Pet Health Library

Loss of Appetite

Dog refusing to eat

Background

Any abnormal change in your pet’s eating habits should never be ignored. The medical term for a loss in appetite is called anorexia (not to be confused with the human eating disorder called anorexia nervosa). It can be normal for a picky cat or dog to skip a meal or two so long as they are acting normally otherwise. If the change in appetite is sudden or accompanied by other clinical signs, this can indicate a medical problem.

Signs

Be on the lookout for additional signs that may accompany your pet’s loss of appetite as they can indicate an underlying medical condition. These signs include:

  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Drooling
  • Lethargy
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Increased drinking and urination

Possible Causes

Pet Food

A simple change in your dog or cat’s regular pet food can result in them turning their nose up at dinner. For instance, sometimes manufacturers change the food’s formulation, and your pet may not like the new taste. Your pet may also be a picky eater or prefer human food. Try to limit feeding your table scraps or overdoing it on the snacks, especially when it’s not their regular mealtime.

You should also check to make sure your pet’s food hasn’t spoiled. If the pet food is past the expiration date or smells off, throw it away.

Stress

Changes to your pet’s lifestyle or environment, such as a new home or the absence of a family member, can affect their appetite.

Dental Problems

If you notice that your pet has bad breath, is spitting out their food, is drooling, or is pawing at their face, they may be dealing with dental issues such as a broken tooth or infection. Dental issues can make it painful for your pet to eat, and an infection can have them feeling unwell, causing the lack in appetite.

Illness

For people and pets, feeling unwell can lead to loss of appetite, with the underlying cause ranging from a simple viral infection to a more serious condition such as liver or kidney disease. Below are some examples of conditions that can lead to sudden loss of appetite in pets:

  • Infection & Fever – a fever is the body’s response to fighting off an infection and can lead to loss of appetite, lethargy, and dehydration.
  • Gastrointestinal problems – if your pet is exhibiting signs such as drooling, diarrhea, vomiting, or constipation in addition to not eating, it could be a sign of a digestive problem. Conditions can range from intestinal parasites to foreign body obstruction to an infection to bloat.
  • Liver problems – the liver helps filter toxins in the body. When the liver is damaged, it can result in loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach ulcers, seizures, fevers, excessive thirst, increased urination, and weight loss.
  • Kidney problems – kidneys filter waste products from the body and keep the balance of electrolytes in check. It is common for pets with an acute kidney injury or chronic kidney disease to lose their appetite.
  • Pancreas problems – the pancreas produces hormones and digestive enzymes that are essential for the body to function properly. Pancreatitis refers to the inflammation of the pancreas, a very common disorder in dogs and cats, which can lead to lethargy, loss of appetite, dehydration, weight loss, low body temperature, vomiting, jaundice, fever, and abdominal pain.

Medication or Therapy

If your pet is taking certain medications such as antibiotics (which can cause nausea), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or even undergoing chemotherapy, your pet may lose their appetite. Check with your veterinarian before discontinuing any prescription medications.

Treatment

Successful management requires identifying the underlying cause. However, there are steps you can take to encourage your pet to eat:

  • Add broth to your pet’s food to make it more appealing
  • Use a feeding puzzle or toy to dispense food to make eating more fun
  • Warm the food first or add warm water to make dry food softer
  • Hand-feed your pet
  • If your pet isn’t eating due to stress or anxiety, try feeding them away from others in a calm space

For serious cases of inappetence, your veterinarian may prescribe medication. Prescription appetite stimulants have been developed for both dogs and cats and are approved by the United States Food and Drug administration. Other drugs such as those to control nausea or glucocorticoids, can have an appetite stimulating effect.

When to see a veterinarian:

If your pet has skipped a meal but is otherwise normal, you can wait to see if their appetite improves. Double check to make sure your pet food has not expired or gone stale. If your pet is exhibiting additional signs of illness, such as vomiting or diarrhea, contact your veterinarian within the next 8 to 12 hours to set up an appointment.

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