Few scenarios we doglovers face are as frustrating and even frightening as dealing with an inappetent dog. One of the things I am asked most about is, what to feed the dog who doesn’t want to eat, and are there any herbs that can help? Yes to both of these – but there are qualifiers and as always, what I recommend is case-specific. In this entry, a look at inappetence and some ideas for coaxing the unwell dog to eat – when NOT to coax food, and some herbs to ease the underlying causes(Part Two).
As always, the following is not intended as replacement for veterinary care.
Distraction plays a key role in Danny’s resistance to this plate of home baked cookies.
So – first – your dog refuses food and you don’t know why. Well, this is a scenario in which I advise you get right to the vet and find out. Because the cause of inappetence can vary so much, I prefer not to make recommendations without knowing what’s going on. If an otherwise good eater suddenly goes off their food, I’d first check the product if you are using commercial diet. Many of the dogs who became seriously ill from tainted kibble started off simply refusing to eat. I would give clear low fat broth only to a dog with sudden onset of inappetence, take his or her temperature and get to the vet. Chances are it’s nothing serious, but in case it IS, you need to know. Of course, there are behavioural causes, too, some anxious dogs are poor eaters overall, and some are simply finicky! but both of these tend to be a pattern, not a sudden onset. Dogs can become bored if made to eat the same food all the time – don’t rule out simple boredom if your healthy companion suddenly just seems disinterested. But an acute attack of refusing all food should be taken seriously.
Here are some common physiological causes of inappetence in dogs:
Tooth pain/gum disease (these dogs will typically refuse harder foods but accept soft, home cooked meat, eggs and soup) Be extra wary of temperatures here, and have the dental work done asap.
Chronic pain, such as arthritis – with this situation we often see not total refusal to eat but a general malaise and lessening of enthusiasm
Gastric ulcer, gastritis: may appear quite suddenly but can also take a while before discomfort leads to outright inappetence
Kidney disease – nausea is a common symptom and dogs with advanced disease are almost always inappetent
Cancer – diet can be a really contentious issue, between conventional vets ,raw diet proponents, and people like me (nutritionists) often the dog owner faced with this already difficult diagnosis, starts to feel overwhelmed. When your dog with cancer won’t eat, it may be related to medication/treatment – or it may not. Decide your nutritional philosophy and work with that. I hope it will be an NRC balanced, home cooked diet, developed just for your unique dog. If your dog is refusing food, there are many strategies for you to try.
Side effects from medication – either expected, or unusual. Some medications can cause gastric upset and your vet may prescribe a medication such as Sucralfate or Cerenia along with it. With any drug where nausea or anorexia is NOT considered typical, you should call your vet at once.
So, with the range of problems that can precipitate inappetence, the feeding/herbal strategy needs to be tailored to the problem .
But we can’t stop there – there may well be other issues to consider. It’s very important to review the nutritional background and health history overall, to ascertain what kinds of foods might or might not be suitable. Has your dog had pancreatitis or any bowel sensitivity in past? If so, high fat foods, no matter how tempting, are not for him. What about allergies? It’s stating the obvious if you have had reason to suspect that beef, chicken, rice or any food at all causes a reaction, these too need to be left out. So before we start looking at foods to tempt your dog, there’s two simple steps:
1) Ascertain the immediate cause 2) Evaluate the dog’s overall health history
Doing this before offering up any and all foods you might think he likes is important, as it can prevent making a number of conditions actually worse. It’s easy to overlook when you are feeling anxious about your dog, but important to take that time and be safe. Of course, what every dog owner who is facing inappetence wants to know is, what can I try? Let’s take a look at some ideas, with consideration to the health of the dog overall. Please note that there will be upcoming blog entries on all of these conditions in future, this is simply an overview of do’s and don’ts for addressing a crisis of food refusal.
