Why won't my dog eat regularly? Help!
July 11, 2008 6:56 PM   Subscribe

Why won't my dog eat regularly? It started when my roommate moved out, who had friends over a lot. Over the past few weeks it's progressed into serving him canned food, to some days where he doesn't eat at all except for treats and any kind of cooked meat.

He has a routine vet appointment in a week but my mother thinks we should bring him to the emergency clinic. He is a 11.5 year old lab mix who needs constant attention. Since he started developing an irregular eating pattern, I've been giving him more and more attention to get him to eat. Walking him more, brushing him, vacuuming his coat (his fav), throwing his ball around, and I even gave him a bath today. If he leaves his breakfast or dinner in his bowl all day, the minute a few friends come over he'll go eat it after getting some attention. It's like the excitement of people urges him to become hungry again.

So, I can't tell if he's depressed or if he has some intestinal issue. Behaviorally, he acts 100% fine—unless I leave for more than a few hrs he'll throw his bedding around and sometimes my laundry. He started not eating his morning meal, and then some days a struggle to get him to eat his dinner without my turning it into a game (pretending to hide his bowl, move it to different places, getting his tail wagging...those kinds of things), which he loved.

Then one day he wouldn't eat his dry food at all so I went out and got canned food and that worked for a few days....now it's a struggle to get him to eat that. Sometimes he inhales his food, like yesterday and wants more, and other times, like today, he'll have one can and won't touch anything else.

One thing to note is that he drinks water like a fish—but he's always been like that. The last vet visit we were worried about kidney problems but the vet figured he was using the "please give me more water" look to get attention. I'm afraid this is what has happened with the food. Nothing else seems to be wrong with him, so I'm not so sure he's sick. I think he's playing with me because he knows I get upset over the food thing! But maybe he really is sick...who knows. He's my best friend and just want him to be healthy!

No diarrhea, just small stools on days he doesn't eat much.

So, emergency dog clinic tomorrow, or just wait until vet appointment next week?
posted by philrj to Pets & Animals (18 answers total)
I'm no vet, but I tend to agree that the dog just likes the attention. Dogs need to eat, but they don't need to eat that much; and dogs tend to be able to develop really good mastery over their instinct to gobble anything down. Talk to your vet, but I wouldn't send him to the emergency clinic unless he's acting more strange than just not eating.
posted by jabberjaw at 7:12 PM on July 11, 2008

You are giving your dog options. Since he won't eat his regular food, you are giving him treats and human food. Believe it or not, he might prefer that, so he's holding out.

What you need to do is NOT feed him treats or human food when he's NOT eating. That way you aren't reinforcing his behavior.

You may want to leave his food out there till he finally eats it. I mean seriously...given enough time without food...ANYTHING (including us) would eat dog food if we had no other options. Once he eats the dog food, give him a little treat. Reinforce THAT behavior.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 7:19 PM on July 11, 2008

This doesn't sound like a problem, to me. If he's eating treats and cooked meat, that would seem to rule out lack of appetite.

My dogs are definitely healthy sized, and they don't eat much. Recently I became worried that my oldest pug (who is a bit overweightdidn't ever seem interested in his meals. I cut his serving sizes, and now he gobbles up his food as soon as I serve it.

So, perhaps cut your dog's meal sizes. It sounds like you may be serving your dog more than he needs.
posted by jayder at 7:45 PM on July 11, 2008

It doesn't sound like an emergency. Unless he's terribly emaciated? Otherwise, it's a behavioral thing. His appetite may in fact be diminishing with age, too. I might try smaller portions.

One of my finicky dogs sometimes skips breakfast entirely, and I used to try to get her to eat lunch, or a mid-afternoon meal. But after a while I learned to just let her skip breakfast if she wanted to. This always results in her being nice and hungry for dinner and breakfast the next day.
posted by iguanapolitico at 8:06 PM on July 11, 2008

