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Why Isn’t My Dog Eating?

Most dogs LOVE to eat. But now and then, a dog comes into your life and this dog presents with absolutely no desire to eat. They get labeled as picky and this sends you into an expensive adventure hunt as to what “food” or “supplement” might get your dog to start eating again.

If you are here, and you’re in this predicament, please call your vet to make an appointment to get your dog medically evaluated. Your vet can inspect, and rule out any medical reasons why your dog might not be eating. Since I’m not a vet, I will refrain from speculating what all those medical conditions might be. That’s their specialty and area of responsibility to have that dialogue with you.

Now, if you’re simply curious, or you’ve ruled out any medical reasons why your dog might not be eating, then the next step would be to talk to an animal behaviorist who could help pinpoint if this lack of appetite might be behavioral.

I’m sharing my own story to give a different perspective.

The Story Of Mr. Higgins

It was simply just my ill luck to find that my young puppy (at the time he was about 10 months old) started to be “picky” with food. I had his vet run all the tests (bloodwork, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, and ultrasounds) to ensure his organs and body were in perfect health (it was).

I consulted with trainers and behaviorists and we tried all of the various ways to set him up for success (but did not work).

I also prepared every conceivable variation of food to see if the way it was made (baked, dried, air-dried, raw, dehydrated, etc., etc. might make a difference). Which it did not other than surface he preferred raw red meat.

It’s ironic to me that with all my knowledge of food, the Universe would deliver this puppy to me further demonstrating that She/He up above has a sense of humor.

And so I’ll share the story of my own puppy to see if this may help you with your own reluctant puppy or dog.

Calm Energy Didn’t Work

It became clear to me, at least for Mr. Higgins that there was some sort of psycho-emotional component to why he wasn’t eating. To give you some background, he was the runt of the litter. And the story goes that he was often pushed out by his siblings. Noticing this, his breeder took to feeding him separately so that he could get his fair share of food.

Fast forward to his early months with my pack (I have two other dogs) he seemed to eat a lot more slowly than the other two. I had their crates in a line and the oldest would occasionally go into his crate at meal time instead of her own. With training, I was able to correct this but I did observe for a few weeks he wasn’t sure which crate to eat his meals in.

I thought perhaps he was stressed. So I tried all the various training methods and even turned to supplements and CBD to “calm” him down which did not affect his appetite.

But then an interesting thing happened. I noticed that after my two other dogs were done eating, and they would play….. he would start eating.

Or in another unseemingly bizarre turn of events, if someone came to the door and rang the doorbell, or if they mailman who delivered around mealtimes, was outside, the dogs would bark and he would immediately run to his bowl and start eating.

It occurred to me that I was approaching mealtimes wrong. He needed a little excitement as opposed to the calm energy normally associated with rest and digestion.

Limited scientific literature exists on this for dogs so I turned to the human health space to dig deeper.

Fight, Flight, or Feast? The Autonomic Nervous System and Appetite

Our dog’s bodies have a built-in system for managing various functions without them even thinking about it – the autonomic nervous system. Within this system, two branches work in opposition: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

The SNS is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response. When faced with stress or danger, the SNS kicks in, increasing heart rate, respiration, and muscle tension. Interestingly, it also stimulates the production of ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” urging the body to start to eat. This ensures the body has enough fuel to handle the perceived threat.

On the other hand, the PNS promotes a “rest-and-digest” state. It lowers heart rate, relaxes muscles, and aids in digestion. Ghrelin production decreases under PNS dominance, which contributes to feelings of satiety and reduced appetite.

In essence, the SNS prioritizes survival in stressful situations, potentially increasing hunger, while the PNS promotes digestion and a sense of fullness when the body is relaxed and at ease.

Grehlin, What Is It and Its Role With Appetite

Ghrelin, an acylated upper gastrointestinal peptide, is the only known orexigenic hormone. Considerable evidence implicates ghrelin in mealtime hunger and meal initiation. Circulating levels decrease with feeding and increase before meals, achieving concentrations sufficient to stimulate hunger and food intake.

The hormone ghrelin is secreted mainly from the gut.

Ghrelin is actually produced more when the body is in sympathetic mode.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response. When one is stressed or perceives danger, the SNS kicks in, and interestingly, it also stimulates the production of ghrelin. Research suggests that the SNS directly increases ghrelin levels through neural stimulation of the gut.

This might seem counterintuitive, but it’s thought to be a way for the body to ensure it has enough energy to deal with the stressful situation. And even if the body isn’t running away from danger, the body still anticipates needing more calories and grehlin prompts the body to start eating.

Entyce and Grehlin – A Drug To Help Increase Appetite

If your dog won’t eat, your vet may prescribe your dog Entyce® . The FDA-approved medication capromorelin is a ghrelin receptor agonist that increases appetite stimulation in dogs (Entyce®) and cats (Elura®). Both medications contain the same active ingredient and are manufactured by the same pharmaceutical company.

Capromorelin oral solution (Entyce; Aratana Therapeutics) was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May 2016 for appetite stimulation in dogs and became available to veterinarians in the fall of 2017. Although further studies are needed to fully define the ideal use of this product in veterinary practice, capromorelin has the potential to positively affect the clinical management of inappetence and weight loss/cachexia in dogs.

