My dog Harper has always had a good appetite, so when she stopped wanting to eat her evening meal, I was worried.
Appetite loss can signal many different ailments: poor dental health, kidney disease and cancer, to name a few. Sometimes it’s a result of age-related physiological changes, such as a slower metabolism or reduced sense of smell. It can also be weather-related: Some animals simply eat less when it’s hot.
I took Harper to her veterinarian for a checkup. She’d had her teeth cleaned in November, so I didn’t think that was the issue. The vet examined her and ran some blood work. She was healthy.
So, I turned to the experts, as well as other dog owners, to try to find out why Harper wasn’t eating like she had.
I learned that it’s not uncommon for older dogs to begin eating less. Harper, a cavalier, is 12.
With the shelter-in-place order, Harper’s activity level is reduced. She’s not going to nosework class anymore or to the beach for outings.
“If her exercise has diminished, she may not be as hungry,” said veterinarian Dr. Debbie Horwitz.
It also could be that my dog is bored.
Nosework on Friday nights has been the highlight of her week for six years now. We practice at home, but it’s not the same as getting out and going somewhere. High temperatures haven’t set in yet, so I don’t think it’s the weather.
Dee Green, a trainer, said dogs refusing to eat is a complaint she often hears from clients. After health problems are ruled out by a veterinarian, she recommends feeding dogs from puzzle toys instead of dishes.
“Provide a wide variety to minimize boredom,” she recommends.
That trick works for fellow cavalier owner Lynn Williams, who hides six-year-old Poppy’s food around the house for her to sniff out.
When health is an issue, an appetite stimulant combined with something stinky, such as canned tripe, can help. That’s what worked for Annie, Cindy Siddon’s 16-year-old lurcher with kidney disease.
Other senior dogs respond to a little canned food or homemade chicken broth mixed with their kibble. Warming food for about five seconds in the microwave, then stirring before serving, can enhance aroma.
A change in the ingredients also can put a dog off its feed. Contacting the manufacturer to check is an option.
Certain medications may cause nausea or appetite loss. If your dog is on medication and its eating pattern changes, tell your veterinarian right away.
I tried several things with Harper: offering different food, tossing kibble on the floor for her to find, switching to a plate from a bowl, feeding her in a separate room and, finally, offering kibble by hand.
She loved to be fed by hand, but I didn’t want it to become a habit. Horwitz, a behavior specialist, agrees.
“Once you start hand-feeding, that’s a hard thing to stop,” she said. “If she’s healthy and not losing weight, I don’t know that I would make a big deal about it.”
When we try different things to get them to eat, she said, dogs may find this new behavior interesting and wait to see what else we might offer. While that can be entertaining for our dogs, it’s frustrating for us. Better to simply put food down, give a set amount of time for the dog to eat it, and take it up again if they don’t want it, Horwitz advised.
In the end, I settled on a new eating schedule.
Harper now eats her main meal in the morning. I offer food in the evening, but if she doesn’t want it, I don’t push.
And, guess what? It’s working for both of us.