Loss of Appetite: When Your Sick Pet Won’t Eat

If your usually well-fed pet is going without food, it’s time for the vet to check out what’s going on.

Don’t try to feed your inappetent pet junky foods that may exacerbate any underlying conditions. By: Timothy Krause

It’s a pretty common happening.

When the Labrador who lives to eat ignores deliciously tempting treats he’d normally raid your pocket for, then you know something is wrong.

But if this happens to your pet, what can you do?

Basic Rules Apply

Let’s take the example of Jedi. His concerned human came in yesterday, 2 days after Jedi had some rotten teeth removed. Now Jedi was bright and waggy at the re-exam, but his human was tight-lipped and worried. It transpired that Jedi hadn’t eaten since getting home.

This was puzzling. Jedi had wolfed down a whole bowl of food in our hospital after his procedure, and now in the clinic he was taking treats with gusto. Reassuring the human that Jedi was fine, I dug a little deeper.

It turned out Jedi normally eats dry food, and now the person was giving soft canned food because of his sore mouth. She was leaving the food down all day and not offering another meal because he still had food in the bowl. The trouble was, the food had gone dry and unappetizing in the heat — so Jedi turned his nose up.

Now Jedi is to have 2 meals a day of fresh food, which is left down for 15 minutes, then thrown away if not eaten. (I’ll find out tomorrow if this did the trick.) The lesson here is simple things can put a pet off their food, so be sure to address the obvious things first.

The “Out of Character” Pet

Some pets are fussy eaters, and not eating for a day is normal. For these guys, don’t make a big fuss (this rewards them for not eating), but monitor from afar. Chances are they’ll come right over when they’re hungry enough.

It’s the chow-hound who refuses their supper we’re most worried about. This is because appetite loss can be an important clue that the pet is unwell.

So if your pet is uncharacteristically fussy, watch them closely. Follow them into the yard and check out the pee and poop. Are they vomiting? What about their thirst? Then schedule the dog for a vet check.

Remember, lack of appetite is a symptom. While tempting the pet to eat is a great idea, they almost certainly need to see a vet for diagnosis and treatment of the underlying condition. Take Jedi: He had bad toothache and so refused to eat. Now that the rotten teeth are gone, hopefully he’s rediscovered his mojo.

Try hand-feeding your pet if nothing seems to be working. By: Alan Levine

Eating Something in Place of Nothing

When a cat doesn’t eat for more than a couple of days, they risk a complication called fatty liver disease. This is where their body scavenges energy by mobilizing fat supplies that then flood the liver and stop it from working.

For the cat who is determined not to eat, something is often better than nothing (although speak to your vet about your individual pet). But know that their favorite high-fat chicken skin is absolutely a last resort.

Depending on the diagnosis, some foods may be off the menu (such as fat with pancreatitis or rich protein with renal disease), but if your pet is starving themselves, then the scales may tip in favor of a compromise.

Dogs, however, come to less harm if they “starve.” Yes, a dog loses weight, but they are unlikely to spiral into liver failure like a cat. So if your vet says your dog with a stomach upset must only eat bland food, don’t tempt the dog with liver or sausages. In this case, it’s best to let the gut rest than risk diarrhea.

Why Your Sick Pet Isn’t Eating

Let’s say your dog was unwell and spent several days hospitalized at the vet. They’re now well enough to come home but refuse to eat. Why might this be?

  • Food aversion: Remember that time you had a curry that made you sick? Now, even the thought of a curry turns your stomach. This is called “food aversion”; it’s when you associate a particular food with feeling ill.
    • To overcome food aversion, try offering a new food the pet hasn’t eaten before. This food doesn’t have any “bad memories,” so the cat or dog is more likely to eat.
    • Also try a different feeding bowl, perhaps placed in a different location — again, to break the link with feeling unwell.
  • Medical reasons: It might be the pet is on the mend but still feels nauseous or has pain.
    • Let the vet know your fur-friend is still not eating. It may be a case of prescribing anti-nausea drugs or pain relief to help turn things around
  • Mind over matter: Sometimes a sick pet just plain doesn’t feel like eating. However, they would benefit from eating — it provides the raw materials to strengthen the immune system and for tissue repair.
    • Try hand-feeding.
    • Other tips and tricks include warming the food or adding scrumptious flavorings such as a bit of fish gravy, parmesan cheese or a sprinkling of garlic oil (use small quantities only, though — large quantities can be harmful).
  • Lack of appetite: If despite all this, Mr. Fluffins still rejects his meals, it’s important to let the vet know. They have tricks up their sleeve such as:
    • Drugs that stimulate appetite: These include diazepam, cyproheptadine, mirtazapine and steroids. A new drug, carpromorelin, is on the horizon for 2018.
    • Syringe-feeding: Calorie-dense liquid diets may be the answer. These can be slowly syringed into the pet’s mouth to get them to take some nutrition.
    • Feeding tubes: If syringe-feeding is too stressful for the pet, the vet may consider placing a feeding tube in the nose, throat or stomach. This gives direct access to the stomach for force-feeding that doesn’t distress the pet.

Here are some things you can do if your cat isn’t eating:

The Importance of Appetite

Food is to the body what gas is to a car. Food is the fuel that powers repair of body tissue; without it, recovery from injury or illness is slower and complications are more likely.

Keep an eye on your pet’s appetite. If something changes from the norm, it’s best to seek your vet’s advice. Here’s to happy nom noms.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Sept. 29, 2017.

Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS

View posts by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS
Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, is a veterinarian with nearly 30 years of experience in companion animal practice. Dr. Elliott earned her Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery from the University of Glasgow. She was also designated a Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Married with 2 grown-up kids, Dr. Elliott has a naughty puggle called Poggle, 3 cats and a bearded dragon.

Please share this with your friends below:

Also Popular