Why dogs refuse food and what to do about it!

Not all dogs will eat until they burst, some can actually appear quite picky. And some will actually refuse to eat their meals and treats all together at times. There are lots of reasons dogs refuse food. So, here are some common ones, and what do do about it to get your dog back on track.

They are sick

Pain or illness can quickly stop a dog from eating. In fact, no appetite is often an early sign of illness. If this could be the case, then the first thing to do it to get them checked out by your vet. No amount of tips or encouragement will make a sick dog eat. So focus on getting them better before doing anything else.

They are not hungry

Probably, the most likely reason for your dog not eating is that they are just not hungry at that time. It doesn’t take much for a dog to get out of sync with their meal times and get hungry at the wrong time.

Snacks and treats can quickly fill a dog up, as can a big breakfast. So when the next meal is offered, your dog might still be feeling pretty full. If their food is left out for them, they might start to pick at it a few hours later when they start to feel hungry again. This will have a further knock on effect in the morning, as they had a late dinner. Before you know it, they’ll be all over the place and you’ll have a dog that picks at very random times throughout the day and night. Or they fill up on snacks because you feel guilty about them not eating and provide extra just so they aren’t hungry, so they never get back on track.

a small dog lies beside a bowl of food. he looks anxious and has left food in the bowl
Anxiety is a common cause as to why dogs refuse food

The solution here is to weigh out a days worth of food at the start of the day. Don’t forget to include any snacks and treats in their daily portion too! Now, decide how many meals they should get and when, and feed only from their daily stash. If they skip a meal, that’s ok, they just aren’t hungry yet. They will be hungry at the next one though, and you’ll soon be back on track again.

Getting a dog into a rhythm of eating at set times has more benefits than just being convenient. Not only will their sleeping, toileting and energy levels be more predictable. But, you’ll also know much more quickly if there is a problem. It takes much longer to detect health issues when you have a grazer, compared to a dog that eats set amounts at set times.

Timing is wrong

Some dogs can eat anything, at any time, but not all. We all have a natural biological rhythm which regulates our sleep and our digestion. Normally, the day begins when we first wake. In the morning we are ready to hunt or gather food. After hunting, our bodies switch to rest and digest mode. This means that our digestion is not switched on until we have been through the motions of hunting or gathering. If the body is still in hunting mode then many dogs wont want to eat until that has subsided. Rest and digest mode prioritises digestion and systems that repair the body after activity. So, they won’t start to feel hungry until they have been through this cycle and digestion is switched back on.

To fix this, simply play a game that replicates the challenge of hunting or gathering before breakfast. This could be something like a walk, find the treat, using a slow feeder, setting up a puzzle, or your snuffle mat. Once they have ticked that box, you can offer them a proper meal in a normal bowl. It’s important that you don’t feed their full meal in the slow feeder or enrichment toy. It should feel like once they have completed the challenge, they get a normal restful, easy meal.

They are anxious

For the same reason dogs can’t eat when they are in hunting mode, they also can’t eat when they are in fight or flight mode. When adrenaline is triggered, digestion is immediately switched off and the body prioritises only systems that make the dog better at fighting or running! Staying safe is the only goal at this time, so not the time for eating and taking a nap!

It won’t take much to trigger this response, in fact the dog may not even look particularly anxious. Even simple things like a busy kitchen, believing there might be something hidden in the food (like a pill), another dog watching them, expecting a stressful event (like being left alone), or even the kids running about, can be enough to put them off.

The answer is to make the environment as calm and stress free as possible. So find a quiet spot to feed your dog that is away from kids or other pets, and adjust the timing so not much is going on. Try to stay with them while they eat too. If you wander off, they might not like being alone in the kitchen and will follow you instead. And definitely don’t feed right before you normally leave them home alone, they will know what’s coming, and this could also put them off too.

Of course, big things can also put a dog off their food. If your dog has gone through a traumatic experience, grief or loss, a sudden or significant change in routine, or a change of home, this could affect their appetite for a while. For these dogs, they will need time and patience, as well as a quiet place.

a collie type dog sits beside a full food bowl and is looking to someone out of shot.
If your dog is used to getting something better, he could be holding out!

Waiting for something better

If you feed a variety of foods to your dog, or have done in the past, it is possible your dog has developed some preferences. Maybe you cycle between home cooked mince, left overs, dry food, and raw. It wouldn’t be unusual for a dog to hold out for something better on a dry food day! Dogs can go for quite a few days without any food at all, so they won’t mind waiting a bit if they think it will be worth it. Many people struggle with this, as we get so anxious when our dogs don’t eat so we quickly make something else. This reinforces their choice to wait, and only encourages them to be picky in the future.

If this is your dog, you should pick one type of food and stick with it until they get used to the new routine.

Gone off the food

This is the least likely cause of a dog not eating. Dogs have so few taste buds that the flavour is almost irrelevant. Texture and smell and far more important, which is why softening food and heating it up can sometimes help. Also, adding sauces and toppers can encourage a dog. For most dogs, it will only be temporary though, and you could be in danger of teaching your dog to wait for something better as above.

A more likely reason your dog has gone off their food could be as simple as a change in temperature, hormones, feeling a little poorly, or they are in a growth cycle.

Pups don’t always grow evenly! This means that young dogs can be hungrier some days, and not the others. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to this, and often it looks like they have gone off their food entirely. The temptation is to try new flavours and types, but it’s very likely this phase will pass in a day or two anyway, regardless what you offer. It won’t take long for you to collect a large variety of brands and flavours as you try different things.

The best way to handle this is to stick to your normal routine, and continue to lift food bowls between meals until they get back to normal again.


How can I help you with your dogs behaviour training?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!

Caroline
Caroline

I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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