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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Susan Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

How to Help Your Dog with Cancer When He Won’t Eat

Updated: February 25th, 2020


When your cancer dog won’t eat, it’s really frightening. It makes you think they’re close to the end, right? Don’t panic – try these things to help.

When we are helping our beloved dog through a cancer journey we realize how vital food is in the equation. The body must be supported with beautiful, life-enhancing nutrition to feed the organs and support the immune system, which in turn makes our dog stronger to get through this fight and even thrive.

Dr. Dressler’s dietary guidelines are a wake-up call for many. Perhaps we thought we were doing a pretty good job before all of this, but our research brings awareness that more can be done. So, we spend hours reading and learning, comparing brands, buying ingredients, measuring, weighing, mixing, cooking, dividing and finally presenting our pup with the results of our efforts… TADA!

Dr. Dressler’s dietary guidelines are a wake-up call for most of us!

What joy when she dives into the bowl and gobbles it all down, licking her lips and looking up with an expression of “Wow that was great, thanks!

When our dog loves her new diet, we feel grateful, we feel empowered, and we feel that this is something real that we can do to help our friend in her fight.

But sometimes, our beloved looks at the food, looks back at us, and then just walks away. We’re crushed! All that work and all the hope still sits in the bowl. What went wrong?

The entire process of food carries a lot of emotion, never more so than when we humans are fighting for our dog’s life. There are many factors that can affect whether our dog eats and enjoys the wonderful nutrition we have provided.

There are many factors that can affect whether our dogs eat.

Dogs have dislikes and likes, just like humans do. Here are a few tips for you, if your dog isn’t wolfing her food.

What is the dog cancer diet? Check chapter 14 for the full guidelines — and the rest of the book for more invaluable information!

Try to Be Patient When Your Dog Won’t Eat

We are programmed for convenience. We want to get the most done in the most efficient way possible in the shortest amount of time. This is one of the reasons that commercial pet foods caught on so quickly when they were introduced a few decades ago. So when preparing a dog cancer diet we want to put all the ingredients in one wonderful “meatloaf,” as Dr. Dressler suggests in his book. And that may be wonderful for some dogs.

Unless it’s not. If your dog is turning up her nose at your delicious loaf, keep the following in mind as you try new angles to get her to accept the food.

Remember: Dogs Self-Select in the Wild

Dogs in the wild take down their kill and eat the meat and bones, stomach contents etc. But they eat each one at a time, not all mixed together.

This is because dogs eat individual foods separately in the wild. If wild dogs raid a nest they get the eggs and the shells. Later, they might eat some fresh grass or wild plants. You’ve likely seen your own dog selecting one type of wild food over another. They need a particular ingredient.

We’ve all seen dogs drink from muddy puddles or paw up lovely earth to chew.

Zoopharmacognosy: the self-medicating behavior of non-human animals

At home, some dogs love broccoli, and some love raspberries.

This is self-selection, and we at Dog Cancer Vet suspect that this is not simply a matter of them liking the taste, it’s also because they know the nutrients in these foods are good for them. Scientists call this zoopharmacognosy, and it’s fascinating.

Dogs Self-Select In Our Homes, Too

So, when it comes to the dog cancer diet, one dog may want Brussels sprouts while his companion doesn’t. This may be because the first dog needs Brussels sprouts, and his buddy doesn’t!

Next week when he doesn’t need the nutrients found in Brussels sprouts, he may not “like” them anymore.

The ingrained wisdom of self-selection has allowed our dogs and many other species to thrive for thousands of years in the wild. Back when humans were hunter/gatherers, we used very similar wisdom to select food for ourselves, too.

Your dog might not need just one ingredient.

So when we present our dog with a mix of many different ingredients, he may refuse the mix because there is just one ingredient that he does not need. Since he can’t eat the mix without also eating this one food, he refuses it all.

If you use a food processor to mix up all of the food together, try a different tactic. Offer the food on the same plate, perhaps, but in separate piles, so the dog can choose what he likes. You may find he eats everything but one. (More on this below.)

Inappetance: Lack of Appetite

Like us, if our dog does not feel well, he simply may not feel like eating. Some cancer treatments can have an upsetting effect on the digestion, and general discomfort can put anyone off their food. (Think of the last time you had a headache — did you feel like eating?)

