What to do When Your Dog Won’t Eat His Food — But He Will Eat Treats

dog won’t eat his food but will eat treats
dog won’t eat his food but will eat treats

It is not uncommon for dogs to not to want to eat his food but will eat treats. Why does this happen?

The most common reason a dog will not eat his dog food but will eat treats or food augmented with special table scraps is that he doesn’t feel well. When a dog will not eat his regular food but will eat treats or something special is referred to as partial anorexia.

Partial anorexia means a dog will eat…but only if something special such as treats or table scraps such as chicken or beef are added to the food. Sometimes dogs will refuse everything but will eat a fast-food hamburger.

Full anorexia is when a dog won’t eat anything including normal dog food, special treats, food doctored up with cooked ground beef, chicken, baby food, or anything you offer.  Both problems can be serious but complete anorexia is even a bigger concern. Learn more about Home Care of Anorexia in Dogs.

Reasons for anorexia in dogs can vary from minor problems such as a stomach upset to serious and even life-threatening problems. For more information – please see this article: My Dog is Not Eating, What Do I Do?

Reasons Dogs Won’t Eat

There are several causes for a dog to be off his food or have partial anorexia. According to Dr. Etienne Cote, “the reasons for which a dog may refuse to eat can be grouped into two major categories. The first is psychological reasons and the second are medical reasons”.

Psychological causes of not eating can include things in the dog’s environment that has caused him to not to want to eat.  There is no underlying medical problem or disease. Common examples of psychological anorexia include anything that changes a dogs schedule or causes stress:

  • A new pets in the home
  • New baby in the home
  • Company from out of town
  • Moving to a new home
  • A loud thunderstorm
  • Remodeling or home construction
  • Switching dog foods
  • Changes in schedules such as someone starts a job and is gone from the home or someone is unemployed and suddenly home
  • A child or someone leaves the house such as a child goes off to college

Medical causes of anorexia include any disease or illness that causes a dog to not want to eat. They can include hundreds, maybe even thousands, of potential problems. The medical disorders that can cause anorexia include diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, liver, pancreatic, kidney, airway and lung, blood, and anything that can cause pain.  Information about some of the most common causes include:

Gastrointestinal Diseases – The gastrointestinal tract includes the system that takes food in, processes it, and eliminates it. This includes everything from the mouth, esophagus (the tube that takes food from the mouth to the stomach), the stomach, the small intestine, and finally the large intestine. A disease of any of these areas can cause a dog to not want to eat. Diseases of the gastrointestinal tract are commonly associated with vomiting and diarrhea as well as not wanting to eat.

  • Diseases of the gastrointestinal tract (GI) include infections (bacterial, viral, parasites). Examples of infections are hookworms, roundworms, whipworms, viruses such as coronavirus or parvovirus, bacterial, and fungal. Additional diseases of the GI tract include tumors such as cancer, ulcerations, inflammatory diseases, food allergies, ingestion of undigestable objects that cause a “foreign body”, ingestion of spoiled food or trash, or even changes in food. Diseases of the mouth such as bad teeth or ulcerations can cause pain and lack of appetite.
  • Liver Diseases – The liver is an organ in the abdomen (belly) whose main job is to filter body wastes and toxins from the bloodstream. When the liver isn’t working properly, toxins can build up causing nausea and inappetence. Many dogs will be lethargic and/or have additional symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Diseases of the liver include hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver cancer, toxic reactions from drug therapies and congenital problems such as a Portosystemic Shunt.
  • Pancreatic Diseases – The pancreas is a small organ that sits near the stomach that has several jobs including the production of digestive enzymes that help break down food in the stomach and the production of insulin.
  • Diseases of the pancreas include inflammation of the pancreas, also known as pancreatitis, and tumors of the pancreas (pancreatic cancer). When the pancreas becomes inflamed, the pancreas can release some of the digestive enzymes in to itself, causing further inflammation, pain, nausea and lack of appetite. Pancreatic cancer also causes lack of appetite, lethargic, weakness, and generally vomiting.
  • Kidney Diseases – Diseases of the kidney, most commonly acute kidney failure or chronic kidney failure, cause a loss of appetite. Many pets will also drink more, urinate more or less, have ulcers in their mouth, foul-smelling breath, and be lethargic.
  • Airway and Lung Diseases – Diseases of the airway include problems associated with the nose, trachea, and lungs. Pets that have nasal diseases such as infections or cancer can’t smell their food and often won’t eat or will only eat treats. Pets with lung diseases may have a compromised ability to breathe. This often leads pets to not want to eat as it can be difficult to eat and breathe at the same time.
  • Blood Diseases – There are many functions of the blood. Loss of blood or anemia from a variety of causes can cause pets to be lethargic, weak, and loose their appetite. Anemia can result from loss of blood from trauma, ulcerations, immune-mediated problems where the body starts destroying its own red blood cells, or cancer. Often we also see lethargy and weakness with diseases of the blood.
  • Neurologic Diseases – The neurologic system is focused on the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Diseases that cause seizures lack of coordination, inability to walk, or pain can all cause lack of appetite. There are hundreds of neurological diseases that include intervertebral disc disease, brain tumors, epilepsy, vestibular disease just to name a few.
  • Other Diseases – Any diseases that cause pain such as a fracture, arthritis, or even something such as eye pain can cause lack of appetite. Some dog won’t eat their food but will eat treats in this circumstance.

As you can see, any disease that impacts the function of any organ can cause dogs not to feel like eating.  If your dog is not eating, please see your veterinarian who can help you identify the underlying cause and recommend the best treatment option to get your dog to start eating again.

How to Get Your Dog to Start Eating

To get your dog to start eating, you can try the following:

  • Begin by offering some of their same food – a fresh batch.  If it is canned food, you can try heating it up which can release the food aromas. If it is dry food, you can try adding a small amount of water or chicken broth to make it more appealing.
  • If that doesn’t work, you can try their treats. If your dog likes the treats, sometimes you can crumble the treats and put on the food.
  • You may try a bland diet such as a boiled hamburger or chicken mixed with rice as a 50/50 mix.  You can buy this food commercially or make it at home. See the bland diet recipe here.
  • You can try different varieties of canned food that may be appealing to your dog.

Here are some great tips for Home care for the dog that is not eating.  This article has suggestions that may help you get your dog to start eating.  Here are tips to Here’s How to Help a Puppy Who Will Not Eat.

How to Avoid This Happening Again

Many pet owners ask, how can I avoid having a dog that won’t eat or will only eat his treats? The answer is to avoid any underlying cause that you find. For example, if your dog is not eating because he got into the trash, ate some spoiled food and has a stomach upset, the recommendation would be to ensure your pet doesn’t’ have access to the trash can. Another example is if a dog is not eating due to pain from arthritis. The recommendation would be to treat and prevent the pain.

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