Hines DVM PhD
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is a medical term for lack of appetite. Limping or not eating are
the two most common reasons worried pet-owners bring their pets
to me. A day in which your pet turns up its nose at food is very
common and unusually unimportant. But when this occurs over several
days or if your pet actually looses weight, it is time to pay attention
to the problem.
times, anorexia has a simple explanation. Any stressful situation
can cause a pet to eat less. When the stress leaves, or the pet
becomes accustomed to it, appetite returns.
Are Some Of The Reasons that Pets Don't Eat Normally?
Food Tastes Better Syndrome
This is a very common problem. Dogs and cats are very intelligent
– particularly when it comes to food. After their first bite
of table food, they instantly know that your food tastes better
than theirs. Even if it doesn’t always, they remember the
time it did and assume it will. I am as guilty as anyone. Our cat
and Labrador wait patiently for anything to “fall” from
the dining room table. It is only when they realize that they are
not going to get anything that they wander back to their food dishes.
I have no problem with you giving your pets treats of human food.
But you must not let these scraps constitute more than 20% of your
pet’s diet and there are certain foods that must not be given.
These include, grapes, raisins, avocado, anything with bones and
heavily spiced foods. Add to this list anything that gives your
pet diarrhea or a tummy ache. I do not think that toy breeds are
any more guilty of this problem than large breeds. It is just that
the owners of toy pets tend to baby them more and that there are
rarely enough table scraps to constitute more than 20% of a large
Picky Eater Syndrome
Some pets - like some humans – are just born finicky eaters.
This can be a blessing. Scientists have found that the length of
life in many species is lengthened by the consumption of fewer calories.
But when a nurturing person is disturbed by a picky eater, it can
become a perceived curse. Some pets just enjoy the attention that
a worried owner pays to them when they hover over their food dish
not eating. They can quickly pick up on this. If a disinterested
party, such as a groomer, pet handler or veterinarian tells you
that your pet is too thin, a diet change is in order. If not, leave
well enough alone. Many picky eaters will go a day or two without
eating much. It is no cause for alarm if that is the confirmed constitution
of your pet and its weight remains normal and steady. When clients
call me after hours at home for advice for a pet that will not eat,
I often try my Vienna Sausage Test. Vienna sausages are small smoked,
canned wieners. They would be a horrible diet choice for pets –
but few pets can refuse one. I tell owners to offer half a link
to the pet and call me back if he won’t eat it. If the pet
doesn’t eat it, its time to set an appointment the following
day or go back to my animal hospital and examine it immediately.
majority of major diseases that our pets suffer are accompanied
by a drop in appetite. There are too many of them to list. However,
they are all accompanied by one or more abnormal findings other
than lack of appetite.
your pet is loosing weight it should be examined by a veterinarian.
Sometimes, a physical examination is all that is required. Things
such as infections of the skin, eyes and ears can be diagnosed and
treated, often without further tests.
Many owners think their pet is loosing weight because of worms.
In my experience, this is almost never the case in adult dogs or
cats. Pet stores, Patent Remedy Merchandisers like Hartz and feed
stores encourage this myth because worm medications are all they
are allowed to sell. But I have seen a lot of pets whose owners
waited too long to take their pet to me because of this myth. When
intestinal worms are involved in weight loss, it is due to severe
infections caused by unsanitary conditions, high-stress environments,
crowding, concurrent other diseases or the feeding of low-quality
generic pet foods or inadequate amounts of pet foods.
Although one might expect tooth and gum problems to affect appetite
– they rarely do. This is because dogs and cats do not chew
much. It is only when dental problems are severe enough to cause
systemic disease that they may affect appetite. Never the less,
the veterinary examination should include an examination of your
pet’s mouth. If it is found that your pet has severe periodontal
gum disease or heavy tartar buildup, having its teeth cleaned is
a good idea. I have seen rare instances where this has improved
appetite. But the more important benefit is the elimination of chronic
mouth infections that eventually hurt the heart, kidneys and liver.
I do become suspicious of a mouth problem when a pet will lap up
it’s normal diet when it is blended into a liquid form. But
this can also be just the novelty of a new form of presentation.
If so, it will soon tire of that as well.
When your veterinarian cannot diagnose the cause of your pet’s
lack of appetite through a physical exam, he/she will do more tests.
