[Guide] How to Stimulate Appetite in Sick Dogs and Puppies

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 8 min read

[Guide] How to Stimulate Appetite in Sick Dogs and Puppies

Illness is an unfortunate fact of life. We all live in a world full of microbes, parasites, and other little nasties that want to use us as a breeding ground or a source of food, and while our immune systems do a lot to keep us healthy, sometimes the stars align, and the invaders get a foothold. It's true of people and of animals – anyone can get sick and feel under the weather for days, weeks, or longer.

While none of us want to be miserable, it's even worse to see something we love be miserable and know there isn't a whole lot we can do about it.

When our beloved puppies fall ill, whether it's a kennel cough, canine cold, or something a little worse, they're not going to be their usual energetic, happy selves. Among the many side effects of illness is a loss of appetite.

We've all been there, right? It's hard to think about food when we don't have the energy to get out of bed, when we're chilled and tired and sore, or worse, when even the barest sips of water make us want to vomit.

Dogs can feel the same way, but since they don't have the high cognition required to know they needto eat, even if it's unpleasant, it's even more miserable for them.

When your precious fur baby is having a hard time getting and keeping food down, what can you do to help? Are there ways you can stimulate their appetites and get them to eat more? And when should you be concerned enough to take them to the vet? Let's dig in.

When Food Aversion is Concerning

Let's start with the most worrisome part: when is food aversion bad enough to warrant a trip to the vet?

A lot of different things can cause your pooch to avoid eating, even if they're normally voracious eaters who you practically have to stop before they eat the bowl, too.

A Dog Not Eating Food Image by Toe Beans

  • Stomach distress is the most common. This can be caused by a stomach bug like the flu, or it can be because they ate something they shouldn't, and it's irritating them. In extreme cases, it can cause something more dangerous, like a bowel obstruction that needs medical attention to address.
  • Dehydration. If it's hot out and your furry child won't stop running around, no matter how much they pant and need to collapse in the shade, it's possible they end up dehydrated. In these cases, your pooch might not be interested in food because their primary desire is water. Make sure they have enough water in them to be able to handle and have an interest in food.
  • Picky eating. Some dogs turn their noses up at certain kinds of food. Some will even change their preferences over time, especially as they get older. If they've been used to one food and you're trying to give them something else, the change might be enough to put them off, at least for a few hours.
  • Dental issues. A sore tooth, abscess, or other issue with the jaw can make it unpleasant to eat. Sometimes, they'll eat despite the pain, and you'll notice whining while they chew. Other times, they'll simply refuse; it hurts too much to consider it.
  • Stress. In stressful situations, the body does all kinds of things, including pumping in a bunch of hormones that skew behavior. For a dog, stress can be anything from a major life-altering event to just a new schedule for their day, and it can throw them off that they might not eat at their regular time.
  • Medications. Some medications have appetite reduction as a side effect. It may or may not happen, and if it does, it may or may not be significant, but any time your dog is put on a new medication, your vet should warn you if they might have a lack of appetite because of it.
  • Systemic diseases. Things like pancreatitis, cancer, kidney disease, and other diseases can have wide-reaching effects, including appetite suppression. Obviously, these are the worst-case scenarios and should be addressed by a vet ASAP.
  • Aging. Older dogs likely aren't going to eat as much as younger dogs, regardless of whether or not they're ill. They're also sore and tired old friends, and they're not spending as much energy, so it's not as much of a cause for concern as long as they're eating some, occasionally.

USDA organic pumpkin dog cookies yummies for the tummies by momma knows best

So, when should you take your poor, hungry fur baby to the vet?

If your pooch simply doesn't want to eat at dinnertime and skips the meal, it means there's something to watch for and a few things to check, but it's probably not concerning. If they wolf down breakfast like they haven't eaten in a week, whatever was bothering them has passed, and they're fine.

If they skip meals for a day, and especially if they look a little lethargic or under the weather, they may be coming down with an illness. Check for the signs of more dangerous illnesses, but if it's just for a day, all you really need to do is monitor them and see if they feel better the next day.

If your fur baby is skipping meals for two days, then you should be concerned enough to bring them in to the vet. You can often identify the broad category of why they aren't eating – whether from pain, from obvious illness or from something else – and can determine when to take them in accordingly.

How to Get a Sick Pup to Eat

If your fur baby doesn't want to eat but clearly needs to, there are ways you might be able to make food more attractive to them or more palatable and help them get it down. Even a little bit of food is better than nothing and can help hold you and your fur baby over until a vet appointment. Here are some options you can try.

Mix in a high-value food.

When your fur baby is sick, they probably don't find their usual kibble to be very attractive at all. And really, who would blame them? Hard little pellets of nondescript food material aren't very interesting. One of the most common ways to help your furry child eat is to mix in a little bit of something more attractive to them. We're talking flavorful, with an incredible aroma, something they'll love. Chicken, beef, and even a bit of bacon can be perfect here. 

Ideally, you want to avoid something too fatty because fat can cause digestive issues. If you go with bacon, cook it well and drain the fat before mixing it in. Same with beef, get a lean cut or drain the fat first. Chicken is fine on its own, but a flavorful rotisserie chicken is often better than plain old chicken. Just make sure to pull off the skin and don't leave bones in the bowl.

