In the veterinary world, this is referred to as anorexia. We’re all familiar with the human version of anorexia, which is classified as an eating disorder with a mental and psychological component. However, anorexia in pets is quite different. Rather than being a disease in itself, anorexia in pets is a clinical sign of something more going on, and there are multiple reasons why it can occur.
Regardless of the cause, any pet who stops eating needs to be responded to quickly. Unlike humans, who are able to go several days without food before experiencing negative physical effects, some animals who go without food for as little as 24 hours can suffer serious consequences. Cats in particular can become very ill, very quickly. This is due to dehydration (which strains the kidneys) and the fact that their bodies cannot utilize stored fat for energy very well. Cats who stop eating are in real danger of developing a potentially fatal condition called “hepatic lipidosis”, where fat begins to accumulate in the liver, causing it to fail.
So what would cause a pet to stop eating?
Causes Of Anorexia In Pets
There are 2 types of anorexia in pets: “pseudo-anorexia” (where the pet is hungry and wants to eat, but can’t due to difficulty chewing or swallowing food) and “true anorexia” (where the pet has absolutely no interest in food).
Potential causes of pseudo-anorexia include:
- Chronic pain anywhere in the body that interferes with the act of eating (i.e. back, neck, hip, or joint pain).
- Stomatitis or Esophagitis (inflammation of tissues in the mouth or throat).
- Advanced tooth or gum disease, including loose or abscessed teeth.
- TMJ (pain in the temporomandibular joint of the jaw).
- Tumors of the mouth, tongue, tonsils, or throat.
- Nervous system diseases that affect chewing and swallowing.
Possible causes for true anorexia include:
- Illness of any type, including cancer, organ disease, bacterial infections, advanced diabetes, hyperthyroidism, immune disorders, conjunctivitis, asthma, and fever.
- Food allergy or food intolerance.
- Gastrointestinal blockage.
- Stomach or intestinal ulcers.
- Exposure to poison.
- Psychological causes, including stress, changes in environment (such as a new baby, houseguests, or moving), altered routine, or depression resulting from the loss of another pet or person.
- Weather changes (hot, humid weather can decrease appetite).
- Sudden change in diet (can cause GI upset, or the pet may not like the new food).
- Inability to smell (scent is an important component of appetite).
- Medication side effects.
- Spoiled appetite (usually from overfeeding or giving too many treats between meals).
- “Picky Eater Syndrome”
Diagnosing The Cause
Identifying the reason for appetite loss is the most important component of caring for an anorexic pet. Without discovering the underlying issue, any treatment options will only be successful for a short period of time, if at all.
If your pet is not eating, your veterinarian will start with a physical exam, paying close attention to your pet’s mouth, teeth, nose, lymph nodes, and GI tract. Based on the findings of the exam, diagnostic testing can be performed to rule out medical causes of the anorexia. These tests may include:
- X-rays or ultrasound of the chest and abdomen
- Endoscopy, if warranted (using an endoscope with a camera on the end to look inside your pet’s esophagus, stomach, intestines, and/or abdominal cavity)
Your veterinarian will also obtain a thorough medical history on your pet, including any recent changes in environment, diet, routine, and behavior. Once the underlying cause is identified, your vet can then recommend a course of treatment.
Treating Anorexia In Pets
Treatment will depend entirely on the diagnosis. If the cause is due to a medical condition, the condition must be treated first – then additional treatment will focus on managing symptoms (such as the loss of appetite). If the cause is stress-related or psychological, your veterinarian can make recommendations to address those issues.
There are some things you can try at home to help perk up your pet’s appetite or make mealtime more attractive. Some of these suggestions will be trial-and-error, depending on the personal preference of your pet. Be sure to discuss this list with your veterinarian before you implement any of these suggestions, in case they are contraindicated with your pet’s medical treatment.
- If your pet usually eats dry food, add a small amount of high-quality canned food or low-sodium chicken broth to his diet to add moisture and flavor. You can also top the food with a mixture of boiled chicken and rice.
- Warm the food. Not only do most animals prefer their food warm, but heating food makes it smell more aromatic, which helps stimulate appetite.
- Try a different type or brand of food to see if your pet finds it more palatable. Remember to transition slowly (over a week) from the old food to the new food to avoid diarrhea and stomach upset.
- Try using a different bowl to feed your pet. Some pets prefer larger, shallow bowls over narrow ones, or plates instead of bowls. Other pets like elevated feeding dishes because it makes it easier for them to eat. Try some options and see what your pet likes best.
- Consider changing the location of your pet’s bowl to a quieter area of your home.
- Since pets are most interested in food when it’s first set down, try giving your pet a reasonable amount of time to eat, then removing the bowl for awhile and trying again later. Cats in particular have a tendency to eat a little, walk away, and come back for more later.
- Speaking of cats, a tried-and-true veterinary trick for getting cats to eat is to offer them warm, chicken baby food (the human variety). Use straight chicken meat-only baby food (no rice or vegetables added), and make sure the brand contains NO onion powder or flavoring (onion is toxic to cats). I use Gerber’s Chicken and Chicken Gravy for my cats when they aren’t feeling well, and it’s worked every time.
If a pet’s anorexia is severe enough, your veterinarian may need to intervene. The pet may need to be hospitalized with IV fluids and force-fed, or in extremely severe cases, may need to have a feeding tube inserted through the nose and into the esophagus until he or she is able to eat on their own. Feeding tubes are the least stressful and most efficient way to feed a severely anorexic pet; they are not painful, and can be lifesaving. The veterinarian may also prescribe appetite stimulants such as Valium or mirtazapine.
One quick word about force-feeding at home. Although it can be done, it’s not always easy, and unfortunately since many pets do not like the procedure, they come to associate the food with a negative experience – which is exactly what you DON’T want. Also, if proper force-feeding techniques are not employed, you run the risk of being bitten (either accidentally or on purpose). If your pet simply will not eat at home and is not taking in any nutrients, brief hospitalization is your best bet to get them stabilized until they are ready to eat on their own again.
Any change in your pet’s appetite or eating behavior warrants investigation. Sometimes a decreased appetite can result from stress or changes in the environment, in which case you can try to perk up your pet’s appetite at home.
However, true anorexia is a serious condition that must be addressed quickly. Although there are techniques you can employ to try to encourage your pet to eat, the underlying issue must always be identified in order to successfully treat anorexia.
For many pets, the longer they go without eating, the less likely they will want to eat, and the greater the risk of developing potentially serious complications. If your pet hasn’t eaten in longer than 24 hours, get your veterinarian involved immediately.
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Have you ever had to treat an anorexic pet at home? If so, please tell us about it in the comments below!