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What To Do When Your Dog or Cat Won’t Eat

Lots of my articles are plagiarized and altered on the web to market products and services. There are never ads running or anything for sale with my real articles - other than my time. 

Anorexia 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.

Many 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.

What Are Some Of The Reasons that Pets Don't Eat Normally?

Minor Reasons:

Your 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 dog’s diet.

The 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.

Major Reasons:

The 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.

If 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.

Dental Problems
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.

A Stool Specimen
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 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.

A 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).

X-rays and Ultrasound
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.

How Should I Get My Pet To Eat?

The 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 vision.

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.

Time of Day
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.

Change Food Brands

Most 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.

If 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.

Puppies and Kittens
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

When 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.

If 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.

What 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. 

Medications to Stimulate Appetite
If your pet has lost substantial weight, your veterinarian may try to stimulate it’s appetite. 
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. 

Feeding Tubes
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 not painful. 

The Hazard of Waiting Too Long With Cats

When 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. 

Prescription Diets
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.
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