Where is the line between a healthy appetite and excessive hunger? How can you tell and should you worry?
A healthy appetite is considered a sign of a healthy dog. As a general rule, it is. A dog that is ill is likely to eat less, become finicky about their food, or stop eating altogether.
Even a ravenous appetite can be normal depending on the dog and their activity level.
So what constitutes excessive hunger?
I would like to believe that you’d know it if you saw it. The important thing is to understand what is normal for your dog–how much they usually eat. If their appetite changes dramatically without anything else having had changed, something is up.
Seeking more food versus trying to eat everything within reach
Is your dog so hungry or are they trying to put out a fire? A friend’s dog would behave this way. She would eat anything that wasn’t nailed down. As well as she was sick frequently, without a diagnosis. The veterinarians treated her symptomatically which wasn’t working. It wasn’t until a family vacation when she was seen by a different vet when her problem finally got a name–chronic pancreatitis.
Jasmine was always hungry when she was on steroids for her bad neck, but that was nothing compared to another friend’s dog who was on high dose steroids for brain inflammation. That poor girl too would ingest everything she could get her mouth on including her own diapers and carpets. In this case, it was caused by the high levels of cortisol in their blood from their treatment.
I would be very careful before concluding my dog had pica, which is considered a behavioral issue. Is it really? Sometimes maybe.
Whether your dog is putting out a fire or being so hungry they could eat nails–literally sometimes–I’d absolutely want to rule out a physiological reason foremost.
You can read my thoughts about pica here.
Excessive hunger with weight loss
If your dog keeps eating and eating and yet losing weight, this is serious. Often, they will suffer from diarrhea as well. Their body is not getting the nutrients it needs no matter how hard they try. Either their body is unable to use the nutrients, or somebody is literally stealing them–yes, I mean intestinal parasites.
Problems within the digestive tract or outside of it can cause this.
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI)
What this complicated term stands for is your dog’s inability to digest their food. The pancreas has two big jobs– the production of insulin and production of digestive enzymes. When the pancreas fails to provide these enzymes, your dog’s body cannot break food down to usable nutrients. In other words, the food just goes through untouched. This is when your dog can literally starve to death while eating like there was no tomorrow.
To learn more about this condition, check out my EPI article. Dogs having problems with digestion of nutrients will nearly always have obviously abnormal stools as well.
Other symptoms of EPI include:
- chronic diarrhea
- pale, greasy stools
Simplified, food gets broken down into nutrients in the stomach and absorbed by the intestine. Infections, inflammatory conditions, or cancer can mess up the function of the intestinal walls, making them unable to absorb the nutrients. This can result in excessive hunger though in many cases, such as with Jasmine, it can cause the opposite–refusing food.
Other symptoms of bowel disease can include diarrhea, vomiting, and other changes.
Hyperthyroidism is rare in dogs, but it can happen. Excessive levels of the thyroid hormone push your dog’s metabolism into overdrive keeping your dog constantly hungry.
Other symptoms of hyperthyroidism can include:
- excessive weight loss
- increased thirst and urination
- changes in behavior/hyperactivity
- rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
- lump on the neck
Excessive hunger with weight gain
What everybody seems to know about insulin is that it removes excess blood sugar (glucose) from the blood. Which is kind of true but it’s not the whole story. The job of insulin is indeed to regulate blood sugar levels and put the excess away for storage. However, it is also insulin’s job to deliver glucose to all the cells in the body where it is used as an energy source. In other words, cells need glucose to function. Your dog’s cells are starving, your dog keeps eating trying to provide the energy they need, but it’s not getting to them.
Other symptoms of diabetes include:
- increased drinking and urination
- skin and coat changes
- cloudy eyes
- weight loss (I know I’m listing it under weight gain but it can be either)
I already mentioned drug-induced high levels of cortisol above. However, it can also happen naturally, when your dog is producing excessive levels of the hormone. With Cushing’s disease, the perceived weight gain might be just that–perceived as it can have to do more with changes in organs and tissues rather than an increase in fat tissues.
Other symptoms of Cushing’s disease include:
- increased thirst and urination
- increased panting
- potty accidents
- pot-bellied appearance
- skin and coat changes
- lack of energy
- unexplained bruising
Could it be just the food? Why indeed. If the food doesn’t provide sufficient levels of needed nutrients, your dog will keep eating until their body gets what it needs. Jasmine’s vet always used to point out that dogs will eat to the limiting ingredient. This could be a vitamin, a mineral or amino acids. The food your dog is eating might offer it at levels that are too low or not at all.
This should not be very common these days, but it absolutely is a possibility. Since other, usually calorie-rich nutrients, are abundant in almost every food, your dog will be crazy hungry and getting fat while missing something important their body needs.
Nutritional deficiencies too can lead to eating non-food items, such as dirt or feces.
Weight Loss, Brittle Fur, Starving All The Time … Beaner’s Story
5 Reasons Your Dog is Extremely Hungry