For a breed that lives to eat, it is always a surprise to see or hear about an English cocker who refuses his food in a manner of an ingenue prepping for her big break.
Yet, these dogs clearly exist because their mums and dads contact me on a practically daily basis asking a very simple question “Why my dog does not eat?”
So lets discuss several scenarios that may lead to anorexia (which is a veterinary term that describes loss of appetite) and ways to help your dog re-discover his inner gourmet.
Is it just because he no longer likes his food? Not always…
Dogs may refuse to eat because…
… they are not feeling well. Most dogs are likely to skip their meals if they have temperature, feel nauseous, have diarrhoea, or any kind of digestive discomfort. Several serious health problems can also lead to anorexia.
… they are getting older. Just like humans, dogs begin to lose their sense of taste with age. This can lead to loss of interest in food or changes in food preferences.
… they had diarrhoea or felt sick after eating their meal. This does not need to be immediate for a dog to put two and two together. The time lapse between eating and sickness can be as long as several hours.
… they tasted medicine added to their food. If a dog hated the taste of medication (or worse, felt any form of discomfort after eating the meal – see above), he may start associating all his meals with the one containing meds – and refuse them all together.
… they are teething or have dental problems. Teething puppies may refuse their kibble during their teething period because their gums often become swollen and may even bleed. Adults suffering from dental issues are likely to lose interest in their food, too. Dry food or any food that requires chewing and toothache don’t make a good combo.
… they recently had their vaccinations or boosters. Some dogs may be more sensitive to the vaccines and lose their appetite for a day or two as a result of feeling a bit “off”. This does not mean that you need to start skipping vaccinations – this inappetence is temporary and your spaniel should be back to his happy self within days. If you are concerned or unsure, talk to your vet.
… they are stressed. The brain suppresses hunger and digestive function during periods of stress and focuses on the vital aspects of survival instead. It is important to bear in mind that dogs can’t simply relax if the stressful even is over – instead some may “pile up” the stressors and become chronically anxious. This will affect their appetite accordingly.
… they suffer from separation anxiety. For many dogs, separation anxiety is a stressful event (see above) and a form of panic attack. During such moments food and treats become irrelevant.
… they find themselves in an unfamiliar territory. Travels, trips and house moves can make a pup stressed and lose interest in his food until he is either content with the changes or returns home.
… they don’t like their bowls. This may sound really odd, but dogs can be picky about their bowls – their shape, colour, depth, height or even the noise it makes if dragged around the floor during meal times.
… they can smell or taste the change of ingredients in their food. Sometimes pet food manufacturers decide to alter the recipe without any notifications. The dog won’t even need to read the label to know something is not quite the same anymore. He’ll be able to smell it as soon as the bag is opened.
… they prefer different texture. By nature, most dogs would prefer to eat moist cooked food over kibble because they can consume wet food faster and easier than a typical dry dinner.
… they know the food is gone off. It can be past it’s expiry date or you may simply have a bag that’s been opened for too long.
… they have been overfed. If they overeat once or twice, most dogs will naturally do their best to avoid food until they restore the equilibrium, which may take a day or two. This can change for overweight or obese dogs because brain chemistry and their response to hunger can change.
… they have been given too many options. Dogs are smart. They also like novelty even though they don’t particularly need it long-term. They can train you to feed them a variety of foods and treats very easily just so they can try as many things as possible at least once. If the “sad puppy eye” technique works, many spaniels can literally pressure you into giving them only “the good stuff” and ignore their dog food as completely unworthy. In 1987 Fogel even came up with a term “starvation games” to describe this behaviour. Sums it up perfectly.
... they have been given too many treats and snacks between their main meals and don’t feel hungry by the time their own meal is served.
So what can you do?
First of all, make sure that your dog is well and healthy: watch him, look out for any changes in his appearance, behaviour and toilet habits, check his mouth and teeth, and consult a vet.
If you feed kibble, try changing the texture by adding warm water to the dry biscuits, just enough to create “a gravy”, then leave to cool before feeding.
Weigh his food to avoid overfeeding.
Stick to meal times. If your dog is an adult and can technically skip a meal without serious outcomes (this is different for puppies!) leave his bowl for 10 minutes – and remove if he didn’t touch it or left something out. Serve the following meal according to schedule.
Do not feed table scraps and too many treats.
Avoid adding “just a bit of chicken” to your dog’s food to encourage him to eat. He will eat the chicken. And then ask for more… chicken… And then he will manipulate you to obey him over and over and over again. Because now chicken is life…
Check the ingredients list on your dog’s food for any changes and expiry dates.
Do try to change your dog food once, usually from kibble to wet option. Ensure that the new food you choose is complete and balanced, and remember to make a gradual swap over several days – not overnight.
Do not start swapping various dog foods every other week to see if there’s something he may like. Best case scenario is that he will like the first new food you give him and happily eat it. If he doesn’t approve your choice and you start offering him something new over and over again you are likely to end up dealing with frequent bounds of diarrhoea or finicky behaviour.
If your dog is old, try hand-feeding him by putting small pieces of food in his mouth to stimulate taste buds and encourage him to eat. Always discuss this with your vet and nutritionist to make them aware or the problem and any improvements.
Mix food and fun by using food as training treats or hiding it inside enrichment toys.
Make sure that your dog is comfortable when eating – his bowl is at the right height for him and doesn’t spin around the kitchen floor turning every meal time into hard work.
Photo source: “Tell me this isn’t celery” (C) by Cartoon Comics for Shutterstock / Perfect cocker spaniel