It sounds like your dog misses the company and the attention. So he has worked out a way to get this from you. Dogs can be expert guilt-manipulators: they work out which buttons to push and work them without mercy ... Our old Collie Mix could go for a day and a half without eating, following visits with friends where he had been fed treats nonstop. He just sulked when he got back and refusing to eat his regular food was his way of communicating it. As he got older, he would not eat his morning treat as you left the house, because he was trying to get you to stay. He would let it drop from his mouth, as if it were dust and ashes ... when you returned, he would go fetch the treat and then eat it in front of you (he wanted you to see that he had been so upset all day that he could not even eat his treat).
Try inviting a few friends round to play with him. Take him to the dog park, to meet people. Take him for an extra walk each day. My bet is that this behavior will disappear.
posted by Susurration at 8:06 PM on July 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

My dog did this for a couple of months, eating something novel for a few days and then going off her meals until something new was introduced. Eventually she started vomiting and lost her appetite completely and when I took her to the vet a couple of days later she was blind, riddled with cancer, and beyond hope.
posted by bunnytricks at 8:18 PM on July 11, 2008

Sounds safe to wait until his scheduled vet appointment. 11.5 is fairly old for a large dog, so there is unfortunately a chance that it's an age related issue. If the vet says that everything is okay heathwise, it's your behaviour that will have to change :)

Offer his regular dry food, or maybe half dry, half canned, for a set amount of time for each feeding, say 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, the food is put away until the next feeding time. And make walks/playtime completely unrelated to food.

Alternately, keep playing the food game if it makes him happy and you can do it without being stressed about him not eating...if it works for both of you, no reason to make major changes with a dog that age.
posted by kattyann at 8:46 PM on July 11, 2008

Oh - and one food that is guaranteed to get a dog to eat is Cesar dogfood. It is not cheap - it comes in little packs, as it is designed for little dogs. But every dog I have had, when they were off their food, would wolf down Cesar. I think that it is something to do with the smell of the food. It smells so good, I was tempted myself ... :-)
posted by Susurration at 8:59 PM on July 11, 2008

My dog does this, and then eventually goes back to eating normally as though nothing happened. Sometimes I worry about it because she has a lot of allergies so I'm paranoid that she's sick. Yesterday I tried feeding her all sorts of stuff she actually *likes* and she refused all of it. But then a half hour later she did tricks for treats for ten minutes and ate everything voraciously. I've come to have faith and just know if she's REALLY hungry, she'll eat. Sometimes she just gets picky or moody or something, I don't know what it is. I think because I'm in the process of moving and traveling a lot she's just being a primadonna for attention. Who knows. Just know you're not starving your dog and they can live on less food for a while if need be. They've got strong survival instincts and will eat when they need to.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:08 PM on July 11, 2008

Well, you've received a lot of advice, some of it good, some of it useless and some of it just sad. I'll do my best to help, although like the others, IANAV, and YMMV. My bit of expertise comes from having a dog who had the opposite problem--she could eat all day and never be sated; after nearly a year and at least four misdiagnoses, the last vet made the correct & verifiable diagnosis of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency or EPI.

All things being equal, you can most likely wait for your scheduled vet visit. But one thing that raised a red flag was the description of thirst. If this is accompanied by weight loss or other signs such as nervousness, you may have a dog with adult onset diabetes. It can be controlled, but it is a serious problem--as it is in humans.

But, if it is the more likely and fairly common problem of a dog with food issues, the best treatment is usually to offer food at regular times each day, leave it down for a limited time. 15 minutes is usually good, 30 minutes may be appropriate since this is an older and somewhat indulged dog (hey, I'm not knocking, mine is spoiled, too). At the end of the time, pick it up and keep it out of access until the next feeding time. Obviously don't pick it up just based on time if he's eating, but if he's not actively eating at your time limit, pick it up.

Our trainer pointed out that dogs are very good at recognizing patterns, but that they usually don't generalize from the pattern--in other words, although he'll probably learn this rule well at home, don't count on him to immediately "get it" if you travel with him.

I do have to agree with Susurration about the Cesar, but I think it has to do with the obscene fats in those little packages. We had a little dog with congestive heart failure and her last year was total indulgence with Cesar.

Good luck with the vet visit. Consistency will be your best bet.
posted by beelzbubba at 9:31 PM on July 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Can you call the vet and see if he can move up your appointment? That would at least reduce your worry.