I often request a fecal specimen. This is not because I think that
common intestinal parasites are a likely cause of the problem. It
is because many diseases of the stomach and intestine produce a
stool that is abnormal in a specific way. Lack of liver or pancreatic
enzymes (see the tests) give the pet’s stool a distinctive color and consistency.
A loose or excessively firm stool or a stool containing blood also
indicates certain problems.
Blood work Panel
The next step in diagnosing the problem is usually an examination
of your pet’s blood. Sophisticated machines tell us so much
about the body. Even if the initial blood tests do not tell us what
the problem is specifically, they will usually tell us that the
problem is real. It is very unusual for a pet to have a completely
normal blood test when it has a serious disease that affects appetite
– particularly if the pet has not lost significant weight
(10% or more).
If your pet has lost significant weight due to decreased appetite
and the blood work comes back normal, the next step will be to x-ray
or ultrasound your pet’s abdomen. Some changes are quite obvious
and easily detected. However, many are subtle and not easily seen
by a veterinarian in general practice. So it is best if the films
or ultrasound image is performed or reviewed by a veterinarian specializing
in reading these images. The fact that your veterinary hospital
owns a machine is not enough.
Should I Get My Pet To Eat?
odor of food is extremely important to your pet. In most cases,
a little dressing of a premium canned pet food on your pet’s
dry kibble is all that it will take. Cats seem to become addicted
to fish-flavor, so I suggest that only turkey, chicken or beef-based
canned foods be used for this purpose. It does not take much. Adding
too much canned food simply begins another, problem – refusal
to eat dry food. Also, if you over do it, there will come a time
when your pet refuses the canned food as well.
Dogs that are picky eaters will sometimes eat better when their
food dish is placed in a new location. Sometimes, using a different
container will help. This probably has more to do with scent than
Often a pet is most interested in it’s food soon after it
is put down. So taking the food bowel up after a reasonable period
of time and replacing it later sometimes helps. However, there are
other pets that are periodic munchers whose total food intake is
much larger when the dish is always available. Only trial and error
will tell for your pet.
Some pets eat better in the morning or at night or when you come
home from work. Some eat more when undisturbed while others like
your company or the company of other pets when they are eating.
pets will eat more and gain weight when fed canned diets versus
dry food. This is because the odor of canned food is more attractive
to most of them and also because canned diets tend to be higher
in calories on a dry weight basis. However, I see many more pets
with obesity and dental problems when they are fed canned diets.
you are already feeding a canned diet, and are dissatisfied with
your pet’s appetite or weight, try a different brand. Never
make the change abruptly - do it gradually over a week. There are
too many brands for me to make specific suggestions other than to
say that you are always safer feeding a product produced by a large,
national pet food company. These are the only companies with the
resources for stringent quality control and with sufficient feedback
from pet owners for them to recognize a problem when it does occur.
There is no problem with homemade diets if they are nutritionally
balanced. That is not an easy task – but it can be done.
Dogs and cats will often have more appetite after periods of activity.
This can be play with a toy, fetching a ball, a walk in the park,
or a simple trip in the car. Nothing too strenuous.
Pets that have been neutered tend to gain weight. In most cases,
this is a problem. However, if your pet is underweight, this can
be a benefit.
Growing pets need much more food for their size than adult pets.
So the effects of not eating are much greater on them and occur
sooner. Also, puppies and kittens that are nutritionally deprived
either by lack of appetite or starvation may never reach their full
body-size potential. They may also develop soft teeth, floppy ears
and bowed legs that can never be corrected. So take these youngsters
to the veterinarian the moment you notice that their appetite has
lessened. It is normal for a puppy or kitten’s appetite to
gradually reduce once the majority of its growth has occurred. Try
not to mistake this for a problem.
How To Care For A Pet That Won’t Eat
a pet is ill and cannot or will not eat, you need to do all you
can to supply it with nutrients. This is because nutrients are essential
for healing. Sometimes, encouragement and feeding the pet canned
food from your hand is all that is needed. It is better to use a
nutritionally balanced canned dog or cat food rather than boiled
chicken or beef. Try a premium or gourmet brand. There is absolutely
no problem in offering cat brands to dogs and cat diets are often
preferred by dogs. The reverse is not the case – some dog
foods are not be nutritionally adequate for long term use in cats.
