What to Do When a Puppy Won’t Eat

11 December 2023 - 7 min read

Making sure that puppies get the nutrition they need is critical to their growth and development. Pay attention when your pup won’t eat! Regardless of the reason behind a puppy’s loss of appetite, not eating enough can quickly lead to health problems.

Some adult dogs are picky eaters, only chowing down when it’s obvious that something “better” isn’t on the menu that day. However, a new puppy who isn’t eating well is probably sick. Picky eating in the absence of an underlying issue isn’t very common in puppies. When you notice significant and persistent changes in your dog’s appetite, you should always talk to your vet.

Why won’t my puppy eat?

Puppies might stop eating for many reasons, some of which you may be able to address on your own.

A change in food or environment

Some pups develop strong preferences for certain types, or even a single type, of food. Other factors can come into play as well. Medications or supplements mixed in with food can significantly alter its taste and lead to food refusal. Changes in where, when, and how you feed may also turn dogs off eating. If you’ve recently changed anything to do with your pup’s food or mealtimes, go back to what worked previously and see if that takes care of the problem.

Food can also go bad, or at least lose some of its appeal, as it gets older. Dry foods stay fresh for about a month after being opened, so don’t buy a huge bag if your pup is tiny. Wet foods should only be refrigerated for three to five days before being tossed out.

Stress and anxiety

When puppies are stressed or anxious, they may simply be too overwhelmed with worry to eat. So take a look at your pup’s overall demeanour.

Common signs of stress and anxiety in dogs include:

  • Being overly watchful

  • Avoiding certain situations

  • Hiding

  • Whining or barking

  • House-training setbacks

  • Pacing

  • Excessive licking

  • Trembling

  • Panting, drooling, lip licking, “wet dog” shaking, or yawning at unusual times

If you think your puppy is suffering from stress or anxiety, try to figure out the underlying triggers and take steps to eliminate or alleviate them. A puppy with separation anxiety, for example, may need you to be present while they eat. Make feeding time as calm and predictable as possible.

Puppies tend to do best on a routine, so if you must make changes to your pup’s feeding schedule, do so gradually. Your veterinarian can help you determine the underlying causes of your puppy’s behaviour and recommend appropriate treatment.

High temperatures

Excessive heat can lead to a reduction in appetite and food intake. Dogs tend to be less heat tolerant than people, so even if the temperature feels comfortably warm to you, your pup may be hot. Shade, air conditioning, fans, a cooling pet bed, appropriate grooming, maintaining a healthy weight, and providing chilled water will all help dogs stay cool and hopefully improve their appetite.

Teething or oral pain

A puppy’s baby teeth fall out and their adult teeth come in when they are between twelve weeks and six months of age. Teething can be uncomfortable and may lead to a reluctance to eat. Softening dry foods by soaking them in warm water for fifteen minutes or so can help.

Puppies love to chew and are at high risk for mouth injuries. When dogs stop eating, dental issues are often to blame. Examine your pup’s tongue, teeth, and gums for any obvious sources of pain like wounds, infections, foreign objects, or a broken tooth from a chew toy. Make an appointment with your veterinarian if you see anything unusual in your pup’s mouth, or if your pup reacts painfully when you touch their face.

Gastrointestinal problems

An upset tummy commonly leads to loss of appetite. Sometimes the cause is relatively benign, like new foods or treats, or when a pup eats something they shouldn’t have. Gastrointestinal parasites, bacteria, viruses, ulcers, inflammation, and obstruction may also be to blame. Puppies with GI problems often develop symptoms like vomiting and diarrhoea in addition to having a poor appetite.

Other illnesses

Problems outside of the gastrointestinal tract can also make a puppy stop eating. For example, dogs experiencing liver disease, kidney failure, diabetes or other diseases often experience loss of appetite and weight loss.

Dog lying down next to treat dispenser

What to do when your puppy isn’t eating

As you can see, there are lots of potentially serious reasons why a puppy may have stopped eating. Call your veterinarian if you can’t quickly figure out and fix what’s going on. Puppies have fewer fat reserves than adults, so missing more than a meal or two can lead to big problems.

Once your pup has a clean bill of health, try some of the following strategies for getting your pup to eat more.

Make changes to their food

Perhaps your puppy simply doesn’t like their current diet all that much. Pet food manufacturers change their formulations from time to time, and occasionally, a batch of food will be contaminated or turn dogs off for other reasons.

