Pets And People: Appetite Loss As a Sign Of Disease


Assessing a loss of appetite can be difficult.  However, there are several factors which I would consider first.  If my patients have a diseased mouth, that could be the reason.  There are many other reasons which range from considering major organ dysfunction such as kidney or liver disease, pancreatitis, viral diseases or bacterial infection. 

Appetite loss and appetite reduction are important factors in illness assessment and they must be recognized and reported as soon as possible.

Acceptance of favorite foods often determines if a pet should be hospitalized or not.  A couple of off days is generally not a big problem if the pet maintains hydration one way or another and recovers promptly, but recurring episodes of poor appetite or slow gradual reduction in appetite are important and frequently point to a chronic progressive illness.  Nutritional support not only helps the pet recover but buys time to keep the pet stable while diagnosis and treatment are worked out.  The pet must be fed to get well.

Pets with poor appetite are sick, and if you wait until the appetite is completely gone it may be detrimental for recovery.  This is particularly true for cats. As the appetite fades, the pet must depend on stored fat for nutrients.  When large amounts of fats are mobilized to meet energy demands, they must be processed by the liver before being used for calories.  The feline liver is not designed to handle large amounts of fat and will fail in a condition called hepatic lipidosis.

If you think your pet’s appetite is poor but are offering only kibbled food, your first step is to get some canned food and offer that.  Most animals find canned diets far more palatable than dry foods and you may find that this step alone fully alleviates the problem.  There is a misconception that canned food is somehow of poor nutritional quality.  In fact, canned food and dry food differ primarily in their water content and thus in texture.  If you consider the food without water, the unprepared diet is basically a powdered meat mix similar to flour.  It can be baked into a kibble or steamed into a canned food. Canned foods differ in quality just as dry foods do.  See if the pet will eat a canned food or mixture of dry and canned food.  Adding a flavored broth or cooked egg is also helpful in enticing the pet to eat a kibbled diet.

Foods that are generally regarded as delicacies among pets include: canned chicken, cooked egg, and canned tuna.  Therapeutic recovery formula diets are generally well accepted.

Except for recovery diets, these treats are not nutritionally complete but can make a good jump starter for pets.  A pet who has not been eating may feel continued discomfort until eating begins again.  Something tasty may be necessary to get the appetite re-started.

Do not simply put the food in a dish in front of your pet. Instead, rub a small amount on the teeth or spoon a little in the mouth so that the pet can get a taste.  Don't be surprised if he spits it out; we are just trying to get the taste of the food in his mouth.  Hold the bowl up to the pet's nose so that the aroma is inescapable.  You may find that coaxing in this way gets the appetite started.

Several "extra tasty" products available in the grocery store can be really helpful in tempting a pet with a poor appetite.  Fancy Feast by Purina comes in numerous textures and flavors, each can containing approximately 100 calories.  The diet is complete and balanced for cats and is often a good appetite jump starter.  Temptations, by Mars Pet care, are especially well accepted treats made for cats. Because many cats will not eat anything else, they have been balanced to be nutritionally complete for cats and can be used as a cat's sole diet if necessary.

Be sure other pets at home do not bully or distract the sick pet.  In a multi-pet home, it may be difficult for the sickly or elderly pet to eat without the younger pets taking his food.  Many animals wish to eat at their leisure, particularly if they do not feel well.  Consider giving your pet a private area and her own dish.  Never feed multiple pets from the same bowl as one is sure to get the lion’s share of the food to the other’s disadvantage

In the past, syringe or force feeding was used in an effort to get calories into a pet.  There are several disadvantages to this technique and no advantages. First, the pet is not going to like it an there will be struggling, stress, and mess.  The pet may be too sick to withstand stressful feedings and creating on-going unpleasant feeding experiences can result in what is called "food aversion" where the pet may not ever have a normal appetite again.  Feeding too quickly can lead to choking or food aspiration if the feeder is too aggressive.  Talk with your veterinarian before using this method, as it can be detrimental to your pet.

Nutritional support is essential to proper recovery and it is important to realize that there are several techniques available to see that the pet does not suffer extra debilitation from malnourishment.  If you think your pet has a problem with weight loss or inadequate appetite, do not wait until the problem is extreme; see your veterinarian promptly.

Dr. Lamb is the Veterinarian at the Manchester Animal Hospital.

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