Pet parents know how much our beloved companions usually love their food. So when they aren’t eating, it is a cause for concern. In addition to vomiting and diarrhea, “not eating” is one of the most common complaints we hear from pet owners who bring their pets to our 24/7 emergency hospital. Reluctance to eat, also called inappetence or anorexia, can be caused by several serious conditions, but it can sometimes be benign. So how do you tell the difference?

Why Won’t My Pet Eat?

Loss of appetite is one way your pet communicates that they don’t feel well. If your pet has refused more than a couple of meals, and there’s no other obvious reason (dietary indiscretion, for example), it could be because they’re ill.

Some conditions that accompany inappetence include:

  • Dental disease (often this has to be severe to cause anorexia)
  • Fever
  • Gastrointestinal disease
  • Infectious diseases
  • Intestinal parasites
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Orthopedic or abdominal pain
  • Pancreatitis
  • Toxin ingestion
  • In some instances, cancer

To learn more, your primary care veterinarian will run tests and examine your pet. Once a diagnosis is reached, treatment can begin.

Additional causes of anorexia may include:

  • Foreign Body Ingestion/Dietary Indiscretion – If your pet eats something that makes their stomach upset, it’s known as dietary indiscretion. Foreign bodies are objects that get swallowed, and they can range from hair ties (common in cats) to corn cobs and razor blades. Pets who eat the wrong thing or swallow something too big for them to pass may stop eating, indicating either a blockage in the digestive system (a medical emergency), internal injury, or a simple upset stomach. Size matters: A large dog may be able to pass a pistachio shell, but it could cause a blockage in a Chihuahua or puppy. If you suspect your pet has eaten something they shouldn’t, get them to the veterinarian as soon as possible.
  • Change in Surroundings – Many pets, especially cats, can be sensitive to lifestyle changes that may cause them to stop eating. For example, a move, a new pet or a new baby, houseguests, or construction work may be enough to cause your pet to lose interest in food for a little while. If you suspect a behavioral issue, adding something tasty to their regular meal, such as a bit of canned cat food or tuna water, can entice them to start eating again. If your pet has recently had a diet change, this can also be a culprit in a refusal to eat. Call us for guidance on encouraging your pet to eat if they have a new prescription diet.
  • Travel – Some pets experience motion sickness when traveling in the car or by plane, leading to nausea and a refusal to eat. If your pet has recently traveled and is not eating, call your veterinarian to discuss options for gradually reintroducing food.
  • Recent Vaccination – In some cases, a refusal to eat can result from an adverse reaction to vaccines. Although they are lifesaving in most animals, some animals are sensitive to shots and may experience loss of appetite. Most of the time, these reactions are temporary and mild.

When Is Anorexia an Emergency? 

It may not be concerning if a healthy adult dog misses a meal here or there. An adult dog’s body generally has enough reserves to provide energy for a bit of time without eating. If your healthy dog stops eating, it’s ok to wait for up to 12 hours before giving us a call to determine the next steps.

However, you should call us right away at (757) 935-9111 if your pet isn’t eating and:

  • Your pet is a puppy, kitten, or senior (over age 7 for most pets)
  • Your dog is a very small, mini, or “teacup” breed, like a Chihuahua, Yorkie, Pug, or Miniature Pinscher
  • Your pet has other existing health issues
  • Your pet has other signs of illness such as lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, or pain

Although cats may also miss an occasional meal without dire consequences, they generally require careful monitoring when they aren’t eating. This is because cats can develop a life-threatening condition called hepatic lipidosis when the liver doesn’t have enough protein to break down fats used for energy. Hepatic lipidosis can occur quickly in cats and may cause liver failure. Therefore, we recommend you immediately call your veterinarian or an emergency veterinary hospital like The COVE if your cat stops eating.

In minor cases, you can try offering your pet a bland diet of boiled chicken and white rice or baby food to see if they’ll eat. If a patient has more severe anorexia, we may recommend a liquid diet by syringe or placing a feeding tube while hospitalized may be recommended to provide adequate nutrition.

Attention and familiarity with your pet’s regular eating habits are helpful. We also recommend meal feeding your pet in their bowl at regular intervals, rather than leaving food out all day so that you can be aware of when and how much your pet is eating. Meal feeding versus free feeding will also help you notice when there is a problem.

Inappetence may also be the result of unappetizing food, especially in cats. Don’t allow your pet’s food to sit and become hardened and stale, as they can learn to avoid eating in the future.

If you have any questions, we’re just a phone call away at (757) 935-9111. The emergency service at The COVE is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

About Us

The COVE’s veterinarians and staff wholeheartedly embrace the core values of community, collaboration, commitment, compassion, and integrity. This focus ensures that pets, the people who love them, and their primary care veterinarians have as positive and affirming a healthcare experience as possible, regardless of the circumstances that bring us all together.