I have had clients whose dogs have Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) come to me when their dogs were prescribed this by their vets. It works but just like all things, not 100%. Also, it’s a fairly new drug and long-term effects haven’t been studied. In cats this mechanism affects insulin. In dogs, they have not seen that yet. I mention this so that you can have a conversation with your vet if you want to explore this option.

Enter Chinese Medicine To Increase Stomach Qi

I’m currently enrolled in a Doctorate program for Acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Herbalism. I turned to this medicine to see how appetite would be framed.

In TCM, the Stomach is responsible for “Receiving” food. The Stomach is associated with the Earth Element. Excessive thought and stress lead to a dysregulated Earth element which affects the Stomach’s ability to function. In essence, Qi is deficient.

There are herbal formulas that can help increase appetite. One that comes to mind is Si Jun Zi Tang (Four Gentlemen). This formula goes back to 1078-85 AD and is time-tested and widely used to address what is called “Spleen Qi Deficiency”. TCM herbs should not be administered without a practitioner’s guidance. Talk to your holistic vet to see if this is a good fit for your dog.

There were several ways I approached this herb for my own dog:

Herbs To Increase Appetite: Administered Si Jun Zi Tang and Xi Yang Shen. It was my personal preference to go with an herbal formula made from plants. This formula also dates back over 1150 years and passes the time test for me. I tend to lean on modalities that have run over a long period. As a future TCM Doctor, I also tend to favor herbal medicine.

The goal of herbs is to aid the body to function on it’s own. In my dog’s case, I wanted to boost his body functions related to digestion and warm his stomach up while preserving body fluids.

Emotions To Increase Appetite: I turned to the Fire Element to help bring his Earth element up.

Mr. Higgins is a very joyful, but also soft dog. He delights in play and it will very easily get him from a pensive mood to one where he’s bouncing around full of happiness. I found that by initiating play and doing things like rolling a ball next to his food plate, it would initiate or kick start if you will, his desire to eat. I even used sound therapy to shift his mood and found he loves the sound of a harmonica and varying Solfeggio frequencies.

I was tried what I learned from Temple Grandin’s work with animals in that the most predominant behavior in dogs is their desire to “seek things out”. A behaviorist equates this to working for their food. I tried things like cooking his food into harder meatballs and then tossing it to see if “running to chase it” would kickstart his appetite. It did for a few but he got bored. We also tried all the different canine enrichment toys. These only worked to some extent since my own dog doesn’t have a high drive. And for him emotionally, joy is what got his “Qi” moving.

In the beginning, this was a long discovery process that took at times, up to one hour before he finished his food. Over time, this process has shortened in length and he will eat his meals in under ten minutes.

Body, Mind, Spirit

There are many different styles of Acupuncture within TCM. As a future acupuncturist and herbalist, I turn to different systems depending on the case in front of me.

With medical lab work and testing, I ruled out that my puppy’s body was in perfect health. Through trainers and behaviorists, we worked on what might be going on in his mind that affected his hunger. But it wasn’t until I turned to his Spirit that I saw a change.

There was a time when considering the entire Body, Mind, and Spirit was the norm and how we approached medicine. Over time, science has caused us to separate these into different areas and we see the body as separate parts.

But through the framework with TCM, we look at the being a whole system where the three entities, Body, Mind, and Spirit have to be in harmony.

Your case will be very unique because all dogs and lives are different. As I mentioned above, it’s critical that the first step you take in trying to help your dog eat is a visit to your vet.

After that, I encourage you to look at what else you can do when considering the Body, Mind, and Spirit as a whole.

If you need my help, feel free to book a Wellness Call or any one of my packages to see if I can provide any insight and assistance through food and herbs.

As always, thank you for stopping by and I wish you and your dogs Good Health.


Image: Chem Blink

Cummings DE. Ghrelin and the short- and long-term regulation of appetite and body weight. Physiol Behav. 2006 Aug 30;89(1):71-84. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2006.05.022. Epub 2006 Jul 21. PMID: 16859720.

Cummings DE, Frayo RS, Marmonier C, Aubert R, Chapelot D. Plasma ghrelin levels and hunger scores in humans initiating meals voluntarily without time- and food-related cues. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2004 Aug;287(2):E297-304. doi: 10.1152/ajpendo.00582.2003. Epub 2004 Mar 23. PMID: 15039149.

Mundinger TO, Cummings DE, Taborsky GJ Jr. Direct stimulation of ghrelin secretion by sympathetic nerves. Endocrinology. 2006 Jun;147(6):2893-901. doi: 10.1210/en.2005-1182. Epub 2006 Mar 9. PMID: 16527847.

Akalu, Y., Molla, M. D., Dessie, G., & Ayelign, B. (2020). Physiological Effect of Ghrelin on Body Systems. International Journal of Endocrinology, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1155/2020/1385138

Frayling, C., Britton, R. and Dale, N. (2011), ATP-mediated glucosensing by hypothalamic tanycytes. The Journal of Physiology, 589: 2275-2286. https://doi.org/10.1113/jphysiol.2010.202051

Author Biography

Hannah Zulueta obtained her Certificate in Canine Nutrition from CASI Institute. She is also studying for her Doctorate in Acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Herbalism from the esteemed Pacific College of Health and Medicine.

She resides in San Diego with her three dogs, Maggie, Orbit, and Mr. Higgins.

She is available for one on one consultations. Additionally, you can find her sharing free content on Instagram.

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