and Rico the Chihuahua. When she’s not defending her personal space from three dogs who know no boundaries. Brandy enjoys anything fitness related, traveling, hiking, and being outdoors in the San Diego sunshine. She loves all things social media and journalism and has worked for The Honest Kitchen for the past 5 years.