My Old Dog Isn't Eating Anymore
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Decreased appetite (hyporexia) or complete absence of appetite (anorexia) is a clinical sign that can appear relatively frequently in older dogs. The reasons are varied, but can be due to pathological, psychological or neurological causes. Generally speaking, senior dogs have less physical resistance than younger animals, so it is important we monitor any changes to their dietary habits closely. Regardless of its underlying cause, if your dog stops eating, we will need to address the issue.
If you observed that my old dog isn't eating anymore, you will need to know the reason behind it. AnimalWised explains the common causes of appetite loss in senior dogs, as well as what treatment options are available in each case.
Pathological causes of lack of appetite in old dogs
Although it is common for dogs to eat less as they become older, a healthy senior dog should still have an appetite. If they stop eating completely (anorexia) or partially (hyporexia), it could be due to a pathological cause. Some of the most common diseases in older dogs which affect appetite include:
- Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD): dogs with chronic kidney disease, also known as chronic kidney failure, often develop anorexia as a result of uremia (accumulation of uremic toxins in the blood) and anemia. This will be one of the most common differential diagnoses to consider in older dogs with poor appetite.
- Tumors: cancer is a common geriatric disease with an especially high incidence in dogs between 7 and 12 years of age. Some tumors can produce non-specific signs such as anorexia and weight loss, so one of the differential diagnoses that should be considered in the face of weight loss in older dogs is possible tumor development.
- Gastrointestinal disorders: any disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract can reduce appetite. In the specific case of older dogs, one of the main causes of anorexia or hyporexia are alterations in the oral cavity. Periodontal disease, gingivitis, loss of teeth and other oral health issues can prevent the dog from wanting to ingest food.
- Hepatobiliary pathologies: the first signs seen in liver diseases, such as chronic hepatitis, are non-specific signs such as anorexia.
- Endocrine pathologies: in elderly dogs, one of the most frequent endocrine pathologies that produce a reduction in appetite is hyperparathyroidism.
- Neurological disorders: senior dogs are more prone to deterioration of the mind. This can have various effects on the dog, including forgetting to eat. They may be otherwise physically healthy, but their well-being will be progressively affected. Learn more with our guide to neurological disorders in older dogs.
In addition to these causes, it must be taken into account that any process that causes pain or discomfort can cause anorexia in elderly dogs. For this reason, in geriatric dogs with a lack of appetite, it is especially important to assess the existence of painful processes. Due to wear and tear over time, the joints, spine or musculoskeletal system as a whole experience deterioration. This can sometimes be enough to prevent an old dog from wanting to eat.
Side effects of medication
It is common for elderly dogs to present chronic pathologies that require pharmacological treatments. Since musculoskeletal deterioration and arthritis in dogs are common, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be used to both manage pain and reduce inflammation. Certain NSAIDs, such as amiodarone, methimazole or urinary acidifiers, can cause anorexia as a side effect.
Since cancer is also more common in old dogs, chemotherapy may be used as a treatment option. Your veterinarian should detail the potential effects of this treatment, but it's important to know that loss of appetite is common. Drugs to reduce tumor size act not only against cancer cells, but also against healthy cells. These include the gastrointestinal epithelium. This leads canine chemotherapy drugs to cause gastrointestinal toxicity and anorexia.
Psychological disorders in old dogs
There are a number of external or environmental causes that can cause disorders in the eating habits of old dogs, especially when they are older. The most common causes are:
- Loneliness or separation from their caregivers
- Loss of peers or guardians
- Routine changes, including changes in schedule or residence
- New animals in the home and changes to social dynamic
In these cases, the senior dog may stop eating due to stress or depression. These conditions will be accompanied by other symptoms, including lethargy and general lack of engagement. Learn more with our article on causes and symptoms of depression in dogs.
What to do if my senior dog isn't eating anymore
Caregivers of senior dogs often take their dog to a veterinarian when they aren't eating anymore. Since the causes of inappetence in dogs are varied, we must seek a professional's help to diagnose the problem. Old dogs can deteriorate quickly. Early diagnosis can improve prognosis. In cases were the cause of appetite loss is not treatable, the veterinarian will help us to manage their symptoms and improve quality of life where possible.
Depending on the cause of hyporexia or anorexia, different strategies can be followed to try to improve the appetite of elderly dogs:
- When the cause of appetite loss is pathological, it will be necessary to establish treatment specific to this underlying pathology. One treated, symptoms such as inappetence should abate.
