I have shared my life with old dogs who have refused or been unable to eat. It’s frustrating, worrying certainly a challenge.
If your old dog is not eating, your first step should be getting him checked by your vet as soon as possible. Although there are many foods to try and tricks to use that may help get him to eat something, unless you find out the reason for his lack of interest or appetite, things won’t get better. Nausea is a common reason why a dog isn’t eating, and a side effect of many health issues such as kidney disease, pancreatitis and diabetes. It could also be dental problems.
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How Long Can a Senior Dog Go Without Eating?
Everything I’ve read seems to indicate a dog can go up to 5 days without eating. In the case of an old dog, I’m concerned after 1 day, especially if the dog already has health issues. They can go downhill a lot quicker than a younger dog, so I find a “wait and see” attitude too risky.
The morning of the second day is when I call the vet.
What makes this even more concerning is if your dog stops drinking water as well. Dehydration can set in very quickly, which can affect organs and cause death if left untreated.
When a Dog Stops Eating, How Long Before They Die?
Apologies for how gruesome that sounds, but it’s a valid question clients have asked me, and an important one to address.
Just because a dog isn’t eating, does not automatically mean he’s about to die. It does mean he needs to be taken to a vet for a check-up and tests done for a diagnosis.
Is it possible the diagnosis is a bad one and no treatment is available? Sadly that is a possibility, in which case how long your dog has will depend on how far advanced the condition is, how comfortable you can make your dog, and for how long.
Reasons Why Your Senior Dog Is Not Eating
Just because your dog isn’t eating, it doesn’t mean something serious going on. There are plenty of other explanations:
- His four-legged friend died and he’s mourning the loss
- You’ve recently moved house and he needs more time to adapt to his new surroundings
- Your dog is bored or depressed from not getting any exercise or barely leaving the house
- He’s now being fed in a different room
- Loud noises such as severe weather, fireworks or even construction in the neighborhood has him on edge
- Fed up with the same dry food year after year
- The new food you bought him is upsetting his stomach or he doesn’t like it
- The schedule and routine he’s followed for months or years has changed, and he’s confused
- You have a new household member – roommate, baby, friend or animal
- He has a new food bowl and, for whatever reason, isn’t happy or comfortable with it
- He might have picked up some food while on a walk and he’s feeling queasy
- If you’ve started warming up his food it may be too hot, or he no longer likes it straight out of the fridge
- Mobility issues can make it hard for your dog to reach down to his bowl
- Kidney disease
- Liver issues
- Nausea due to any of the above conditions, a new medication, vaccination or eating something he found on the street
- Dental problems making it painful to eat
- Senses can dull as a dog ages, so he doesn’t see or smell the food very well
How Your Vet Can Help a Dog That Won’t Eat
With your input and observations and his testing and diagnostic tools, your vet is the key to helping you figure out what’s going on with your dog’s appetite, or should I say lack of one.
If you can’t get an appointment by the next day, please explain to whoever answers you have an old dog, he hasn’t eaten in a day or two and you’re very worried. They need to find a way to fit you in so it doesn’t end up in an emergency situation.
To get the most out of your appointment, make notes ahead of time and bring them with you.
Here are some things your vet will want to know:
- When did this start?
- Is your dog eating anything? Treats?
- Does he take food in his mouth then spits it out?
- Is there a time of day he’s willing/able to eat?
- Does he turn his nose up at his food but happily eats yours?
- Is he drinking water?
- Have there been any changes in the house recently?
- Have you moved? Changed his routine?
- Any other new/worrying behaviors you’ve been noticing?
- If yes, what are they and when did they start?
Once you and your vet have chatted about your concerns, he will take your dog’s temperature and do a complete physical exam. He will probably recommend blood tests, and maybe urine as well.
Some can be done in house in just a few minutes, while others need to be sent to a lab for more extensive analysis. Those quick tests often give the vet enough information to make an educated guess, and at least get your dog started on something to help him feel better. In my experience that usually involved a shot of anti nausea medication and an appetite stimulant. If your dog is dehydrated, he will likely want to put him on a drip for a few hours.
