Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Hunger Games

Eating is a good marker of health, so when dogs eat less, it can be worrying to owners

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

My dog Harper has always had a good appetite, so when she stopped wanting to eat her evening meal a couple of months ago, I was worried.

Appetite loss can signal many different ailments: poor dental health, kidney disease and cancer, to name a few. Sometimes it’s a result of age-related physiological changes, such as a slower metabolism or reduced sense of smell. It can also be weather-related: Some animals eat less when it’s hot.

I took Harper to her veterinarian for a checkup. She had her teeth cleaned in November, so I didn’t think it was a painful mouth. He examined her and ran some blood work. She was fine.

Friends weighed in with their experiences. It’s not uncommon for older dogs -- Harper is 12 -- to begin eating less.

Maryna Ozuna’s elderly shiba eats only about half of what she used to take in, but her weight stays constant. Dee Green says her senior dogs typically prefer only one meal a day.

With the shelter-in-place order, Harper’s activity level is reduced. She’s not going to nosework class anymore or to Laguna Beach for outings. “If her exercise has diminished, she may not be as hungry,” says Debbie Horwitz, DVM.

She could be bored. Nosework on Friday nights has been the highlight of her week for six years now. We practice at home, but it’s not the same as getting out and going somewhere. High temperatures haven’t set in yet here in California, so I don’t think it’s the weather.

Green, a trainer, says dogs refusing to eat is a common complaint she hears from clients. After health problems are ruled out by a veterinarian, she recommends feeding dogs from puzzle toys instead of dishes. “Provide a wide variety to minimize boredom.” That trick works for fellow cavalier owner Lynn Williams, who hides 6-year-old Poppy’s food around the house for her to sniff out.

When health is an issue, an appetite stimulant combined with something stinky, such as canned tripe, can help. That’s what worked for Annie, Cindy Siddon’s 16-year-old lurcher with kidney disease. Other senior dogs respond to a little canned food or homemade chicken broth mixed with their kibble. Warming food for about five seconds in the microwave, then stirring before serving, can enhance aroma.

Call the manufacturer and ask if a food’s ingredients have changed. That can put dogs off their feed.

Certain medications may cause nausea or appetite loss. If your dog is on medication and her eating pattern changes, tell your veterinarian right away.

I tried several things with Harper: offering different proteins, tossing kibble on the floor for her to find, switching to a plate from a bowl, feeding her in a separate room and offering kibble by hand. She loved that. I didn’t want it to become a habit, though, and Dr. Horwitz, a behavior specialist, agrees.

“Once you start hand-feeding, that’s a hard thing to stop,” she says. “If she’s healthy and not losing weight, I don’t know that I would make a big deal about it.”

When we try different things to get them to eat, she says, dogs may find this new behavior interesting and wait to see what else we might offer. While that can be entertaining for our dogs, it’s frustrating for us. Better to simply put food down, give a set amount of time for the dog to eat it, and take it up again if they don’t want it. As long as your dog has a clean bill of health from the veterinarian and isn’t losing weight, try adjusting to the new eating schedule.

Harper now eats her main meal in the morning. I offer food in the evening, but if she doesn’t want it, I don’t push. We’re both happier.

Next week, Dr. Becker will address finicky felines and why feeding them requires more finesse.

Q&A

Private cat room

good solution

Q: We have three cats. The two younger ones are brothers and will turn 2 in a few months. One leaves our elderly cat alone, but his brother is always looking to pick a fight with her. She isn't a fighter, but she defends herself. He always loses, but that doesn't deter him.

To stop that behavior, we have put her in a room and keep the door closed. She has a window in there, as well as a cat tree. She also has her cat bed and some bins she can climb on.

She gets plenty of exercise. We put a hanging mesh screen in the doorway recently so she can get some airflow. We attached the bottom of it to the door frame with some tension bars and Velcro. That worked for a while, but then the brothers figured out how to get in. We’ve tried a lot of ways to secure it, but it’s still a work in progress. Our house is small, so we don't have a lot of options.

A: We’re impressed by the efforts you’ve made to keep your senior cat happy and safe. Giving her a private room seems like the best solution, as long as she gets daily human attention and interactive playtime. She may be perfectly happy with the way things are now. It’s better for her than always having to worry about being bullied by the younger male.

Can you replace the door with a screen door? That way, you could close it while still providing her with airflow and preventing the other two cats from invading.

There are ways to work with cats to help improve their relationships, but it can take a long time with no guarantee of success. This may be your best option. -- Mikkel Becker, Lead Animal Trainer, Fear Free Pets

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Guidelines protect

pets and people

-- If you or a family member develops COVID-19 and must have someone else care for your pets, help everyone stay healthy with the following guidelines developed by the American Veterinary Medical Association in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the shelter medicine community. Key recommendations: People entering the home should wear masks, gloves and other protective wear, including foot coverings; bathing pets isn’t necessary; animals exposed to people with the virus should be housed separately from other animals in the home; dogs may be walked outdoors for exercise and elimination but should avoid direct contact with other animals; close contact with humans should be limited. Pets do not spread the virus, but they can acquire it from humans. The guidelines help ensure their protection as well as that of healthy people caring for them.

-- The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is launching a $5 million initiative to help provide pet food to vulnerable pet owners and support animal welfare organizations that may be struggling financially. Some shelters are remaining open during the pandemic but have instituted safety practices to limit virus exposure, such as requiring appointments to bring in or view animals for adoption, drive-up fostering and adoptions, and online training. If you’re in a position to help, contact your local shelter to find out its needs.

-- Pets show stress in many different ways. Yawning, showing the whites of their eyes (nicknamed whale eye), excessive licking or grooming, sudden hair loss (like when your pet is at the vet and is shedding hair like crazy), increased barking or whining, trembling, pacing, suddenly starting to hide, eating less and breaking housetraining can all be signs that pets are anxious. You can learn more about recognizing, preventing and managing pet stress at fearfreehappyhomes.com. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.