- When there are external or environmental causes that alter eating habits, behavioral therapy should be carried out to try to correct the behavioral changes in the animal. Much of this involves amending their eating habits such as changing the type of food, creating a new meal routine and incentivizing eating. Prevention is also important. Avoid sudden changes in routine, adjust to their limitations as they age and always use positive reinforcement in dogs.
How to increase appetite of senior dogs
Now we know that the cause of appetite loss must be treated, we can look at some more general ways to increase an old dog's appetite:
- Offer moist or semi-moist food: this type of food facilitates chewing as it is soft. It is also often more appetizing due to aroma and consistency. We can find wet food specifically formulated for elderly dogs. It is adapted to their specific needs and is often good for boosting joint health.
- Offer warm food: increasing the temperature of the dog's food can make it more appetizing for them. You should not make it hot, otherwise it may burn their mouth.
- Moisten dry food: adding a little water to dry kibble can make the food easier for an elderly dog to eat. You can even add a little homemade broth to make it more appetizing. This should not contain any food forbidden for dogs.
- Make homemade food: we can also make homemade food for the dog as a means of controlling their dietary intake. However, you will need to ensure their nutritional needs are met, so speak to your veterinarian. They will make sure it is adapted to your dog's specific dietary requirements.
You will also need to ensure you provide food which is specific to their health needs. Arthritis is a common health problem of old dogs. Learn more about what to feed them in this article on food for dogs with arthritis.
Keys to adapt the diet of an elderly dog and stimulate its appetite
The age at which dogs reach old age varies between breeds. As a general rule, large and giant dogs reach it at 6-7 years, medium-sized dogs at 8-10 years and small-sized dogs at 11-13 years. At this stage of their lives, dogs have specific needs, which makes it essential to adapt their diet to their new requirements.
If you feed your dog a commercial feed, it is recommended you change their feed to one specially designed for elderly dogs. In these cases, it is important you make the change of diet progressively to avoid rejecting of the new feed as well as potential gastrointestinal problems.
For dogs fed with a homemade diet, you will need to adapt their diet by taking into account certain factors. When designing the diet of elderly dogs we need to consider the following:
- Lower energy concentration: older dogs decrease their physical activity and produce less growth hormone. This leads to a reduction in muscle mass, body weight and basal metabolism. In turn, this requires a reduction in the energy concentration of their diet. It is important not to confuse the reduction of the energy concentration of their food with the reduction of the amount of food. The amount of food that must be provided is the same, but it must have a lower energy density.
- More palatable diets: with age, the sensitivity of smell and taste in dogs tends to decrease, so it is important to provide palatable food which stimulates their appetite.
- Texture: in dogs with oral health problems, it may be necessary to change their dry feed for wet, semi-wet or homemade food. In this way, we will be able to lessen the difficulty of chewing food and reduce the pain associated with chewing dry and hard food.
- Increase meal frequency: in older dogs it is advisable to provide several meals a day, doing so without increasing the total volume of food. In other words, divide the total amount of food into smaller portions and serve to them in more meals. This avoids overloading their digestive system.
- Maintain moderate levels of protein: the level of protein in the diet should be moderate, but it is important they are proteins of high biological value and high digestibility. This is due to a poorer metabolism of nutrients.
- Adequate supply of essential fatty acids: at this stage it is especially important to ensure a good supply of essential fatty acids, since geriatric dogs have a lower capacity to desaturate fatty acids. Learn more about this process with our article on the best omega-3 rich food for dogs.
- Increase fiber levels: the diet of elderly dogs should have higher levels of fiber for two reasons. It allows reducing the energy intake without reducing the volume of the food portion. This means it doesn't reduce the feeling of satiety. Additionally, elderly dogs have a greater tendency to constipation, so the levels of soluble fiber must be increased to promote intestinal transit.
- Vitamin supplements: with age, the efficacy of the immune system is reduced. For this reason, it is advisable to include supplements with vitamin E, beta-carotene and lutein, in order to boost the animal's immune system. However, these will need to be discussed with your veterinarian beforehand.
In any case, whenever you decide to feed your dog homemade food, we recommend that you first consult a veterinarian specialized in animal nutrition. In this way, you can guarantee the food you give your dog is always adapted to their physiological needs. You will also need to meet their other health requirements, something about which you can learn more in our guide to exercises for older dogs.
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- European Federation of Pet Food Manufacturers. (2017). Nutritional guides for complete and complementary foods for dogs.