Once all the tests are back and a diagnosis has been made, a treatment plan will be presented to you.
NOTE: Please do not let your vet dismiss your concerns with a diagnosis of “your dog is old.” That is a cop out and shows a lack of empathy for senior dogs. If he doesn’t recommend testing ask him why not, and if you don’t feel he is taking you seriously find someone who will.
Should You Give Your Senior Dog an Appetite Stimulant?
If your old dog isn’t eating, or eating very little, don’t take it upon yourself to give him an appetite stimulant. You need to take him to the vet and get professional advice.
Since it’s important to be involved in your dog’s care every step of the way, let’s talk about what an appetite stimulant is and the various options. It is what the name suggests and could be medication, natural options or even a new food your dog decides he loves.
In this section we’ll talk about the drugs and natural remedies, and in the following section it will be all about food ideas.
NOTE: Please speak to your vet before giving your dog something new, and that includes anything “natural.” Natural doesn’t always mean safe.
Acupuncture – This ancient form of Chinese medicine has been known to help dogs suffering from a variety of conditions including arthritis and even nausea. For more information and to help you decide if this is an option for you and your dog, please consult a holistic vet and visit the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture website.
CBD oil – Many senior dog parents swear by CBD oil, seeing great improvement in everything from mobility issues and pain management to seizure control and appetite stimulation. It doesn’t contain THC so your dog won’t get high, but you do need to be careful of where you buy it because there are vast differences in quality. Whichever brand you buy, it should be third party tested.
Some of the brands recommended by members of my FB group Senior Dog Care Club include:
- American Shaman
- Blooming Culture
- Bluebird Botanicals
- CBD Brothers
- Creating Brighter Days
- HempMy Pet
- Lazarus Naturals
Cerenia – According to their website, Cerenia is the “first and only FDA-approved anti-vomiting medication for dogs and cats.” My dog Red was on this more times than I can count, and it always helped calm the nausea and get her eating again. My vet would give her an injection at the clinic because it’s faster acting, then usually a one week supply in tablet form.
Entyce – A prescription medication that “stimulates appetite by mimicking the effect of the hunger hormone ghrelin.”
Essential Oils – Proponents of the use of essential oils swear by how effective it is to treat a variety of conditions in both humans and animals. According to Dr Karen Becker, add a drop of lavender to your dog’s collar or a few drops on a cotton ball near her to help with nausea on car rides. If that’s the reason your old dog isn’t eating, this simple tip may be the answer.
She also recommends 1 or 2 drops of ginger, tarragon, lemongrass, cardamom or spearmint to help with nausea. Put it on your dog’s paw or rub it on her stomach.
Despite this expert advice, I would discuss this with a holistic or integrative vet first.
Malted Kelp – A product from Dorwest Herbs, this is a homeopathic remedy to help with digestion and tempting pets that have lost their appetite.
Meclizine – human over the counter anti histamine medication used to treat nausea caused by vestibular disease in dogs. Brand names are Antivert®, Dramamine® Less Drowsy Formula, Bonine®, Bonamine®, Postafen®, Univert®
Mirtazapine– Anti depressant prescription medication used to treat loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and anorexia.
Nutribound® – It helps pets who need an extra boost to get them eating and drinking whether it’s due to illness, recovering from surgery or just not that interested. helps to stimulates eating and drinking in cats and dogs, and has been formulated to help pets who need encouragement to eat and drink, be they recovering from surgery, illness or for those who are experiencing a general lack of interest in food or water.
Pepcid –Can be given to a dog on a short term basis, but even though you can buy it OTC please consult with your vet first. It also should not be used in the hopes of avoiding a vet visit. You still need to determine what the problem is.
Pro-Kolin – This is the one my vet always recommends, usually in conjunction with a shot of Cerenia, an anti-nausea medication, and a week supply of it in pill form. Pro-Kolin is a gel that comes in a large syringe with a rotating dial to measure out the dosage. Your dog can lick it off your finger, put it on a treat or dab it on his nose if he’s not cooperating. He’ll lick it off in no time.
