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Why Won’t My Old Dog Eat? 5 Reasons and What to Do!

If you are asking yourself why won’t my old dog eat, I can help. To learn what to do and how you can help your senior dog, read on!

Few things are as concerning for dog owners as their beloved dogs refusing to eat. This can be even more troubling if your dog is in their senior life stage, as sudden changes in an elderly dog’s behavior are almost always signs of a fairly serious health issue.

While your initial thought might just be that your dog no longer enjoys their food and has become a bit pickier with age, the cause of their reduced appetite may be something far more serious.

Your old dog won’t eat due to a medical condition, whether serious or non-serious, or age-related cognitive decline. Other causes of a senior dog with inappetence are dental disease and oral pain, anxiety and stress, or recent surgery and medication side effects.

It is not all bad news, though. Fortunately, there are many things that you can do to help your canine companion, and as the owner of a senior German Shepherd, I can certainly relate to some of these.

That said, when dealing with any canine behavioral issue, the first step is identifying the root cause. To help put your mind at ease, I will highlight why senior dogs stop eating.

From there, I will also explain the best things dog owners can do to help their older dogs and return them to healthier eating habits. Let’s begin!

Why Won't My Old Dog Eat? An old dog lying next to its bowl of food, not eating.

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Why Do Senior Dogs Refuse to Eat? 5 Main Reasons

Before I go over some common reasons why old dogs stop eating, I must first stress the importance of taking this issue seriously. If your dog has completely stopped eating, or even if they are just eating noticeably less than usual, you need to determine when this behavior change started to emerge.

Has it only been a few hours since your dog last ate a meal, or has a full day elapsed without your dog eating anything? This information could help determine the cause of your dog’s loss of appetite, and it will be one of the first questions any veterinarian asks if you bring your furry friend in for an assessment. 

If a significant amount of time has elapsed without your dog eating, meaning anywhere close to 24 hours, I highly recommend taking your dog to see a veterinarian for a proper diagnosis, as timing can be critical, especially with senior dogs.

With that said, the following are some of the most common reasons why old dogs stop eating.

1. Serious and Non-Serious Medical Conditions

As mentioned above, a sudden loss of appetite can indicate a wide range of underlying medical conditions. Unfortunately, this is even more common in senior dogs, as they are susceptible to a broader range of health issues than younger dogs.

If more than 24 hours have elapsed and your dog has not eaten anything or has eaten significantly less than usual, a medical-related issue becomes much more likely. Most dogs will eat out of hunger after 12 hours, even if they do not like the food you provide them. 

So, a loss of appetite that continues beyond this window means something is usually wrong. Again, this is why it is so important to visit a veterinarian for a proper diagnosis if your dog refuses to eat altogether. 

The following are some common reasons why older dogs refuse to eat.

  • Tumors & Various Forms of Cancer – While it is horrible to think about, most dogs experience a severe loss of appetite if they suffer from the later stages of various types of cancer. As you would expect, this is even more common in dogs that have entered their senior life stage.

According to a study on the Evaluation of Body Condition and Weight Loss in Dogs published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, the loss of appetite and weight in senior dogs is recognized as one of the most well-known signs of cancer.

You can visually and physically inspect your dog’s body for tumors and lumps; however, this is very limiting, as the issue is more than likely internal. That’s why I also recommend your senior doggo has a complete check-up with the vet every 6 months.

If 24 hours have elapsed and your dog’s appetite has not returned, take your dog to a veterinarian, who can perform the necessary diagnostic tests to check for cancer, tumors, and other life-threatening health issues.

Senior Dog Resting

Remember, with cancer and other serious health issues, the sooner a diagnosis is made, the faster treatment can begin, which will significantly increase your dog’s chances of a positive outcome.

  • Age-Related Diseases – In addition to cancer, plenty of other serious diseases can impact a dog’s appetite. Again, these issues are significantly more common in senior dogs.

