What to Do When Your Dog Won’t Eat Their Food — But Will Eat Treats

Dog won't eat regular food
Dog won't eat regular food

It is common for dogs to not eat their food, but eat treats or table scraps. This is referred to as partial anorexia and it typically occurs because your dog doesn’t feel well.

Partial anorexia means a dog will eat, but only if something special, such as treats or table scraps like chicken or beef, are added to the food. Sometimes, dogs will refuse everything but will eat something as peculiar as 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 full anorexia is an even bigger issue. Learn more about Home Care of Anorexia in Dogs.

Reasons for anorexia in dogs can vary from minor issues, 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 their food or have partial anorexia. According to Dr. Etienne Cote, the reasons dogs may refuse to eat can be grouped into two major categories — psychological reasons and medical reasons.

Psychological Causes for Anorexia in Dogs

Psychological causes of refusing to eat include things in a dog’s environment that caused them to not want to eat. There is no underlying medical issue or disease. Common examples of psychological anorexia include anything that changes a dog’s schedule or causes stress, including:

  • New pets in the home
  • New baby in the home
  • Guests from out of town
  • Moving to a new home
  • A loud thunderstorm
  • Remodeling or home construction
  • Switching dog foods
  • A change in schedules, such as a family member starting a job or becoming unemployed and staying home more frequently
  • A family member leaving the homestead, such as a child going off to college

Medical Causes for Anorexia in Dogs

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

  • Gastrointestinal DiseasesThe 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 and are commonly associated with vomiting and diarrhea.
    • Diseases of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract include infections of the bacterial, viral, or parasitic variety. Examples of infections are hookworms, roundworms, whipworms, and viruses, such as coronavirus or parvovirus. Additional diseases of the GI tract include tumors, such as cancer, ulcerations, inflammatory diseases, food allergies, ingestion of indigestible 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 also 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 insulin and digestive enzymes that help break down food in the stomach.
    • 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 organ 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, lethargy, weakness, and general vomiting.
  • Kidney DiseasesDiseases 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, which causes them 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 issues can cause dogs to become lethargic, weak, and lose 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, and vestibular disease, just to name a few.
  • Other Diseases – Any diseases that cause pain, such as a fracture, arthritis, or even something like eye pain, can cause lack of appetite.

As you can see, any disease that impacts the function of an organ can cause dogs not to feel like eating. If your dog is not eating, please see your veterinarian so that they can help 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 feeding them a fresh batch of their favorite dog food. If it is canned food, try heating it up, which can release the food’s aroma. If it is dry food, try adding a small amount of water or chicken broth to make it more appealing.
  • If that doesn’t work, you can try feeding them treats. If your dog enjoys treats, crumble them into their dog food to inspire ingestion.
  • Try feeding a bland diet, such as 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.
  • Try to mix it up by feeding different varieties of canned food to see what is appealing to your dog.

Here are some great tips for home care for dogs suffering from inappetence. This article has suggestions that may help you get your dog to start eating. For puppies, read the following article: Here’s How to Help a Puppy Who Will Not Eat.

How to Stop This from Happening Again

Many pet owners ask, “How can I avoid having a dog that won’t eat or will only eat their treats?” The answer is to avoid underlying causes and monitor your pet’s diet. For example, if your dog is not eating because they got into the trash, ate some spoiled food, or have an upset stomach, the recommendation would be to ensure that your dog doesn’t have access to the trash can. Another example is, if your dog is not eating due to pain from arthritis, work with your veterinarian to treat and prevent pain.

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