Slippery elm – One of the many benefits of slippery elm is its anti-nausea properties in dogs. If you aren’t familiar with this herb, I recommend you read more about its many uses. Sounds like it should be a staple in every dog parent’s home!
What to Feed an Old Dog That Won’t Eat
The list below was compiled from recommendations of things I and other senior dog parents have tried. Not every item will be safe for all dogs, so please check with your vet first.
- Roll of dog food (like a salami roll). Slice up the daily amount and feed it throughout the day
- Tuna packed in water
- Meat scraps
- Pumpkin or sweet potatoes mixed in with food
- Cottage cheese
- Rotisserie chicken
- Chicken soup – it will be healthier if you make it yourself, but if it’s store bought buy reduced sodium and check for other additives or ingredients not suitable for dogs
- Tinned cat food
- Homemade chicken and rice
- Baked potato with butter
- Low salt ready-made broth
- Blend dry food until it’s almost dust and mix with canned food
- Freeze dried meal toppers
- Puree cooked vegetables and put a couple of tablespoons on food daily
- Unflavoured yogurt or Skyr
- Low fat cottage cheese
- Cooked broccoli
- Add mashed up sweet potatoes, pumpkin and broccoli
- Boiled chicken tenderloins cut up, add noodles, water or bone broth, add a bit of dry dog food, cooked peas and carrots, mix well serve warm and moist. You could try lean ground beef.
- Organic ground turkey mixed with turmeric golden paste, cooked vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower and carrots) and blend.
- Ground turkey burgers
- Canned pumpkin (please make sure it’s pure pumpkin, not pie filling)
- Baby food
- Bone broth – very nutritious and super easy to make
- Grated cheese on top of food
- Scrambled eggs (no oil) with or without cheese
- Cooked oatmeal
- Diced ham and rice warmed in microwave
- Peanut butter (check there’s no xylitol and be careful of sugar content for heart issues)
- Tiny pieces of pizza crust added to dog food
- Dr Becker’s Bites Appetite Flakes
- Plain boiled chicken breast – freeze the water in ice cube trays then defrost as needed and pour over food
- Raw food – consult with your vet first
- Hot dogs
- Periodically switch brands to keep things interesting. Please introduce a new brand slowly, adding a small amount to your dog’s existing food, increasing it over the course of about a week. This will help avoid stomach upset
Tips to Help Your Old Dog Eat
• Make a list of all the human foods safe for your dog to eat and rotate them
• Warm food in the microwave
• Cut up canned food, bake and use for treats and meals. The length of time you’ll keep it in the oven will depend on how hard or soft you want the pieces. Try different textures to see what your dog will eat
• Feed 4 or 5 smaller meals a day. Your dog may feel nauseous in the morning or better after a walk, and be more inclined to eat
• Sit on the floor with her while she eats
• Hold the bowl up under her nose
• Put the food on the floor
• Hand feed
• Try a different flavor of the same brand
• Put all or part of his meal in a Kong or other treat dispensing toy for a change
• If he eats dry food add water and microwave it to make gravy
• Are there certain times of day he’s more interested? Change meal times to match
• If you usually put medication in his food, give it separately and see if that makes a difference. It may be changing the taste of the food, and while it didn’t bother her in the past, if she’s finicky now, that could be all it takes. Her pills can go in something like cream cheese, spray cheese, meat…
• Put his food on a human plate – yes it has been known to help
• Feed him in the park or backyard, a change of scenery may help
• Elevate the food bowl – buy an elevated feeder or turn a casserole dish upside down
• Take your dog for at least one walk every day, but more is better. Imagine how depressed he must feel if he’s not getting out, it’s no wonder he doesn’t want to eat! Exercise also stimulates the appetite. If arthritis or other joint pain is holding you back, speak to your vet about medication, and look into these as well:
Why isn’t your old dog eating? What foods or tricks have you tried that worked? Sharing helps others so please leave your comment below.
I’m a dog trainer specialising in working with senior dogs. Whether you have health & wellness concerns, or you’ve just rescued an older dog and need training tips, I can help! Sessions are conducted via Zoom and I offer a FREE 15 minute no obligation chat. To book, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my website.