Liver disease, diabetes, heart disease, pancreatitis, and more can all reduce a dog’s appetite. Many of these health issues impact a dog’s digestive system and trigger nausea whenever the dog eats. Over time, the dog may refuse to eat, as the pain and discomfort can be so severe that it will block out the dog’s desire to satisfy its hunger.

Again, this is why taking your old dog to a vet is so important if you have concerns about their appetite. You should also note any other behavioral differences you notice, as all of this information will be useful for a veterinarian when making a diagnosis and determining which types of tests are necessary.

  • Upset Stomach & Other Non-Life-Threatening Health Issues – You have probably experienced a loss of appetite due to a stomach ache, food poisoning, or even a seasonal cold. Like us, dogs can also experience stomach pain due to a temporary, non-serious health issue.

If your dog is the type that will eat anything, including garbage, it is possible that he could be experiencing lethargy, loss of appetite, and stomach discomfort as a result of simply eating something he should not have. Dogs can also get colds, especially if they spend time with other dogs and share the same water source. 

If the issue is only temporary or the dog will still eat certain foods, like treats, but they seem reluctant to eat meals, you could be dealing with a mild, temporary issue. It can still be worth taking your pooch to see a vet to play it safe, but with any luck, your dog will feel back to normal in a day or two.

2. Age-Related Cognitive Decline

A wide range of cognitive diseases is prominent in senior dogs. Unfortunately, one of the most common symptoms of many diseases is a refusal to eat, which can accelerate the dog’s cognitive decline.

Canine cognitive dysfunction, or CCD, is a type of canine-specific dementia that can alter a senior dog’s behavior in various ways, including their willingness to eat. Sadly, the dog does not feel hungry, even though its body needs nutrients and calories. Dogs in the later stages of this condition can also simply forget how to eat.

One of the more common clinical signs of canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome is a loss of appetite. If you notice other signs of memory loss, confusion, or changes in your dog’s routine, it could be time to have your dog assessed by a veterinarian.

3. Dental Disease & Oral Pain

Senior Dog Dental Disease

Dogs can refuse to eat if they are experiencing severe oral pain. Unfortunately, senior dogs have a heightened susceptibility to various types of dental disease, so it is one of the more common medical conditions veterinarians diagnose in senior pooches.

In most of these cases, the dog suffers from periodontal disease, a term used to describe severe inflammation of the tissue surrounding the teeth.

If your dog does not eat hard kibble but seems slightly more interested in soft food, you can inspect the gums for apparent signs of discoloration, inflammation, and bleeding. While checking the interior of your dog’s mouth, look for broken or chipped teeth, which can also trigger enough pain that a dog will be reluctant to eat.

If you discover abnormalities or your dog seems reluctant to let you examine its mouth, visit a veterinarian. They can perform a dental examination and determine whether dental disease and localized pain contribute to your dog’s apparent lack of appetite.

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4. Anxiety & Stress

Just like humans, dogs can suffer from anxiety, stress, and even depression. While veterinarians and animal behaviorists are still exploring the exciting field of canine mental health, there is clear evidence that stress and anxiety can trigger a loss of appetite in dogs.

Separation anxiety is particularly common. Some dogs can become incredibly distressed when left on their own. This anxiety can present itself in a wide range of self-destructive and abnormal behaviors, including a complete loss of appetite and a refusal to eat. 

If you are spending less time with your dog than usual, possibly due to a change in your work schedule, try to note if there are any other symptoms alongside your old dog’s loss of appetite.

These symptoms could include:

  • Increased barking
  • Pacing
  • Whining
  • Urinating
  • Defecating indoors
  • Destructive behaviors – destroying furniture and digging holes

Some dogs will even bite and scratch themselves to the point of causing injury.

Environmental stressors can also trigger the type of anxiety that causes dogs to stop eating. If you have recently moved to a new house, your dog’s loss of appetite could be related to confusion and stress due to a change in environment.

This is common in older dogs that have spent the majority of their life in one place, then they are relocated to a new location. Not only can the change in environment distress the senior dog, but even changes in the dog’s usual routine can cause confusion and panic. 