Pets love to be pampered in this way, so do not continue the practice
longer than necessary.
your pet cant or wont eat when offered food in this way, it will
need to be fed
a liquid or liquefied diet through a syringe or turkey baster. Various
liquid and semi-liquid diets are available through your veterinarian.
High-caloric pastes and gels are available at pet supply stores.
You can prepare these foods just as well at home if you have the
time. The food needs to be blended in a blender until it is fine
enough to pass through the plastic tip of a standard syringe. This
means that the size of the particles in the mixture must be smaller
than 3/32 inch. I often enlarge the orifice in the syringe tip with
a 1/8 inch drill bit so the food particles pass easily. I generally
place equal volumes of cooked rice and chicken in a standard electrical
blender. I add sufficient water to give a final consistency of heavy
cream. Before blending, I add a whole tube of high-caloric paste
to the mix (Energel, Nutrical, etc.). This paste is
sold for dogs and cats at pet super centers. If long-term use in
anticipated, I add a calcium source and a pet vitamin. Under no
circumstance should you force feed your pet if there is a possibility
that you may be bitten – even accidentally.
Your Veterinarian Can Do
A visit to your veterinarian is the best way to determine if your
pet’s lack of appetite is a serious or minor problem. If the
exam and tests determine that the problem is minor, trying some
of the things I suggested should help. If an underlying disease
is detected, hopefully it can be cured with proper care and medicine.
to Stimulate Appetite
If your pet has lost substantial weight, your veterinarian may try
to stimulate it’s appetite.
Some of the appetite stimulant medications I mention are prone to side effects - particularly when the pet's liver or kidney function is compromised. Many veterinarians believe that Remeron (mertazepine) and ciprohepatadine have the least potential for generating worrisome side effects - as long as their dose is adjusted downward when illness prevents their normal metabolism and excretion. (ref1, ref2)
A relatively mild antihistamine, cyproheptadine (Periactin),
has been found to stimulate appetite in many pets. Diazepam (Valium) also has an appetite stimulating effect and can
be given for that effect for short periods.
A human antidepressant, mirtazapine (Remeron) can
also be a strong appetite stimulant in pets. Megesterol (Megace)
is a powerful appetite stimulant in pets. However, it has other
undesirable effects including elevating blood sugar to unhealthy
levels. I only suggest it when other medications fail.
Stanozolol (Winsterol-V), an anabolic steroid, has
powerful appetite-stimulating and weight-gaining properties. Many
veterinarians hesitate to prescribe this medication long-term because
of the fear that the medicine will be diverted to humans. Also,
federal control on dispensing this medication to pets is severe
due to the same concerns. The medication can sometimes cause male
traits to a appear in female pets – similar to its effects
on female athletes – particularly when it is given at high
doses for long periods.
In an animal hospital setting, delivering food via a tube is the
most efficient way to feed your pet. It is also the least stressful
way because even healthy pets often refuse to eat when hospitalized
or kenneled. A small tube can be inserted up the nose or directly
into the stomach through a small incision. Feeding in this way is
The Hazard of Waiting Too Long With Cats
an animal stops eating, its body relies on mobilizing fat reserves
through the liver to provide needed calories. However, cats have
evolved to not have this ability well developed. When a cat eats
less than about half of what it normally does for a two week period,
it may develop hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease). This can
be fatal. So many veterinarians suggest supplemental feeding early
enough to avoid this problem. Another disadvantage cats have over
dogs is that their daily protein needs are higher. So while a dog
can live off of its stored fat for a considerable period of time,
a cat has more trouble subsisting on fat calories alone –
particularly when it is ill.
Pets are sometimes put on prescription diets because of a particular
medical problem. Most pets accept these new diets – particularly
if they are changed from their old diet gradually. But other pets
never accept the new diet. When it has been suggested that your
pet eat a prescription diet, I suggest you purchase only a few cans
or a small bag first to see if the pet will eat it. If not, try
a different brand or a different style of the same brand. But under
no circumstances, force your pet to eat it to the point where it
looses significant weight. The only exception is a diet formulated
for weight loss. In some cases, the only prescription diet a pet
will accept is one prepared at home by the owner.