High-quality foods are usually tastier than cheaper options, so switching to a premium brand might help. These foods also tend to be more nutrient-dense, so puppies can eat less but still meet all their nutritional needs. You can also switch to different flavours of food — chicken, turkey, beef, fish, bison, duck, lamb, pork, rabbit — almost anything you can imagine is available. Some puppies prefer wet over dry foods or will start eating if a small amount of wet food (or cooked white meat chicken or boiled hamburger) is mixed in with their dry kibble.

Warming food increases the odours it gives off. Since dogs have a great sense of smell, warmed food may simply prove irresistible. On the other hand, some dogs prefer their food at room temperature or even chilled. Play around a bit and see what your puppy likes best.

Make any changes to your pup’s diet slowly. Take a week or so to gradually mix increasing amounts of the new food with decreasing amounts of the old. This will help your pup adjust, and reduce the likelihood that they’ll turn their nose up at the new food or get an upset stomach.

Change how you feed your puppy

As odd as it may sound, when a puppy’s appetite isn’t great, it’s best not to leave food out all the time. You want your pup to get a little hungry between meals, and constant nibbling, even in small amounts, will hinder this. Offer three to four meals a day but pick up any uneaten food after fifteen minutes. In a similar vein, stop offering your pup treats if they're not eating enough. Treats don’t provide all the nutrients dogs need but can reduce their appetite at mealtime. This may not be appropriate for very small puppies since they can be more at risk for low blood sugar. Ask your veterinarian if you are unsure about feeding timing for your pup.

Make sure your puppy is getting plenty of activity, particularly right before meals. Play and leash walks are the best forms of exercise for young puppies. Fun activities like this will stimulate a puppy’s appetite and put them in the mood to eat.

You can also change where you feed your puppy. There may be something in their current feeding location that is scary or causing distraction. You should also praise them when they do eat. Puppies love to make their people happy!

When to take your puppy to the vet if they’re not eating

Maybe you’ve tried changing up your pup’s food, schedule, or feeding location, but their appetite still isn’t what it should be. If so, an underlying medical condition may be affecting your pup's eating habits.

If any of these apply, call your vet immediately:

  • Your puppy hasn’t eaten anything in 24 hours

  • Your puppy hasn’t been eating well for more than 2 days

  • Your puppy is vomiting

  • Your puppy has diarrhoea

  • Your puppy is uncomfortable or is in pain

  • Your puppy is showing signs of lethargy

  • Your puppy is showing signs of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) including weakness, unsteadiness while walking, seizures, and even coma

  • Multiple dogs in your home or among your circle of friends are also experiencing decreased appetite

  • You know your pup has recently gotten into the trash or eaten something potentially toxic such as human or pet medications, chocolate, cleaning agents, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, or plants

Your veterinarian will start your pup’s health work-up with a thorough health history and a physical examination, possibly followed by lab work, X-rays, and other diagnostic tests. Treatment will depend on your puppy’s diagnosis and the severity of their symptoms. It’s worth thinking about puppy insurance as a way of managing the cost of any trips to the vet - for treatment for eating issues and other health conditions. 

Terrier holding a carrot

A well-balanced puppy diet will help

Once your pup is eating well again, make sure the food you offer provides complete and balanced nutrition, specifically designed for puppies. 

In the UK pet food is still regulated under laws set out by the EU. With that in mind, owners should only purchase puppy foods that meet the European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF) guidelines. These guidelines can also be found outlined in the most recent World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) feeding recommendations. To ensure your puppy’s food meets the relevant nutritional requirements you can check information on the label. FEDIAF requires certain information to be set out on pet food labels, including: 

  • Product description and information about its target species, for example: “complete pet food for dogs”. 

  • Instructions for how to use the food, and its purpose. 

  • Information about the materials in the food, for example, where “beef” is emphasised on a food label, its materials should be described as “meat and animal derivatives (beef X%)”

  • Information on authorised additives to the food, for example: “Added amount of zinc sulphate heptahydrate is 500 mg/kg”. 

  • The energy and protein value of the food, calculated using FEDIAF guidelines.  

  • The food’s minimum storage life.

Finally, even if your puppy has been eating normally, don't overwhelm their diet with too many treats that provide “empty” calories. All told, treats should only make up about 10% of a puppy’s caloric intake. If you need to give more treats, say as a training aid, try setting aside a portion of your pup’s regular food to use as a treat. This way you can reward your puppy for a job well done while still ensuring they get the nutrition they need to thrive.

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Veterinarian, Veterinary Writer, Editor, and Consultant

Dr. Jennifer Coates is a writer, editor, and consultant with experience in veterinary medicine, science, animal welfare, conservation, and communications. She has written for outlets including petMD, Chewy, and ManyPets.