Dental/ Oral issues
In this case, given the dog has no sensitivities to consider, we want to emphasize two aspects: cooked foods, and soft! Assuming you are working on the underlying problem with your vet, very often you can simply move to a premium canned food, such as Merrick’s or Ziwi Peak, and if necessary thin it with warm water and swirl in the blender. You might consider scrambled eggs, cooked in a little butter if the dog has no history of pancreatitis. You can make a simple chicken stew with the white meat poached until very soft and blended with sweet potato (well cooked and mashed) or any assortment of cooked veggies your dog enjoys. Try the very popular bone broth, maybe without a lot of extras and vinegar, just a good stock, with the fat skimmed, as a base. You won’t be giving optimal nutrition with things like poached chicken and scrambled eggs, but short term the goal is to get them eating. Some canned food will offer a fuller range of nutrients.I really dislike using wheat for dogs, but in this scenario some cooked pasta might entice him to eat – easy on the digestion and the mouth. You can try baby food too, mixed in or on it’s own. Try not to make too many digestive changes, if your dog was raw fed, go easy on the carbs; if your dog has been on a cereal based kibble, don’t go nuts with fat and protein. Again, feed for the condition and the dog. Sometimes plain cooked sweet potato, mashed with a little butter, coconut oil and a pinch of salt, is well accepted. Introduce change slowly.
Chronic Pain – of course the answer here is to get pain under control, in which case appetite should come right back, if not related to a palliative situation. If the dog has no dietary restrictions, you can work with many options here. Some of the foods I use with success include:
lightly poached beef heart, or raw as tolerated
green tripe, canned or fresh (this is a great idea with any inappetence)
Premium canned foods, alone or added to meals
Soup, based on home made broth and with any number of additions, as the dog prefers. Try to keep fats moderate and don’t overdo veggies either, as both of these can stress the bowel of a dog unaccustomed to them. Check ideas at the end of this entry.
Kidney disease – this is a case wherein we will always have some dietary limitations, and often the dog is simply too nauseated to accept food, even with the standard veterinary anti-nausea meds. What I have seen most often is a tendency to accept blander foods, and very small amounts of each. With most home prepared renal diets we are using restricted phosphorus, sodium, Vitamin D and sometimes, total protein, but when a dog is eating very little it’s fine to try foods higher in these nutrients simply because he isn’t eating enough of them to constitute a problem. Try the scrambled eggs, poached dark meat chicken, sweet potato, and small amounts of each. the important element here is, if the dog rallies and starts to consume normal amounts of food again, it’s time to revert to a kidney friendly diet. Always confer with your vet on this one. The standard rule applies – variety, small amounts at a time, address the nausea either herbally or via medication. Keep the dog hydrated; adding broth or goat’s milk to the water bowl can encourage drinking, but you must be sure to empty and clean it frequently, moreso than with plain water.
With any form of digestive upset and inappetence, the primary concern is to get to the bottom of it. Is there vomiting? Malaise? fever? any of these indicate an urgent trip to the vet clinic. Oftentimes, gastric upset is related to a “dietary indiscretion” – nice way of saying, she scarfed some garbage – and may well be a transient upset, best handled with a simple broth fast and a bit of elm to follow up. But any other symptoms should be taken seriously; inappetence can arise for many reasons but more than 24 hours and you need to be seen. Here’s an introduction to the things that can affect the canine digestive system. Once you have a diagnosis, you will be much better equipped to tackle periods of disinterest in food.
This is one area where herbs can really shine, but given the wide range of both causes and medications I highly recommend people work with an experienced animal herbalist here. What I will say is, this is no place for highly seasoned foods, which may be a good strategy with other causes (such as cancer). Keep the food bland – oatmeal is a good choice if accepted, you can make it more enticing with butter, coconut oil, lower fat cooked meats, green tripe. Keep servings small even if that seems counter-intuitive; make sure to add a pinch of salt to help with electrolyte balance. Warmed goat’s milk may be useful here, but don’t force it (or anything) try plain ginger snaps, home made is even better to keep sugar content down. Soups are a great idea with almost every type of condition – simple broths made with chicken or beef or lamb bones, defatted, with overcooked white rice, sweet potato, a little pasta, an egg mixed in. All short term solutions of course, until your dog recovers and can resume a balanced diet.