A Dog Eating High-Value Foods Image by Toe Beans

Ideally, the more potent and attractive treat mixed into their food will get them to eat it. If they stillturn their nose up at it, you should definitely be considering that emergency vet trip.

Relatedly, you can also try a treat. If you aren't ready or willing to give them a whole bowl of high-value food, giving them a treat or two might be enough to stimulate them into eating. It's more about the reminder that food is good than it is about the flavors and scents. Just be careful; you don't want to accidentally train your pooch to avoid eating in favor of treats.

Try a softer food.

If your fur baby isn't eating because of some kind of pain in their mouth or teeth, the idea of chewing through hard little kibbles will be enough to dissuade them from even trying to eat. If you've ever had a bad toothache, you probably know exactly what's going through their heads.

The obvious solution here is to try soft foods. You have a few ways to do this. First, you can soften their kibble by mixing in some water or a simple broth and letting it soak in. A softer kibble is an easier-to-eat kibble. Second, you can use a softer base food, like ground or minced beef or chicken. In a pinch, you can even try something like cooked and mashed carrots or even baby food if you want to buy some or have it on hand.

Warning: if you want to use broth to help stimulate your fur baby's appetite, make sure you get a healthy kind of broth. Many broths are made for humans and include ingredients like high sodium, onions, garlic, and some spices that can be dangerous for dogs. Try to get a broth without these, or in a pinch, make your own.

Softening a Dog Food With Water Image by Toe Beans

Similarly, you can heat up their food a bit. Warming up their food can make it more aromatic, which might not be pleasant for you or your microwave but can make it more appealing to their furry senses. Pouring some warm water or broth into their kibble to soften it can get you the best of both worlds.

If your fur baby goes for it, this can also give you a good idea of why they're averse to food, and you can get them in for a dental check-up ASAP. You don't want a dental injury to fester, after all.

Try a bit of exercise.

Illness feeds back into itself. When you're sick, you don't feel good, you don't have energy, and it can even hurt to move. But, the less you move around, the more stagnant you get, the less healthy your overall system is, and the more an illness can fester. The same, of course, holds true for our canine companions as well.

Taking a Dog For a Walk Image by Toe Beans

So, try to take your fur baby on a walk. Even something as simple as a slow meander around the yard can be enough to get them up and moving, circulate their blood, get their juices flowing, get them to go potty, and generally encourage their system to move. There's a reasonable chance that a walk – and the longer, the better – can stimulate their appetite enough to get them to eat, even if it's just half their usual meal. 

Give hand-feeding a try.

Another option is to turn the illness into a bit of comfort and bonding by curling up on the floor with your pooch and a bowl of food and hand-feeding them a couple of kibbles at a time. The process of hand-feeding can be comforting enough to get them to try to eat, and once they get a little food in them, their hunger may come back and they'll get to eating out of the bowl there with you.

Hand-Feeding a Dog Image by Toe Beans

In more extreme cases, you may need to get a liquid kind of food and hand-feed your fur baby with a syringe. Usually, though, if you've reached this point, you should be taking them to the vet (an IV with nutrients will be more effective) rather than trying to manage such a severe issue at home.

Vet-prescribed appetite stimulants can help.

If your fur baby won't eat and is clearly ill, you may want to take them to the vet regardless. Your vet can prescribe certain medicinal appetite stimulants. This can also work to counteract the appetite suppressant effects of other medications, as necessary. Specific medications can include mirtazapine, meclizine, and ghrelin receptor agonists.

Another more medicinal option is trying some CBD drops. CBD has the potential to both ease pain and stimulate the appetite of your fur baby.

Canine CBD is made from hemp, is safe and non-toxic, and can be found in peanut butter-flavored tinctures for maximum attractiveness to your fur baby. Make sure you give them the proper dosage, and see if it helps make them hungrier. With luck, an application or two might be all you need to get the ball rolling, and the infusion of nutrients will then help them fight off whatever is making them ill.

A Dog Being Given CBD Image by Toe Beans

Whatever options you choose, there are a lot of different ways to help encourage your furry companion to eat. It's only if they continually resist all efforts to feed them, or they can't keep food down at all, or if they have signs of more serious illness that you should rush them to the vet. Hopefully, that's not the case for you.

After reading today's article, do you have any questions? If you do, please feel free to let me know in the comments section! I'm always more than happy to help you all out however I can!

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.

Also in Pet Parents Blog by Toe Beans

How to Prevent Your Pup from Digging Holes Everywhere
How to Prevent Your Pup from Digging Holes Everywhere

by K Marie Alto June 20, 2024 8 min read

Why is your pup digging holes everywhere in your yard, and what can you do to prevent this behavior? In this article, we'll answer those questions and more.
Expert Guide: Your Puppy Training Schedule by Age
Expert Guide: Your Puppy Training Schedule by Age

by K Marie Alto June 13, 2024 9 min read

Navigate the exciting and complex journey of puppy training through our guide, detailing the age-appropriate schedules for teaching your new family member.
12 Feline Companions for Allergy-Prone Individuals
12 Feline Companions for Allergy-Prone Individuals

by K Marie Alto June 06, 2024 8 min read

Discover 12 feline companions better suited for people prone to allergies, offering a chance to enjoy the warmth and joy that cats bring without as much worry.