A healthy dog can go up to five to seven days without eating without suffering any serious effects, but such a long fast is often a sign of a serious underlying problem. A dog without access to food and water will die from dehydration before he starves.
Dogs, like all mammals, require regular meals to maintain their metabolism. Food is energy that the body burns to stay warm and maintain organ function and other biological processes. The body stores some of this energy and can access it between meals, but lack of food for an extended period can lead to serious problems up to and including death.
If your dog has stopped eating, it’s important to identify why so that the right steps can be taken to restore his appetite and treat any underlying conditions.
Why Isn’t My Dog Eating?
There are many reasons why a dog may go off his food. He may be sick, upset or stressed, or he may be on “hunger strike” due to a change in food. Identifying the underlying cause of a dog’s anorexia is important to solving the problem.
If your dog skips a meal, the first thing to do is make sure that he really has stopped eating. A dog who has filled up on treats or table scraps may not have appetite for his regular food. Check to be sure he hasn’t been eating from the cat’s bowl or stealing food from another dog in the house.
If you’re certain that the dog really has skipped a meal, check for other signs of illness:
If your dog seems sick and has stopped eating, it’s important to get him to a veterinarian right away so the illness can be diagnosed and treated.
Aside from illness, several other medical conditions can affect a dog’s appetite:
- A blockage caused by eating non-food items, like toys
- Stomach bloat or gastric torsion, where a digestive organ becomes twisted
- Dental problems including broken or infected teeth
- Parasites that make a pet feel unwell
- Ingesting a toxic substance or poison
Some of these problems, including intestinal blockage, are life-threatening and need to be treated right away. It’s always best to err on the side of caution when a dog seems sick.
Will a Dog Stop Eating Due to Stress?
Stress can affect a dog’s appetite and may affect his ability to digest food properly. A stressed-out dog may be disinterested in food or display signs of gastrointestinal upset such as vomiting or diarrhea.
Aside from physical illness and injury, emotional stress in dogs can be caused by a variety of factors:
- A new environment
- Changes in the attitude of the household
- New family members
- Strangers entering the home
- Storms, fireworks and other loud noises
- Excessive stimulus
If you’re bringing a new dog into the home, it’s normal for him to be a bit nervous for the first few days. He may not eat as much or may not eat when you’re watching. He may also act skittish or wary. All of these signs should begin to dissipate after a few days of adjustment.
Once you get to know your pet, you’ll have a better idea of what his stress triggers are and what you can do to improve his situation. Removing the dog from triggering stimulus and letting him stay in a quiet room often helps.
How Can I Get My Dog to Eat?
A dog who doesn’t like the taste or texture of his food may go on “hunger strike” for a day in hopes of getting fed something he likes better. If a dog is accustomed to eating wet food or table scraps, for example, he may turn up his nose at kibble. If you’re trying to get your dog to lose weight or shift to a healthier diet, you should prepare for a few uneaten meals as the dog navigates the transition.
A healthy dog will not starve himself to death. Although he may beg and try very hard to get you to relent, a dog will eventually eat the food you give him if he has no other choice. If you are confident that your dog’s refusal to eat is a behavioral issue and not related to his medical condition, it’s not a bad idea to let him skip a meal or two. You can leave the food out or pick it up and put the bowl back at the next meal time to see if the dog is hungry enough to eat at that point. If this goes on for more than a day or two, it’s worth investigating further or taking a visit to the vet’s office.
One way to test whether a dog is sick or simply turning up his nose at a meal is to offer a small amount of a very tempting or tasty food. Lunchmeat, cheese, canned tuna or other similar treats can be offered in small quantities to see whether a dog is disinterested in all food or just some food. You can work with your veterinarian to find a good diet that will work to provide nutrition to a convalescing dog who may not be ready to eat his own commercial food yet.
What If I Can’t Feed My Dog For a Few Days?
If you’ll be out of town for a few days, it’s best to hire a dogsitter or put your pet in a boarding facility where he’s guaranteed to have regular mealtimes and free access to water. However, sometimes things happen beyond your control that can lead to a pet missing a meal.
If you run out of pet food and cannot afford more for a few days, or if you are stuck inside due to inclement weather, you can make substitute dog food by boiling a bit of chicken breast and chopping it up into plain rice. Other dog-friendly makeshift meals include plain scrambled eggs, oatmeal and canned low-sodium meats. Just be sure to avoid giving your pet food with seasonings, salt or too much fat as these can upset his stomach.
In a true emergency, your pet will be fine for a few days without food as long as he is in good health and has access to clean drinking water. Once the emergency has passed and he’s able to eat again, introduce food slowly and in small, more frequent meals rather than letting him gorge as this will reduce stomach upset.