In my consulting practise, inappetence related to cancer (either the illness itself or side effects form veterinary treatment) is the most common form I address. The trust is, I use much the same with cancer as listed above – with the one exception, dogs who are under my own nutritional supervision, whom I know have tolerated the higher fat diets we tend to use with cancer, I feel better offering higher fat foods. This just means things like cooked ground lamb, cream cheese or ricotta, extra butter, or cheese grated on a meal will likely not be problematic, as I would worry about a dog with gastric distress of an undetermined cause. If you’re sure your dog has no issue with higher fat – and bearing in mind we are not feeding copious amounts of any food! you can try some of these as well…emphasize dark meat chicken, whole eggs, poached or scrambled, a range of cheeses, lamb. Remember too that it’s perfectly possible for a dog with cancer to develop pancreatitis – so even if you’ve been doing fine with higher fat, be cautious. Have that vet check, if there’s vomiting – stick to lower fat.
With MCT (mast cell tumour) I prefer that people still avoid high-histamine content foods – no canned fish, no food that’s sat in the fridge for very long, no cottage cheese or yogurt, no breads or anything fermented…no quinoa….to list a few only – here is a more comprehensive listing for people dealing with MCT in their dogs:
If all physical causes are ruled out, I would suggest you work with a trained herbalist who can help with adaptogenic and nervine herbs, and a behaviourist who may be able to address the condition. Some depressed dogs do require medication, but I so much prefer to exhaust all dietary and herbal approaches first. Short term, you might think of a few things such as the stress level of mealtimes – are there many animals clamoring for food? how often you feed, the monotony of the diet (I highly recommend enhancing kibble diets and switching them up as tolerated) also the type of serving bowl you use, the temperature of the food(too cold or warm can be a turn off, and very much so with dental pain) and even the type of dish soap you use on the bowel. Sensitive dogs an be affected by small factors we human might easily overlook.Is there loud music at dinnertime?Is your dog getting enough exercise and mental stimulation?
In conclusion, a few Do’s and Don’ts when facing an ongoing issue of inappetence in your dog.
-canned tuna ever, nor any canned fish with MCT
-drastic changes in fat or fiber levels
– high salt foods with either cardiac or renal patients – watch sodium content of cheese, anything canned, and commercial foods as well
– sweet foods with cancer – not so much that a few treats will be a problem, but that the dog develops a taste for it!
– sweet foods with diabetes, of course
– any food normally understood to be toxic, so no grapes, raisins, chocolate etc – more information here: https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/virtual-pet-behaviorist/dog-behavior/foods-are-hazardous-dogs
– heavily seasoned foods with gastric upset
Do Try: scrambled eggs, boiled and mashed sweet potato (with appropriate toppings, fats, cheese, a little ground meat) baby food, chicken broth, poached shredded chicken, lean beef and especially heart, home made biscuits, sauteed or baked chicken livers, soft cheeses like ricotta, sprinklings of Parmesan on other foods, herbal seasonings such as thyme, basil, oregano, herbes du provence, in moderation; premium grade canned foods and tripe! Higher fat foods and total content only with dogs who are known to tolerate them well; glutenfree biscuits and oatmeal
– keeping notes and see if the dog prefers food slightly seasoned or bland
– ginger can help nausea, but it can also be too heating for some stomach issues and some constitutions. Look for my upcoming entry on herbs for digestive issues
-experimenting with temperature and texture, warming foods, pureeing as indicated
– cutting out supplements, such as acv, coconut oil, turmeric – any of the popular ones your dog doesn’t actually need for a balanced diet.It’s more important that he or she eat, then miss the extras for a few days. They an be worked back in, or others found that don’t have the nauseating effect, in future
– hand-feeding from your own plate – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this one help! Worth a try at least.
– deepen awareness about the externals – a dog who doesn’t feel well may be much more influenced by noise, heat, loud talking and the presence of other animals at mealtime. In some cases, herbal nervines can help, but often it’s a matter of just tuning in to what he dog prefers. Make meals calm and peaceful, including management of your own stress 🙂
I do hope this helps a little – I will cover the popular “satin balls” recipe – and my own much modified take on it – as well as a few herbal suggestions and a recipe or two- in a second entry on this topic.