Like people, all pets have different appetites. Some gobble everything in sight (including toxic or non-food items), and others will turn their nose up at a cheeseburger. Most pets fall somewhere in between. It’s important not to compare your pet’s appetite to the appetites of other pets but rather to compare your pet’s appetite to what it usually is. If your pet finishes their food in 10 seconds flat and licks the bowl until the design starts to wear off, that’s fine. (Although a puzzle bowl meant to slow them down might be better for their digestion!). But if that same dog skips a meal or two, that’s cause for concern. If your pet often skips meals but is maintaining a healthy weight, that’s fine. But if they suddenly are eating ravenously or skipping more meals than usual, that’s a red flag and reason to visit your veterinarian.
I often have clients tell me their pet “isn’t hungry” or “only eats treats now” or “is very picky.” When I bring up that their pet may have a condition that causes nausea, they almost always say, “no, that’s not it – there’s no vomiting.” Just like us, pets will stop eating if they feel nauseated. Food smells or tastes bad or causes their stomach to lurch. They don’t have to vomit to feel the unpleasant sensation of nausea. Signs that your pet may be nauseated are:
- Going to food but not eating it
- Trying to cover up their food
- Gagging, drooling, gulping, or licking their lips and turning away from food
- Picking up the food but then dropping it
- Not going to their bowl at mealtimes
At the end of life, people often report not feeling hungry and not being particularly upset about it. Unfortunately, we can’t ask pets if this is the case. So to be safe and prevent suffering in pets (nausea is so unpleasant), my rule is that not eating is nausea until proven otherwise.
It’s a pretty simple test to detect if not eating is due to nausea: treat for nausea! However, there are a few confounding factors that can interfere with this, the most common being dehydration. Dehydration (especially in cats) can make them lose their appetite. If they are treated with nausea medication alone, it may not help until they receive fluids to restore their hydration. This is why your vet should be involved if your pet stops eating. Your veterinarian will examine your pet (including checking for dehydration) and determine the best steps moving forward. Remember – nausea generally has a cause, so your vet will likely want to run lab tests and other diagnostics to check for diseases that cause this problem.
Very tiny dogs, puppies/kittens, and cats can have dangerous consequences if they skip meals for very long. In these patients, one skipped meal (if that isn’t usual for them) should prompt a call to the veterinarian for instructions. Remember, it may take time for them to get you in, so don’t delay. If your veterinarian is unavailable, a trip to the emergency vet may be necessary. Most dogs can go a day or two without eating, but I would still recommend reporting any unusual eating habits to your vet immediately.
I frequently hear clients say their pet hasn’t been eating at all for days to weeks or that their appetite has been abnormal for months. The longer investigation and treatment are delayed, the more likely the problem will become dangerous and expensive.
Keep in mind how annoying it is to have to fast your pet for lab tests or a procedure. Most of them are beside themselves that dinner wasn’t served on time (or at all). If 12 hours of fasting is a burden on pets, several days is likely pretty miserable. A change in appetite is a warning sign that something is wrong. Instead of ignoring it and hoping it will go away, be proactive and get your vet involved. Hopefully, if you address it early, your pet will feel better and be around longer to bring joy to your life!
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