Our dogs are programmed that when eating and digesting something that doesn’t feel good, they don’t eat. It’s really that simple.

Dog not eating = dog does not feel well.

Humans can be persuaded that eating will make them feel better, but not so much with dogs.

If your dog doesn’t want to eat for one meal, it is probably OK. Try again in an hour or two – perhaps it is temporary discomfort. Keep offering until your dog accepts the food. If he won’t eat for twenty-four hours, though, it’s time to ask your vet for some help understanding what the problem may be.

Frantic Feeding: Too much Passion in the Mix

Dogs in the wild will not relax and eat if there is fear or threat nearby. Similarly, healthy domestic dogs may delay eating if there is frantic energy or shouting in the house.

As Dr. Dressler so often points out, our dogs pick up on our own attitudes. And too often, when we prepare our dog cancer diet for our companion, we have frantic energy:

‘I can do this and he’ll eat and he’ll get better!!!’

Or maybe “I’ve made this for you, it will help you get better and I have to leave for work now, so please eat!

Would you want to eat when your beloved is frantic and upset?

We put the bowl down, our dog feels our need, and that energy is not welcoming. There’s simply too much pressure.

If I’m feeling particularly upset or rushed, sometimes I start to sing something upbeat and friendly as I prepare my dog’s meal. “You are my sunshine,” or “Twist and Shout” or “My Favorite Things” all come to mind. I don’t know if my dogs like my singing voice, but I know they like my calmer heart rate and cheerier mood.

It makes it so much easier for all of us to enjoy their meal.

Extra TLC: Hand Feeding

We’ve all had a time when we didn’t feel good or were in a bad mood. Wasn’t it nice when someone offered to get us a drink or our favorite snack and we didn’t have to make the effort ourselves?

When our dog is dealing with physical and emotional changes she may need an extra bit of TLC with her food. The food she refuses from the bowl may be irresistible when offered in our hand.

Bring Love to the Meal

So how do we navigate these changes? Like the rest of the lessons we learn on this journey, we become aware, we observe, we adapt and we allow some time.

Let a meal be a joy-filled experience. Offer the bowl with calm, welcoming energy. If your dog hesitates, give her time to explore it. Give her space as she eats, but stay nearby and let her know how wonderful it is that she likes her food.

If she turns away, don’t chase her with the bowl, but invite her back gently and use either a large spoon or your hand to offer her a sample. Receiving food from you carries wonderful memories of being given food as a pup and it’s a very loving thing to do.

Hand-feeding can remind your dog of puppyhood and cuddles.

You may find that she eats the entire meal from your hand, or starts and then wants to continue from the bowl. Keep the emotions and experience gently happy and you will feed more than her body.

If you find that your dog simply does not want the meal, put it aside for later. Remember that Dr. Dressler recommends “cheat days” so if your dog wants to eat other food, at least he’s eating.

Don’t Let the Food Touch!!

You may find that for whatever reason your dog just won’t accept the mix you’ve prepared. Don’t give up. Some little kids don’t like their foods to touch each other, and some dogs don’t, either.

A way around this is to simply not blend everything together. When you cook all your ingredients, the meat, the wonderful vegetables, etc. make your usual amount, but don’t mix it together. At mealtime, select a portion of each food and gently warm it to enhance the scent, then offer this to your dog.

Some little kids don’t like their foods to touch each other, and some dogs don’t, either.

You’ll soon see which are the favorite items and this will be more great information from your dog you can use. If there is one ingredient that your dog consistently refuses, you’ll know not to keep it on your shopping list.

(Determine what nutrients in that food can be offered in another from the long list of good foods in the dog cancer diet, chapter 14, and remember that rejecting one ingredient may be temporary as his needs change.)

For most people, the initial challenge of preparing a dog cancer diet seems overwhelming. Once begun, however, we discover the little bit of extra time it takes is rewarded by knowing we are really helping our friend, and by the calm, loving experience of mealtime that we can share.

Bon appetit!

Susan, Dog Cancer Support Team

Learn More

Shurkin J. News feature: Animals that self-medicate. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;111(49):17339-41.

The sound on this video is not great, but the presentation is fascinating!

