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How to Force Feed a Dog Who Won’t Eat: Safely Encouraging Your Pet’s Appetite

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

how to force feed a dog who won't eat

Force feeding a dog who won’t eat is a drastic measure that must be approached carefully. Various reasons may lead to a loss of appetite in dogs, from critical health conditions to severe behavioral disorders. It’s vital to approach the situation with sensitivity and an understanding of the potential causes.

Sometimes, intervening in your canine’s feeding routine is a part of ensuring their health and well-being. If this is the case, It’s imperative to do so correctly and safely to avoid further distress or even injury to the dog.

Consulting with a veterinarian should be your first step before considering this step as an option. They will look for and treat any underlying conditions or even tell you if this approach is safe. We have the help of Dr. Scott Campbell BVSc (Hons), MACVSc, DACVN in his book on Small Animal Emergency and Critical Care. He discusses assisted feeding techniques, both at home and in-patient, for a dog that needs extra nutrients. In specific cases, we also look at how vets use feeding tubes to give nutrition to critically ill pups.

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In many severely ill pets, we have to forget about force-feeding, and opt for tube-feeding. We’ll discuss this further below.

However before you turn to any kind of force-feeding,  you must try to figure out the root cause. Often, a dog’s loss of appetite is due to illness, dental issues, or psychological factors. Unless these issues are addressed, even the most effective strategies won’t help your canine. Force feeding can be stressful, and we don’t do it unless we have no other choice.

Also, note that assisted nourishment is only a temporary solution. For more long-term results, we have covered strategies on how to fatten your skinny dog in our linked article.  We will also touch on how to deal with older dogs or puppies below.

Remember: If your dog is just stressed and not eating (but has no underlying health condition) then force feeding is not the way to go. It will only cause more stress and anxiety, as no dog likes to be force fed. So, it’s vital to work with your vet if you are considering this way of getting food into your dog that won’t eat.

If the dog shows any sign of distress or discomfort, you should stop immediately and consult their vet. Force-feeding can be risky, so it’s critical to follow the guidance of a professional. You should also ensure the food is at room temperature to avoid any discomfort that too hot or cold food might cause.

Case Study Of When It’s Okay To Force Feed A Dog

The best time to force feed a dog is when the underlying condition that makes your dog refuse to eat is treated first. Thereafter, if your dog is still in critical need of nutrients, it may be appropriate to force food gradually into their body.

An example is when a dog has parvo. During the early stages, it’s vital that they do not get food (only IV fluids or dehydration treatments and other supportive medication). Only after the parvo has passed, can they start ingesting nutrients. However, they usually do not have their appetite back at this stage, so force-feeding is necessary to help them build up their strength.

After Arthur, my puppy, overcame the toughest phase of parvo and hadn’t shown signs of vomiting or diarrhea for at least 12 hours, I started the process of force-feeding to ensure he received adequate nutrition. My vet provided Hill’s Urgent Care canned food, specifically designed for such critical care scenarios.

Since it was canned food, I first diluted it with a bit of water to make it easier to administer. Using a larger syringe, I carefully fed Arthur the food, holding his head gently to ensure he could swallow it properly. We began with small, manageable amounts every one to two hours. Gradually, as his appetite began to return, we transitioned to a bland diet.

He was fed chicken and rice baby food for at least a week post-parvo, which helped his digestive system recover steadily from the ordeal.

So, let’s break down how to do it safely with images and pictures to illustrate the process.

A Step-by-step Guide To Force-feeding Dogs

hand holding Bullmastiff head securely while inserting a syringe of liquid food into mouth to force feed dog that won't eat

When choosing this route, the most important thing is to remember that force-feeding your dog won’t make the underlying problem disappear. It’s like slapping a band-aid on your pup’s eating problem. These steps will help you properly navigate the matter.

Step 1: Recognizing Signs of Appetite Loss

To determine if a dog is experiencing appetite loss, one should look for changes in their eating habits. If a dog typically enjoys mealtime but begins to show disinterest or only eats a little, that might be a sign. Other indicators include a dog who sniffs their food and walks away or a pet who seems lethargic during what used to be an exciting time.

Step 2: Consult Your Vet to Identify Any Medical Issues

When a dog won’t eat, it’s crucial to identify why they’re turning away from their food, which is where contacting your vet comes in. Never force your dog to eat unless you know why they’re refusing to in the first place through a diagnosis by your vet.  

No appetite could signal a health or a behavioral issue. Remember that these problems causing appetite loss play out differently in terms of solutions.

For example, a sick dog lacks appetite because of all the pain and discomfort. So unless treated, even food through a syringe won’t help. If old age is responsible, making food more appealing could help fatten up the senior dog by bypassing hormonal influences like reduced ghrelin sensitivity (hormone for hunger). If it’s stress and anxiety, creating a comfortable environment and getting a canine behaviorist makes a difference.

