All of a sudden, your pooch pushes away his favorite food. Your cat kicks her customary kibble to the curb. Eager eaters have begun to pick or walk away from the bowl. If your dog or cat is not eating, what’s causing this behavior? When does refusal to eat become a problem, and what can an owner do?

Won’t Eat vs. Can’t Eat

First, you have to determine whether the change is physical or behavioral. That is, whether the animal seems ready to eat, approaching the bowl eagerly and taking a few bites before giving up, or whether it simply has no interest in what you’re serving today.

Dogs and cats can be spoiled by a vast diversity of meals or a constant influx of treats or human specialties from the table. Plain dog and cat food looks less appetizing after that, and they may wait you out to see if the menu improves. Animals can also suddenly “go off” favorite foods, as people do, and enjoy them again later.

Animals that go outside unsupervised may drop in on neighbors who give them snacks or whole meals. Certain pets, especially feral cats adopted to inside lives, are shyer than others and may not want to eat while you or another pet are present. Some dogs gobble meals indiscriminately, while others are the “eat to live” variety and are happy with less. Older pets, like older humans, may simply eat smaller quantities as they age.

As long as your pets have appropriate weight, skin condition, energy levels and attitudes, they’re probably fine. Your vet can tell you how many calories they should consume, and it helps to weigh them frequently to make sure they’re not dropping weight.

What’s Preventing Them from Eating?

There are numerous reasons why pets want to eat but cannot. Two primary reasons are either some kind of physical obstruction or an underlying condition that causes loss of appetite.

Dogs consume foreign objects all the time, from rocks to tennis balls. (Retrievers and pit bulls seem especially prone to this behavior.) Some dogs can continue to eat, and you won’t see signs of distress until the object passes down into the small intestine. Cats don’t eat as carelessly, but they may swallow string or other things they perceive as toys, and they can’t be trusted around plastic bags, especially if those have had food in them.

An animal that continues to eat but doesn’t produce normal stools causes concern for an obstruction blocking its system. At that point, surgery may be required.

Not Eating Because of Illness

This category can include irritations of the gastrointestinal tract or more serious diseases.
Puppies and especially kittens can have GI distress until their bodies mature. This problem doesn’t always involve loss of appetite, may resolve itself as the animal gets older, and may require pharmaceutical assistance for the digestive system.

As animals age, the likeliest problems relate to other organs: liver and kidney illnesses, pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease or cancer. Treatment here involves a catch: The animal doesn’t want to eat, yet consistent nourishment helps address these conditions, which must be managed rather than cured. Some pets with food allergies may be prescribed novel proteins – meats they have never eaten that won’t irritate them – such as duck, venison or rabbit, so those should not be part of a regular diet before then.

Tests may be necessary to figure out why your dog or cat is not eating. A veterinarian will need to do a complete blood workup and perhaps other procedures to diagnose underlying conditions. The doctor may recommend a specialty canned or dry diet to improve kidney health, for example, along with medications or other treatments. A stimulant such as mirtazapine, an anti-depressant that helps with vomiting and loss of appetite, may be prescribed.

What Can an Owner Do When a Dog or Cat Is Not Eating?

Be vigilant. Keep track of how often and how much your pet consumes. Make sure it gets an adequate number of the right types of calories. Weigh the animal weekly and check for healthy-looking stools at least every two days.

Don’t panic. A cat can safely go 48 hours without eating, though it should see a vet immediately after three days without food to avoid liver complications. Dogs can go even longer without damaging other organs. And don’t coax with treats – especially human food – you won’t be able to give when it’s healthy, because you’ll create bad mealtime habits that never go away.

Charlotte Animal Referral and Emergency is the pet equivalent of a medical center for people. It’s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. CARE offers every type of treatment, from emergency care to board-certified specialty work, once you get a referral from your primary veterinarian. Please take a visual tour of the practice at carecharlotte.com/tour.

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