Remember, dogs are creatures of habit. What may seem like an insignificant change to us could be incredibly confusing, stressful, and even scary to a dog, especially a senior dog already suffering from the standard age-related cognitive decline.

Speak with your vet about ways to treat your dog’s anxiety and stress, as these treatments can help restore your dog’s regular eating habits. 

Dog Laying Down Looking at Food Bowl and Not Hungry
My senior GSD Willow – not looking very hungry!

5. Recent Surgery & Side Effects Related to Medication

One of the unfortunate realities of having a senior dog is the amount of medical attention they need. While this is just a natural component of getting older, it can mean your dog has to undergo various surgeries or even be on prescription medications and vet-recommended supplements.

It is not uncommon for a dog to experience a loss of appetite in the days following surgery. Depending on the type of surgery that dog has undergone, he could be experiencing nausea, headaches, or even abdominal pain. All of these symptoms could explain why your dog won’t eat.

Like various types of drugs prescribed to humans, some medications given to dogs can also result in a loss of appetite.

If your dog has recently started a new medication, check the label for side effects, or consult your veterinarian. If the loss of appetite is severe and the medication is causing the dog to refuse food altogether, he may need to be switched to another type of medication. 

“My German Shepherd Willow has spinal arthritis and is prescribed medication. She initially had to change to another type as she completely lost her appetite with the first meds she tried.”

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Tips & Tricks if Your Old Dog Won’t Eat

While I simply can’t stress enough the importance of taking an elderly dog to a veterinarian if they will not eat, there are a few things you can do if you discover the cause of your dog’s reduced appetite is not serious.

  • Mix Wet Dog Food in with Your Dog’s Kibbles – The scent and texture of soft wet dog food or canned food can be more appealing for the dog than plain kibbles. You can even mix dog food brands of wet and dry food as long as they are of nutritional value.
  • Prepare Plain Chicken & Rice for Your Dog – You can also try boiled and shredded chicken with white rice. Dogs enjoy the taste, and this mixture might be enough to entice your dog to eat. It is also relatively balanced and neutral, so it should not disturb your dog’s digestive system. Make sure you use boneless chicken – and do not add seasoning!
  • Choose High-Quality Food – If you’re feeding a commercial dog diet, ensure you choose high-quality food vs. cheap dog food. These will have healthier and more nutritional ingredients and also have an improved manufacturing process.
  • Consider a Probiotic Supplement – Numerous probiotic supplements are specifically created for canines. Not only can the flavored varieties make your dog’s food more appealing, but they can also restore and rebalance your dog’s gastrointestinal flora, which can be good for their long-term dietary health.
  • Follow a Strict Feeding and Exercise Schedule – A regular feeding and exercise schedule will help you regulate your dog’s appetite. Taking your old dog for a walk that is age-appropriate in length before a meal can help stimulate their appetite. However, wait at least an hour before feeding to prevent bloating.
  • Reduce Treats and Human Food – Some elderly dogs become incredibly stubborn and will only eat treats and table scraps. Overfeeding your dog these foods can negatively impact their diet and make them resent their own meals. Since most dog treats are high in calories and low in nutrients, you do not want them to take up a significant portion of your dog’s diet.
  • Add a Topping – You can add various “human food” toppings to dry dog food, such as fish, steak, lamb, chicken, yogurt, or organic peanut butter. My senior German Shepherd loves a little tuna on top of her kibbles once or twice a week. Check her out in the below photo lapping up her tuna topper!
How To Get an Old Dog To Eat. An old dog eating tuna as a topping added to dry dog food.
My senior dog eating tuna as a topping to her kibble.

For More Information

If you would still like to know more about why your adult dog won’t eat his kibble, or you have a younger dog that will not eat their meals, I recommend reading the following guide – 9 Reasons Your Dog Won’t Eat Dry Dog Food (And What to Do!).

If you suspect your dog is not eating simply because they are picky, I recommend reading 15 Foods to Mix with Dry Dog Food (For Fussy Eaters).

Old Dog Sleeping

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