It’s something we will encounter at least once in our lives as dog owners, and in my opinion (possibly because of a cultural heritage that associates food with comfort and love) it’s one of the most frustrating of all problems.

Our dog won’t eat.  What on earth do we do?

Thirty years ago, we didn’t have the Internet to consult, and one couldn’t find anything on the subject.  When I encountered issues, I relied on advice from fellow fanciers, the school of hard knocks, and always my veterinarian.  What follows was born of experience –  but first, a caveat.

No animal will willingly starve itself.

If your dog experiences a lack of appetite or a change in behavior that lasts for over a week, always have him or her seen by a vet. You need to rule out illness before embarking on solving a dog’s eating problem. My approach to such things is to first look for obvious, but often overlooked reasons (put another way, when hearing hoof beats, think horses not zebras). That’s why you want to check the dog for a bad tooth as this is often overlooked as a cause of an eating issue. Include the gums and throat while you’re at it.

I offer a second caveat: Eating problems can be complex, the diagnosis often difficult. The tips offered here are admittedly simplistic and you really should discuss them with your vet to see if any of them are a realistic remedy for your pet’s situation.

Let’s assume that you have a healthy dog, but he’s just not a good eater. Consider these potential reasons why that might be, and some solutions:

  • If you feed your dog treats during the day, stop. You want your dog hungry at meal times. If you have a show dog whom you bait, remember that bait should be offered in tiny pieces, it’s not meant to be dinner. When it comes to meals, put the dog’s food bowl on the floor, give her ten minutes to eat it, and if it isn’t touched after ten minutes, pick it up and put it away. Don’t feed her again until the next meal, and resist the temptation to give her treats. Do this for a whole week because what you’re doing here is behavior modification. Remember, a healthy dog won’t starve itself to death, but a stubborn, healthy dog could modify your behavior if you cave in; 
  • Change your dog food. It’s possible your dog has grown tired of, or never really liked what you’re feeding; 
  • On the other hand, if you change commercial pet foods frequently, stop. Frequent diet changes can create a finicky eater. The dog learns to “hold out” to see what will be offered next because just maybe, it might be better the next time. Why, it could be a side of beef!  When you find a nutritious diet that your dog will eat, stick with it. If you must change his diet, do it gradually over a two-week period. Add a small amount of the new kibble to the old food each day, and the next day, increase the amount of the new feed while decreasing the amount of the old. This gradual change will help prevent diarrhea, vomiting and finicky eating; 
  • As the old adage goes, a tired dog is a good dog. A tired dog can also be a hungrier dog, so step up the dog’s activity level if it’s not very active now. Play fetch, go for a walk, and even take a car trip to get the dog out.

With picky eaters, it’s especially important to feed a “super premium” brand of dog food. These foods cost more, but they’re made with better ingredients and are nutritionally dense. This means that your dog is actually eating less in quantity than he would of a cheaper brand bought at a super size stores (most of these foods have the nutritional value of bark), but because there are more “calories per cup” in a premium food, they’re actually getting more nutrition.  There are fabulous options in commercial dog foods these days, and a variety of comparison sites on the Internet to help you evaluate each brand. I’d encourage you to learn for yourself how to assess an ingredient panel, and learn what the importance is of, say, protein percentages, “grain-free,” the meaning of “by products” or what fish/chicken meal are.  Is corn a bad ingredient? Does your couch potato need kibble that is 26% protein?  The dog food market is highly competitive and not every ingredient is necessarily bad because you don’t understand what it is.  Become informed on how to read such a panel (visit http://www.fda.gov/animalveterinary/resourcesforyou/ucm047113.htm) and don’t always rely wholly on someone else’s review of a dog food, they may have a bias of which you don’t know.  Some different food comparison sites are: http://www.dogfoodadvisor.com, http://www.dogfoodscoop.com and http://www.petfoodratings.org.

This next part is important: The single most natural way to increase a dog’s appetite is to warm their food because it increases the smell and makes it more appetizing. Also consider mixing the dog’s kibble with a small amount of canned dog food with a bit of water to make it enticing with “gravy.”  (this web site lists some canned dog food options: http://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/best-dog-foods/best-grain-free-dog-foods/best-grain-free-dog-foods-canned/)\

Some picky eaters get the appetite of a sumo wrestler when their diet is switched over to a BARF diet, an acronym for “Biologically Appropriate Raw Food or Bones,orBiologically Appropriate Raw Food. Raw dog diets are controversial, but proponents of feeding raw meat, bones, fruits, and vegetables are zealous in their enthusiasm for the improvements they believe they see in their dogs.