Discover the Full Spectrum Approach to Dog Cancer

Leave a Comment

  1. Michael Ramirez on May 5, 2019 at 3:56 pm

    My baby has mast cell tumor and has been given pallidia but will not eat anything solid. I feed her dog food my vet gave me with water through a syringe. She seems to have more energy now but I am lost on how to give her the Pallidia. Thoughts?

    • Dog Cancer Vet Team on May 6, 2019 at 8:17 am

      Hello Michael,

      Thanks for writing. As Palladia is a chemo drug, it has to be given whole. It can’t be broken up or crushed. This is because it can become airborne and can be inhaled. . You could try pill pockets, cream cheese, or even some sausage.

      If your dog is having trouble eating, consult with your vet. Ask if there is any medication that your girl can take to help increase her appetite or if there’s anything that you can do to help your girl eat.

  2. adelle on April 30, 2019 at 6:35 pm

    my golden retriever just went thru surgury getting his spline removed and will not it. He has n’t eaten for almost a week now. he still drinks thou. I think he is slowing down at that too. do you think we should use a feeding tube?

    • Dog Cancer Vet Team on May 1, 2019 at 7:05 am

      Hello Adelle,

      Thanks for writing. If your dog hasn’t eaten for over 24 hours, please consult with your vet. They will be able to help, and offer suggestions as to why your dog isn’t eating, and what you can do to help (certain diets, foods or medications).

      As Molly writes in this article, if your dog hasn’t eaten in over 24 hours, throw out the rules you’ve learned about diet and dog cancer and offer your boy anything that isn’t toxic. If your dog wants carbs, go for it. Hotdogs? Give it a try. At this point, anything is better than nothing. Also, if your dog is still drinking, you could try a bone or chicken broth 🙂

      But definitely consult with your veterinarian 🙂

  3. Diana Gladen on January 17, 2019 at 12:19 pm

    Can you please help? My dog has Mast Cell CA. When I cook the CA diet from the book, I turn my stove to almost off but it still cooks hot. I have had stove repair out to look but they say nothing they can do. I’m afraid I’m still boiling it and hurting her further!
    Can I use a slow cooker? Or how about one of those new One Pots? I want to do everything I can to help her and not do her further damage.

    Please respond as soon as you can
    Tampa, FL

    • Dog Cancer Vet Team on January 18, 2019 at 8:33 am

      Hello Diana,

      Thanks for writing, and we’re sorry to hear about your girl. As we’re not vets, we can’t give you medical advice. However, we can provide you with information based off Dr. Dressler’s writing.

      Diet is very important in helping your dog with cancer– Dr. D even dedicated an entire chapter to diet in the Dog Cancer Survival Guide. As tedious as this may sound, buying an infrared thermometer gun is super helpful in making sure that you stick between the temperature guidelines listed in the book. You can monitor the food that way 🙂

      Each slow cooker or multi functional pressure cooker, usually has adjustable temperature settings. For example, if you have an Instant Pot on the Slow Cooker function that has been set to low, it cooks between 180-190 degrees F— which is in Dr. D’s guidelines 🙂 If you are looking for a slow cooker, or something like an Instant Pot, check to see if the temperature can be adjusted, and if any of those settings meet Dr. D’s guidelines on page 196, of the Dog Cancer Survival Guide 🙂

      We hope this helps!

    • Susan on April 30, 2019 at 8:26 pm

      Hello Diana, I wanted to add the wonderful reply from the team. I hope your dog is doing well. If there is ever a problem with solid food, go for broth — bone broth, chicken broth, whatever goodness you can put into liquid form that adds nutrients to your pup’s meals. You add the love, in ever drop!

  4. Roo on October 3, 2018 at 5:26 pm

    Cookie, my 15 year old German Spitz was diagnosed with Kidney failure and was placed on Hills KD diet. Everything was ok for about 2 years. 4 months ago she was unwell and a scan showed spots on her liver and her kidneys are now 2.33 cm each. Due to her age and kidney situation, the doctor advised against doing a biopsy etc. We have been going for monthly scans. She is basically on Palliative care till her time comes. Her liver is now slightly enlarged, and half is covered. She is on Gabamantin in the morning, and Tramadol in the evening. She has been panting hard continuously (started two weeks ago). The vet said that part of her airways have narrowed. She’s on Theophylline now – 2 x a day. But she is still panting continuously. Why is she panting so hard.?

