What Does Loss of Appetite Mean?

Written by Dr. Katy Nelson 

I’m a fairly normal human (unless you ask my husband).  For the sake of argument, let’s just say that I am.  There are days when I could eat the entire contents of my refrigerator and my pantry in one sitting.  Then there are days when I’m just not that hungry.  Part of that probably has to do with my mood, if I worked out that day, the weather, and maybe how my tummy is feeling.

The same can be said for our pets.  For example, decreased appetite can be normal in dogs for up to 24-48 hours.  Their ancestors, wolves, can survive for days or even weeks without food if they have to.

If your pet normally scarfs breakfast, but sometimes doesn’t finish all of his dinner, that can be completely normal.  However, if you have a pet that is always ravenous, never misses a meal, and then all of a sudden isn’t eating for a day or two, that could be the sign of a bigger problem.  The best way to determine whether your pet has a problem or is just being a bit finicky starts by simply knowing your dog or cat’s habits.

The causes of appetite loss can be numerous.  The most common reasons are as follows:

  • Stress – travel, boarding, change in household, new pets, fireworks/thunderstorms, change in feeding routine/bowls/foods, etc.
  • Food related issues – spoiled, contaminated or expired foods, food is not flavorful, bored with the food, change in formulation, etc.
  • Metabolic causes – nausea is the primary reason for inappetance – can be due to GI upset, endocrine issues, maldigestion, indigestion, parasites, kidney disease, liver disease, etc.
  • Pain – dental pain (dental disease, painful chewing, sore gums), abdominal pain, orthopedic pain, back pain, etc.
  • Just being flat out picky or other finicky behaviors

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So how do you know if it’s something easily correctible versus something that needs to be seen by a veterinarian?

You can start by looking at your pets’ food.  Smell it, look at the expiration date, examine it closely, and don’t hesitate to call the company to see if there are any other complaints or recalls.

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Next, look at your pets’ stool – is it normal?  Any vomiting or increased gut sounds?  Any lethargy or depression?  Changes in behavior?

Finally, look closely in your pets’ mouth.  Smell his breath.  Look at his teeth.  Are there any sore or discolored areas of the gums?  Heavy tartar buildup on the teeth?  Any fractured teeth or other abnormalities noted?

If your answer to any of the questions above was yes (or I don’t know) then you need to call your veterinarian immediately to schedule an appointment.  It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Your veterinarian will likely do a full physical exam, perhaps with blood work and radiographs, to look for the cause.  If nothing specific is found, she may prescribe meds for nausea, a prescription food or food additive to tempt your pet.

Other simple things you can do to help your pet’s appetite: 

  • Cut back on treats (they really don’t need too many!)
  • Feed your pets on a schedule. Twice a day usually works well
  • Take your pet for a walk before mealtime
  • Change their feeding situation
    • If they eat with other animals, try feeding them solo
    • Use different types of bowls, at different heights
    • Try sitting with them during the beginning of mealtime
  • Try a different type of food. I prefer fresh foods, high in protein, low in carbs, and no preservatives, like Freshpet

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