Beelzbubba's advice sounds like the kind of answer that would come from an experienced dog trainer/owner - I would go ahead and start that process immediately. If he still won't eat regular food after, say, three days, then I would consider it worth an emergency visit. (However, I've owned a few dogs but I'm not an expert.
posted by metahawk at 10:13 PM on July 11, 2008

He's a very old guy. 11.5 is very old for a lab mix. So sometimes he wants to eat and sometimes he doesn't. He needs less calories than a younger dog. With my dogs, I put the food out in the morning and after that it's up to them. Sometimes, they leave half of it for later. They're perfectly healthy. My very old shepherd mix would occasionally leave his food for a day or two - he would get back to it when he felt like it. If you're not seeing any other scary changes - bowel movement issues, moving issues, more arthritis, sudden snappiness (this means pain in an old dog) - then I wouldn't worry about it. With the caveat that he may be having trouble chewing, which is something your vet needs to assess, but in the meantime i'd moisten his kibble so it won't hurt his teeth. Anyway, though, if there are no other dogs present, it won't hurt anyone to put his day's ration of kibble in a bowl and leave it. He'll eat it in his own good time. He's a very old guy.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:30 PM on July 11, 2008

Another vote for not an emergency. Dogs do this sometimes, especially older dogs. It does sound like he's maybe a little depressed about the change in circumstances. Don't give him treats or human food if he wont eat the dog food, all that teaches him is that if he acts up he gets rewarded.
Unless you can see ribs or other signs of illness then he's probably fine to wait for his appointment.
posted by missmagenta at 1:00 AM on July 12, 2008

I would be willing to bet that your roommate was feeding him treats and now he is holding out for something better than what you usually feed him. Unfortunately, you have given in to him and he knows that if he waits longs enough, you will try something different. Dogs are smart. The only way to cure this is to stop all other feeding except his dog food at scheduled mealtimes.

However, I generally play it safe and take my dogs in for minor changes in behavior. (I have the advantage of being a vet tech and getting a very deep discount for services). There are some serious conditions that can lead to anorexia, one of which is a foreign body ingestion. If your dog starts vomiting (even once) with continued anorexia or if two days go by and he eats nothing, take him to the vet.
posted by little miss s at 5:48 AM on July 12, 2008

Well, you've received a lot of advice, some of it good, some of it useless and some of it just sad.

I'd be interested in which advice is "sad", especially since most people are saying the same thing that beelzbubba did.
posted by iguanapolitico at 7:12 AM on July 12, 2008

Wow. Thanks. You guys all rock. I never thought I'd get this response on here. I'm feeling really good about things. Everyone I speak to, and on here, tends to think it's behavioral (coming from him and myself). Overall, really good advice. Thank you.

I would be willing to bet that your roommate was feeding him treats and now he is holding out for something better than what you usually feed him.

I never even thought about that and it's probably true!

And I agree with metahawk that Beelzbubba's advice is probably the best way to go at this point. I've read that elsewhere too....to leave food at scheduled times and pick it up of he doesn't eat it. Won't hurt to try it and nothing to lose in the meantime....He's seeing the vet in a few days. And yes, he is a large dog, not overweight, but you can barely see his ribs.

If anything serious changes we'll be off to the emergency clinic, however.

Thanks again, and stay tuned.
posted by philrj at 9:03 AM on July 12, 2008

So yes, as expected and agreed upon by most everyone here, the vet told me that it probably was a behavioral issue—especially because her first comment was, "He's actually gained weight and could lose a few pounds." She went on to say that everything I told her made sense about it being behavioral, and to make sure I don't let myself fall into the trap of giving in to his attention-seeking demands. "Once you start feeding him out of your hand, he'll always want it that way," she said. I was convinced he had lost so much weight, when in fact he had gained weight. Ahh, the things you'll convince yourself to believe sometimes. I guess all this situation needed was a human behavioral adjustment. Vet said that if he really is refusing to eat after several days to mix in some yogurt or cottage cheese into his food to get him going again. Otherwise, he's a top-notch healthy old dog and in perfect shape, she said. What a relief...
posted by philrj at 9:29 PM on July 17, 2008

That's great news! :)
posted by iguanapolitico at 10:53 PM on July 17, 2008

« Older Or I could quietly jiggle   |   Help with my motivation to learn to drive Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.