Racing greyhounds and sled dogs have long eaten raw food diets, and extending that feeding method to the family dog is a more recent idea attributed to the Australian veterinarian, Ian Billinghurst. He believes that adult dogs thrive on a diet based on what canines ate before they became domesticated.

BARF has its detractors, including some veterinarians and the FDA, and there are concerns over bacteria, which are easily addressed by a conscientious owner. Personally, I don’t care because I don’t have a “cookie cutter” approach to dog food.  My goal is to get food into a dog, and if that food is commercially made, or made in your kitchen,  what does it matter if the dog isn’t eating?  If you do decide to try the BARF route, check out this web site:  http://www.njboxers.com/top-50-barf-faqs-for-beginners.html#.VAX6D1YWFG4

Perhaps your dog has a health issue or is on a medication that makes him not want to eat. She’s under a vet’s care, but the task of getting nutrition into her still falls on you each and every day.

Now what?

You must understand that the less a dog eats, the less he wants to eat.  Exacerbating the situation is the dog who comes to associate food with nausea, and now you have a bigger problem, so the sooner you can get your dog to want to eat on his own, the better.

So much for the obvious.

I’ll start with the simplest remedies and work my way up to a radical solution that worked for one of my dogs. Let’s assume that your dog is on a high quality food but he’s still not eating. You may need to go to the next step: making dog food taste even better.

Don’t make these next foods a daily staple because the high sodium content of many of them would be contra-indicated for dogs in renal failure or with heart issues. These foods have been tried and tested by people in the dog fancy and are suggested only as a means to jump start the appetite in a sick or compromised dog: Weruva canned dog food (human grade), sardines, canned cat food, Gerber’s baby food (especially turkey or sweet potato), Braunschweiger, Limburger Cheese, broth, pureed liver, Dinty Moore Beef Stew, yogurt, cottage cheese/cream cheese, canned mackerel, scrambled eggs with cream cheese, chicken noodle soup – and even this one: hard-boiled eggs smashed up in French Vanilla yogurt, slightly warmed.

Sometimes, you may need to “jump start” an appetite with something so enticing, it’s irresistible. Here is the original recipe for “Satin Balls,” one of the most requested recipes on Wellpet, Showdogs-L, VetMed, and other popular e-mail lists for serious dog people:

10 pounds of cheap hamburger meat

1 large box of Total cereal

1 large box oatmeal

1 jar of wheat germ

1 1/4 cup veg oil

1 1/4 cup of unsulfured molasses

10 raw eggs and their shells

10 envelopes of unflavored gelatin

pinch of salt

Mix all ingredients together, much like you would a meatloaf. Divide the batch into 10-quart freezer bags and freeze. Thaw as needed and feed raw! (This is also a good way to put weight on a skinny dog, increase energy, and to alleviate itchy, flaky skin). This isn’t a substitute for meals, it’s meant only to whet a dog’s appetite. If the dog is eating this eagerly, start mixing it with kibble gradually. The idea is to wean the dog off the Satin Balls and onto kibble.

Next, I move on to “fixes” that come in a tube or pill. Remember, the point of these products is to stimulate an appetite. None are a long-term solution;

  • Re-Vita products that are said to be effective for problem appetites;
  • Pet-Tinic, is a liquid dietary supplement containing iron, copper and 5 essential vitamins. The palatable meat-flavored liquid is readily accepted, and one “tester” reported that it brought back her pet’s appetite almost immediately. Because of its contents, you’ll want to have your vet’s approval before using this;
  • Nutri-Cal,  pure nutrition that squeezes out of a tube like toothpaste. Dogs like its taste, and it’s a quick way to get nutrition into a dog;
  • When diluted with water, Dyne High Calorie Dietary Supplement (http://www.drsfostersmith.com/product/prod_display.cfm?pcatid=711)  can be used to combat dehydration and provide energy because each ounce provides approximately 150 calories containing vitamins and minerals that maintain constant therapeutic blood levels;
  • Energel, a nutritional supplement containing essential vitamins, minerals, and trace elements.

If none of these works, it’s time to revisit your vet for a prescription appetite stimulant.  Ask the doctor about:

  • Mirtazipine (Remeron);
  • Cyproheptadine, a relatively mild antihistamine, aka Periactin);
  • Diazepam (Valium);
  • Megesterol (Megace), a powerful appetite stimulant which may have, however, some undesirable effects including elevating blood sugar to unhealthy levels;
  • Stanozolol (Winsterol-V), a anabolic steroid with powerful appetite-stimulating and weight-gaining properties.

