Pets & People: Loss of Appetite in Pets


In my practice in Manchester, I consider appetite loss and appetite reduction important factors in illness assessment.  They should be recognized and reported as soon as possible.  A failure to accept favorite foods often determines if a pet should be seen for an examination.   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.

The term anorexia simply means eating no food.  Many people get confused by the human eating disorder anorexia nervosa.  When the veterinarian says the pet has anorexia, it does not mean the pet has a distorted body image; it simply means the pet is not eating.

So how do we get a pet to eat?  We will review some techniques here.  Be sure to check with your veterinarian regarding the proper amount of food to feed and which foods are acceptable.

Don't wait for the appetite to completely disappear before seeking veterinary assistance.  Pets with poor appetite are sick, and if you wait until the appetite is completely gone it may be too late 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 kibble or steamed into 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.

Second, Offer a Delicacy.  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.  With the exception of the 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 restarted.

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 helpful in tempting a pet with a poor appetite.  Fancy Feast by Purina comes in numerous textures and flavors, each can contain approximately 100 calories.  The diet is complete and balanced for cats and is often a good appetite jump starter.  Temptations, by Mars Petcare, 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.

A Note on Starting Prescription Diets.  If the pet is supposed to eat a prescription diet but refuses, do not attempt to starve the pet into eating the prescription food.

 Many prescription diets are relatively bland, and pets do not wish to eat them, particularly if they are used to eating large amounts of table scraps (always a bad practice) or a more flavorful regular food.  Starving the pet will only make him sicker.  Try a gradual change from the regular food to the new food over a week or so.  If the pet simply will not accept the new food, be sure to let your veterinarian know this.  There may be an alternative flavor to try; further, prescription diets are guaranteed by the manufacturer meaning you can get a full refund on the bag or case if the pet does not accept the food.  Sometimes it is necessary to forgo the therapeutic aspect of the special diet just to get the pet to eat but your veterinarian will help you with these guidelines.

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.

Other advice about medications can be determined by your veterinarian once he examines your pet and decides if that is appropriate and in their best interest.

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

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