Discussing Symptoms and Tests

During the check-up, owners should inform the veterinarian about all the symptoms their dog is experiencing, not just the eating issue. Veterinarians may suggest conducting a series of tests, including blood work or imaging, to diagnose the problem properly. Owners should prepare to discuss their dog’s eating habits, behavioral changes, and other symptoms.

Step 3: The Actual Force Feeding Process

Large syringe with no needle containing appropriate food to force feed in liquid form (dog)

If a vet recommends force-feeding, here are gentle steps you can follow:

• Prepare a small amount of highly palatable and soft food

Dogs have specific taste preferences, often favoring strong-smelling and meaty flavors. Chicken, beef, and fish are typically appealing to them. You can blend or crush their usual dog food in sodium-free chicken or beef broth into a runny paste. You can add some electrolytes to warm water to the help with hydration at the same time.

You can also use Hill’s Urgent Care canned food, which is made for sick animals to provide them with extra nutrition, while be gentle on tummies. Your vet will prescribe this food to you and you can simply water it down to place into a syringe.

Another option is chicken and rice baby food, which is equally gentle on the stomach. In all cases, if the food is to dense to squeeze through the syringe, simply blend it with a little water. 

• Sit with the dog in a comfortable and quiet place to create a stress-free environment

Selecting a quiet area away from loud noises and high traffic can make a significant difference. A dedicated space can signal to the dog that it is time to eat and that they can do so without disturbance. This area should be away from the household’s hustle and bustle, making it a peaceful spot for the dog to focus on eating.

• Calmly stroke the dog to help them relax

Dogs can sense stress and anxiety, which may deter their appetite. Keep the atmosphere as stress-free as possible to prevent the dog from associating syringe feeding with a bad experience. 

• Place a small amount of food on a spoon or use a syringe (without the needle) to feed liquid or semi-liquid food

You can also use hand-feeding techniques to help them eat. To do this, place a small piece of food in your hand and gently bring it to the dog’s nose. However, using a syringe is the most effective method.

• Gently open the dog’s mouth and place the spoon or syringe on the side, behind the canine teeth.

opening the side of a dog's mouth to insert syringe to force feed sick dog that won't eat.

Make sure the syringe isn’t too close to your dog’s throat. Some dogs may have a pretty strong gag reflex, which presents as curling their face outwards. Adjust their head position until you find a more comfortable position for them. 

• Slowly dispense the food so the dog can swallow it easily

After a successful feeding, reward your dog with praise to make it an overall pleasant experience 

Warning: When force feeding a sick dog or puppy, it’s extremely important to be careful that they do not breathe in any liquid (aspirate). This can cause a secondary respiratory infection that could be deadly (or even cause drowning or choking). So never push the food so far back into their throat that they risk inhaling it. If this is a serious risk, you need to look at tube feeding as the next option.

Step 4: Tracking Food Intake

Caregivers should keep a detailed record of how much food their dog consumes at each feeding attempt. This can be done by noting the exact amounts in a:

  • Notebook: Write down the date, time, and amount of food offered and eaten.
  • Digital Tracker: Use an app or digital spreadsheet for easy updating and referencing.

Observing the dog’s acceptance or refusal of different food types can inform on preferences or aversions, helping guide future feeding attempts.

Step 5: Using Appetite Stimulants

Finally, your vet may prescribe appetite stimulants to encourage your dog to eat. Drugs used to stimulate appetite should only be used under the guidance of a veterinarian. These can include:

  • Prescription medications specially designed to trigger eating in dogs. These include Mirtazapine, Cyproheptadine, Entyce, and Prednisone.
  • Natural options like CBD oil or certain supplements that may help stimulate appetite.

The decision to use appetite stimulants should always involve a conversation with a vet to understand the potential benefits and risks. They can help determine the most appropriate option based on the dog’s specific health needs. 

Remember that these tips are not permanent solutions but can be useful in encouraging a dog to resume normal eating habits.

When Your Vet Recommends Feeding Tubes

tube feeding a runt puppy by inserting a tube into their mouth to the stomach to gently insert food directly into their stomach

In extreme cases, your vet may recommend a feeding tube for your dog. This will be likely because your dog is experiencing severe difficulties in eating or maintaining adequate nutrition through normal means. Dogs with broken jaws, megaesophagus (extended esophagus), and conditions like pancreatitis, hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver), and kidney disease may benefit from these tubes.

It’s also common to tube feed runt puppies or fading newborn puppies to help them gain weight if they won’t drink from a a bottle, as in the picture above.

Tube feeding is a method used to feed dogs who can’t or won’t eat enough on their own. This can be because of sickness or other health issues. According to the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center, tube feeding helps pets get the right nutrition they need, especially when they have diseases like kidney disease. Good nutrition can help them live longer and have a better life. Tubes are also useful for giving some medicines and extra water if needed.

When is Tube Feeding Necessary?

If your dog hasn’t been eating well for a few days, a vet might suggest tube feeding. This is important because not eating enough can harm your dog’s health and make them more likely to get sick or have other problems. Think of a feeding tube as a safety net that’s there if your dog needs it.

How are Feeding Tubes Placed?

