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How long can a dog go without eating? A vet’s advice

Sick dog lying on the couch
(Image credit: Getty Images)

At some point, nearly every dog owner has asked themselves “how long can a dog go without eating?” Whether your dog has a finicky appetite or a sensitive stomach, most dogs will miss an occasional meal every now and then. When that one missed meal turns into two meals, or three meals, or even more, however, it’s natural to become concerned. Having a good handle on how long your dog can safely go without eating will make you more prepared to handle these situations and respond appropriately. 

How long can dogs go without food and water?

Like humans, dogs are at higher risk of dehydration than starvation. A typical dog will show significant signs of dehydration within just 24 hours without water, depending on their health and environment. (If a dog is left outdoors on a hot, sunny day, they will dehydrate even more quickly.) When it comes to food, however, most dogs can go three to five days without eating before they experience any serious health consequences. 

These statements are only generalities, though. Your dog’s individual health, activity level, and environment play a large role in how long they can safely go without food or water. For example, small-breed puppies are often prone to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) because their body’s regulatory mechanisms are not yet fully developed. In some small puppies, going just twelve hours without food can cause life-threatening hypoglycemia. 

So, while we say that most healthy dogs can go a day without water and three to five days without food, it’s important to realize that every dog has slightly different requirements. Each dog will experience different effects after a period without food or water. 

Ways to get a dog to eat and drink

In some cases, you may be able to entice your dog to eat or drink by making their food or water more appealing. This can be especially helpful if your dog’s lack of appetite is due to stress, but is less likely to help if there’s an underlying medical condition at play. 

Consider adding a small amount of chicken or beef broth to your dog’s water.  Flavored water can increase your dog’s interest in drinking. 

To make your dog’s food taste better, try adding some flavor to their food. Avoid rich, high-fat items and instead consider adding a small amount of boneless, skinless chicken breast to your dog’s regular food. You could also consider using a bland canned dog food or baby food to add flavor. The goal is to make your dog’s food taste better, in order to entice them to eat. 

Dog eating peanut butter off a spoon

(Image credit: Getty Images)

When should I worry about my dog not eating? 

If your dog goes more than 24 hours without drinking or 48 hours without eating, it’s time to be concerned. You should also contact your veterinarian if your dog is showing other signs of illness, such as vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, or weakness. 

Your veterinarian will ask you questions about your dog’s medical history, looking to identify possible triggers for your dog’s lack of appetite. Next, your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam on your dog, looking for medical conditions that may be affecting your dog’s appetite. If no obvious causes for the inappetence are found on exam, your veterinarian will likely recommend laboratory testing. These tests may include blood tests, urinalysis, x-rays to rule out possible sources of pain, or other diagnostic tests, depending on your veterinarian’s clinical suspicions based on your dog’s medical history and physical exam.

If your veterinarian can determine why your dog is not eating, they will recommend appropriate treatment to address the underlying issue. For example, if your dog is not eating due to nausea, your veterinarian may administer an anti-nausea injection or send home oral medication. If your dog is not eating due to severe tooth pain, your veterinarian may recommend a dental cleaning and/or dental extractions. 

If no underlying cause for your dog’s anorexia can be found, your veterinarian may prescribe an appetite stimulant to help boost your dog’s appetite. Your veterinarian may also work with you to develop a feeding plan that involves palatable (tasty) food that is high in calories and nutrition. 

Causes of a dog not eating

There are many possible reasons why a dog could stop eating. Many medical conditions can cause nausea or a decreased appetite. Think of how you feel when you are very sick with the flu; eating is often the last thing on our mind when we are very ill! Additionally, there are a variety of medical conditions that can make eating uncomfortable or unpleasant, leading to a lack of appetite. 

Many owners question whether not eating is a sign their dog is dying. Fortunately, this is rarely the case. There are many treatable conditions that can cause your dog to avoid eating. This is why it’s so essential to see your veterinarian if your dog stops eating. 

Possible causes of a loss of appetite in dogs include: 

  • Gingivitis
  • Tooth root abscess
  • Oral trauma
  • Oral tumors
  • Neck pain, which may make it difficult for your dog to bend down to their food bowl
  • Pain or inflammation in the muscles involved in chewing
  • Pain in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ)
  • Esophagitis, or inflammation of the esophagus
  • Gastritis, or inflammation of the stomach
  • Enteritis, or inflammation of the intestines
  • Intestinal blockage
  • Intestinal cancer
  • Organ dysfunction, such as diabetes or hypothyroidism
  • Toxin exposure
  • Medication side effects
  • Generalized pain
  • Severe anxiety 

There are many potential causes of anorexia in dogs, ranging from mild to severe. Work with your veterinarian to determine the cause of your dog’s decreased appetite. Once you have determined the cause of your dog’s anorexia, you can work with your veterinarian to determine the best way to treat your dog’s condition. 

Work with your veterinarian for a personalized approach

When asking “how long can a dog go without eating,” the only true answer is, “it depends.” Most healthy dogs can go three to five days without food safely, but more rapid action is required in young puppies and dogs with underlying medical conditions. If your dog goes more than 48 hours without eating (or more than a day without drinking), contact your veterinarian to determine the next steps for your dog.

Catherine Barnette DVM

Dr. Barnette received both her Bachelor of Science degree in zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida. She’s an experienced writer, educator, and veterinarian, with a passion for making scientific and medical information accessible to public and professional audiences.