If none of the aforementioned tips work, this is where I get really serious because my own philosophy is that a lack of appetite is a lousy reason for a dog to die. What you’ll read next isn’t pleasant – but if you love your dog, you have to get nutrition into her.

As far as I know, there are four ways to do this when the dog can’t eat on his own:

  • Syringe food into the dog’s mouth;
  • Stuff food down the dog’s throat;
  • Hook the dog up to an IV;
  • Insert a stomach tube.

I’ve done all of them at one time or another. And they all stink, but they’re preferable to the alternative: A dog who wastes away and dies.

Syringing: You’ll need a couple of large syringes from your vet. Using canned food; determine the amount of food your dog needs to sustain his weight. Divide that amount in half, and spoon it into a blender (you and this blender will become inseparable over the coming days).  Add enough warm water to the food and blend it into a very fine puree. For each meal, gently syringe the puree into the side of the dog’s mouth.

Or, you can cut to the chase if the dog resists. Pry the dog’s mouth open and squeeze the syringe plunger down so that the food trickles to the side and back of the dog’s mouth. It takes a bit of time to get the hang of this since you don’t want the dog to aspirate food into his lungs. Speak to the dog soothingly and praise him when you’re done. Remember, it’s not the dog’s fault he’s unable to eat, and it’s only temporary until his appetite comes back.

Stuffing: This is my least favorite means of getting food into a dog because it’s messy and degrading.  In a nutshell, you make “food bombs” that are made narrow enough to slide down the back of the dog’s throat.  These “bombs” are a mixture of wet & dry food that’s been pureed into a texture that allows shaping. Some people get really good at doing this – and some dogs who just don’t eat well become so used to eating this way that they’ll stand calmly, lift up their little heads and open their mouths like guppies in anticipation for the next “bomb.”  Since all that matters is  getting nutrition into the dog, you do what works.

An IV hook up:  This is a “no brainer.” At this point, a dog is so ill that an IV is about the last resort. It is no substitute for the calories gotten from real food, but sometimes it acts like a Band-Aid until the dog is back on his feet and able to eat on his own;

Nasal Gastric Tube, Esophogostomy or BARD Stomach tube: Proverbially speaking, this is what separates the men from the boys. When I was faced with a dog whose heart medication caused anorexia but who was otherwise healthy, I had little choice but to pull out all the stops. Syringe feeding, food bombs – these were not long term solutions. Guided by my vet, we made a difficult but informed decision to insert a stomach tube. Mind you, at the time I believed it was only a short-term fix until my dog ate on his own.

The BARD system fits flush against the skin

The BARD system fits flush against the skin

The first tube we put in was an ugly, brown narrow hose that was SO long, it had to be wrapped around my dog’s mid section and secured in place with a lady’s tube top. I prepared my dog’s food as if I was going to syringe it into his mouth, only it was syringed into the tube that had been inserted into his stomach. In less than a week, the dog knew the sound of the blender, knew what was coming and would lie down on his side in preparation for his meal.

Each day before I approached the blender, I always offered my dog his meal in a bowl since it was my fondest desire that my dog eat like a dog.

After many weeks, however, I knew this wasn’t going to happen. Ever. At this point, my vet and I had a frank discussion about options and he mentioned a permanent tube that was inserted from the inside out.  The “Bard” is a gastronomy device made of silicon that was successfully used to feed disabled children but had never been used in canines.  My then 14-year-old Puli became the first dog in North America, if not the world,  to have the slick silicon “button” inserted. It fit flush against his stomach and a little “lid” flicked open like the flip-top portion of a tube of toothpaste. Compared to what I had been working with, it was a Porsche compared to a Model-T.  No ever knew it was there.

Because of the seemingly radical step I took to ensure my dog’s survival, it wasn’t something I discussed openly. We dog people can be a judgmental lot, and there are those who feel that if a dog can’t eat on his own,  he’s not meant to live. To them I say, “Phooey.”  My dog wanted to live, he wanted to survive and feel the hand of those who loved him rubbing his ears. But he just couldn’t eat.  His spirit was willing, and he would have done anything to please me, but this one thing he couldn’t do.  How was I to deny him the one thing I could do to help him?

The BARD enabled my dog to live a couple of more years. Feeding him took less than five minutes and afterwards, he would run with my other dogs, bark into the wind, enjoy the sun on his back and know that I adored him. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

I’m hoping this has been some help, but if you are facing this right now, know that you’re not alone. Feeding issues very frustrating.  I can’t stress enough the importance of consulting your veterinarian, and I welcome your input if you have other suggestions on how to get a dog to eat.

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