There are two main types of tubes: esophagostomy tubes (E-tubes) and gastrostomy tubes (G-tubes or PEG-tubes). Vets put these tubes in while the dog is asleep under anesthesia. E-tubes go into the esophagus, and G-tubes go directly into the stomach. They’re usually very comfortable for dogs.

In the case of puppies, a vet can show how to insert the tube yourself safely to feed every two hours.

Taking Care of a Dog with a Feeding Tube

Dogs with feeding tubes usually eat 3-4 times a day. The food is a special mixture of canned food and water. You’ll need to check the tube area on your dog’s skin twice a day and take care of any bandages. For more information on feeding tubes and their care, you can visit the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center’s FAQ.

Can Dogs Still Eat and Drink Normally?

Yes, dogs can still eat and drink with a feeding tube. As they start eating more on their own, you can reduce how much you use the tube. When your dog is eating enough to stay healthy, the vet can remove the tube.

How Long Does the Tube Stay?

Feeding tubes usually stay in until the dog is eating well for at least a week. If needed, they can be kept for weeks to months with the right care. 

How To Help A Dog Who Won’t Eat in  the Future

Improve Variety in Food Choice, Especially Wet Food

If a dog is reluctant to eat, softer or wet foods might be more appealing. These foods are usually easier to chew and can be more aromatic, which might entice the dog to eat. Textures to consider are like pâtés, gravies, and canned foods.

Environmental Changes

Feeding in a quiet, stress-free space can make the experience more pleasant for the dog.

Feed Smaller, More Frequent Meals. 

Give your dog smaller portions but feed them more frequently.

Add Healthy Fats

These can include freshy salmon or trout, or green-lipped muscle extract (aim for 15 to 20% fat content only).

Feed Protein-Rich Foods

Include protein-rich foods in your dog’s diet, such as lean meats (cooked and unseasoned), to help build muscle mass. But, keep in mind that high-protein diets do not apply to dogs with kidney or liver issues.

Regular Exercise

While it may seem counterintuitive, regular, moderate exercise is still essential. It helps build muscle mass and promotes an overall healthy lifestyle.

Treat Internal Parasites

Through deworming and learn how to tell your dog has worms.

By tracking the outcomes of these strategies, caregivers can better understand the dog’s needs and make informed decisions to support their health. Remember, the goal is to ensure the dog receives its required nutrition, so any food enhancements should not compromise the food’s nutritional value.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

In times when a dog refuses to eat due to sickness or other issues, pet owners have crucial questions concerning their care. Here are direct answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

What can I do at home to help my sick dog who refuses to eat?

One can try offering their sick dog easily digestible foods such as boiled chicken or rice. Gentle encouragement and a calm environment may also help your dog feel more comfortable to start eating. Warm their food and use smell to entice them. However, consult a vet before force feeding as your dog may have a medical condition that needs treatment.

If my dog only drinks water and doesn’t eat, how long can she survive?

Typically, a dog can survive for three to five days without food, but this does not mean one should wait to seek help. If they’re only drinking water, consult a veterinarian immediately, as it could be a sign of a serious condition. Dogs may need supportive care such as IV fluids.

What’s the best way to use a syringe for feeding my uninterested dog?

Using a syringe, you can gently squirt a mixture of broth and dog food into your dog’s mouth. Ensure to go slowly so the dog can swallow the food, and never force too much, which could cause choking or aspiration.

My dog needs his medicine but isn’t eating, how can I ensure he takes it?

You might have to administer the medication directly into your dog’s mouth. Another method is to conceal the medicine in a small amount of tasty food the dog can’t resist. You can also crush into a watery paste and use a syringe to gently squirt into their mouth. However, be careful they don’t breathe any liquid in. Another option is just to open the mouth, put the pill in the back of the mouth, and hold their muzzle close until they swallow it. Watch for sneakily spitting it out.

For a dog that is vomiting and hasn’t eaten for days, what should I do?

If your dog is vomiting and not eating, you need to see the vet without delay. Continuous vomiting can lead to dehydration and other issues that need immediate attention.

My dog is ill and won’t eat. How do I administer antibiotics?

You can try to mix the antibiotics with a small amount of delicious food if their vet approves. If this is not successful, one may need to insert the pill directly into the dog’s mouth, behind the tongue, and encourage swallowing by gently rubbing the throat. Keep their mouth closed until they swallow, and check that the pill actually is swallowed. Dogs can become experts at hiding the pill in their mouth and spitting it out when they are out of view.

Final Thoughts

When a dog doesn’t eat, it may be concerning for any pet owner. Force-feeding should only be considered when a veterinarian has recommended it, as there might be underlying health issues causing the dog’s lack of appetite. Here are a few points to keep in mind:

It’s essential to monitor the dog’s reaction to feeding and to consult the vet if any complications arise. They may be able to offer alternativ-e-archive feeding strategies or explore other reasons for the dog’s decreased appetite. The goal is to ensure the dog receives the nutrition it needs while working towards resolving any underlying issues.

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe


Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.