    She just wont eat at all. I’m at my wits end. The was an amazing eater before. As someone mentioned above – “she looks like she wants to eat but has a sniff then walks away, we hand fed her the best foods and now she’s turning her nose up at that”.
    I have tried Everything!!!! She is now weak and her stomach makes such noises. She also has horrible diarrhea. She has been drinking a lot more water, I noticed that all her panting makes her mouth dry. She is also had behavioral changes – furiously digging up the whole garden … grass was unearthed, soil was all over the patio and the stones too. She even bit through bamboo!!!!! She also now run out in the torrential rain. These are things she would never ever do. She’s quite the princess. Last few days I have noticed that she is depressed, agitated and blank. She has a glassy look to her eyes at times. She also does not sleep much.

    She basically does not know what she wants. And that is killing me trying to guess what to do. She is not at the stage yet where we need to contemplate giving her the shot. Most times she’s very alert.
    So how do I get her to eat? She’s getting weak from lack of food and I don’t want that to be the reason for her to go downhill. Im considering using a syringe and slowly forcing food down.

  5. […] Appetite […]

  6. Graphite Tail Grace on December 26, 2017 at 4:16 am

    My 7-Year-Old Newfoundland was recently diagnosed with a stomach growth. He has medicine he takes to stop the drooling, but now he won’t eat at all. I’m very worried because he’s obviously losing weight, and might starve himself if this continues. Please help me!

  7. Rad on October 12, 2017 at 3:07 pm

    my senior dog is hanging by the thread. she is 13 going on 14. the doc gave her 2 months it’s been 7. she hasn’t been eating. we’ve been feeding her liquids throufh a syringe. she drinks alot. still has good bowel movement. but she’s weak and it is so painful to watch. I love my little trooper. Do you have any suggestions? I’m struggling to see my champ so weak she needs help to stand. she walks around and then lays in her favorite spot.

  8. Aaron Hall on September 20, 2017 at 6:54 am

    Hi, my buddy of the past 8 years developed seizures on June 5th, 2017
    Since then he has had 6 of them. I’ve brought him to every specialist that was recommended by the last one, to the point that he had surgery on the 1st of September. They said his insulin levels are rising to high and his glucose levels are dropping to low. After tumors, lymph nodes we’re removed a biopsy was done to include his liver came back with metastatic cancer. I started him on CBD.
    Recommended by my own neurosurgeon. Now he won’t eat. What do I do?

  9. The History Man on June 22, 2016 at 1:54 am

    What if your dog won’t eat anything at all, even raw liver, scrambled egg, tuna, no matter what he is offered?
    We have a very sick and old hunting dog (13 years) who has congestive heart failure. He was coughing continuously and the vet gave him some heart tablets and a diuretic which helped a lot initially. He gradually got some of his appetite back and had some tuna, soft dog food and seemed to be getting better.
    But for the past week or longer he has refused to eat anything, not even the pieces of best liver we used to get the tablets into him. He spends all the day wandering around the garden lying under various trees and bushes, and has disappeared during the night for hours, coming back to sleep on the sofa.
    We realise he is probably dying but he is now looking like a skeleton, especially his rear end. He drinks quite a lot, especially from buckets and the stream outside. He reacts to being caressed and doesn’t appear to be in actual ‘pain’.
    But he IS starving himself to death and is wasting away.
    Should we simply get the vet to administer an injection or is there anything else we could try to get him eating again. Since he stopped eating he no longer coughs or dry vomits, so perhaps he has conditioned himself into believing that eating makes him ill.
    What to do?

  10. Kim Stamm on June 11, 2016 at 8:08 am

    Hi, we have a 10 year old pug named Charlie. About two months ago our vrt said Charlie had pancreatitis. He didn’t give us any antibiotics or any intravenous fluids. Charlie has list almost 3.5 pounds in 6 weeks. We have gone to another vet and she started antibiotics and luuid to control vomiting. He couldn’t keep any food down. Water was OK. We have spent 1500.00 between vet bills and different kinds of food. I’m asking for help with what can I do to get him to eat?I know he can’t keep going not eating. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks Kim

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