When pets won’t eat: How to decide if they need to see the vet
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
When pets won’t eat, they’re described as anorexic -- not in the same way as humans, where the word describes an eating disorder that has a psychological component, but rather, as a refusal to eat. Pets with what’s called true anorexia have no interest in eating, while those with pseudo-anorexia are hungry but may not want to eat because of pain associated with picking up, chewing or swallowing food, or because they don’t feel well for some other reason. And some pets are just picky about what they choose to eat, having specific preferences about proteins, flavors, textures and even food bowl sizes and shapes.
Last year I wrote about my dog Harper’s unusual lack of appetite. (Read it here: uexpress.com/pets/pet-connection/2020/05/18.) At the time, Harper was in good health, so I decided not to let it bother me if she missed a meal every once in a while. But five months later, she was diagnosed with cancer, and it became much more important for her to eat regularly and take in an adequate amount of food.
That was easier said than done, though. During her most recent bout of refusing to eat, I offered her roast chicken and poached eggs. I hand-fed her. I warmed her food. I provided a buffet of three different diets so she could choose from them or go back and forth among them. I started her on an appetite stimulant.
Harper is back to eating reasonably well, although not with the gusto of youth. It raised the question, though: When should a pet who’s not eating be seen by their veterinarian?
Dogs and cats are individuals, so in most cases, the answer is, “It depends,” says Lindsey Bullen, DVM, a veterinary nutrition specialist who practices at Blue Pearl in North Carolina.
Anorexia and pickiness aren’t normal, but they can have a number of causes. In a new puppy, pickiness could be a sign of disease, or it could be related to the stress of being in a new home and away from mom and littermates. In older dogs like Harper, it may mean that they don’t feel well. Knowing your animal’s normal eating habits is key.
Dr. Bullen’s first dog, Gus, was a chowhound. “He would peel out every day to come eat his food and knock over anyone in his path,” she says. For the eight years she’d had him, Gus had never missed a meal. The day he refused dinner, Bullen took him straight to the emergency room. As it turned out, his spleen had ruptured and, understandably, Gus didn’t feel good.
Bullen’s current dog, Heidi, was picky when they adopted her four years ago. She also has a diet-responsive disease. “When she doesn’t feel well, that impacts her pickiness,” Bullen says. “So for her, when she has a picky phase, I’m a little less concerned about it because it is not uncommon for her.”
Like Gus, Bullen’s cats normally have a great appetite. For the same reason she took Gus in, if one of them misses a meal, she takes them to their veterinarian immediately.
Factors to consider are how long you’ve had your pet, the relationship you have with them, and what is normal for them. As we’ve learned with Harper, age and health status play a role, too. Senior pets may have appetite loss related to a reduced sense of smell. Pets with acute or chronic illness may have no other way to indicate that they’re not feeling well.
“My rule of thumb for any pet parent out there is if there is any change to the eating behavior or pattern or if that pickiness or anorexia is getting worse over time -- especially if it lasts more than 24 hours -- it is not wrong to call your veterinarian,” Bullen says. “The longer they go without eating, the more negative they get in terms of their nutrient imbalances and deficiencies, and the harder it can be sometimes to bounce back if there’s a problem.”
How to manage
Q: My male cat has bladder stones, and the vet is recommending a special diet. It’s expensive! Is there some natural way to treat or prevent the stones?
A: Some conditions and diseases in pets are best managed through diet, and one of them is bladder stones. Peer-reviewed studies have shown the benefit of veterinary therapeutic diets for dissolving these stones.
Urinary stones are seen in 10% to 20% of cats with lower urinary tract disease. In male cats, stones can block the urethra -- the tube that carries urine out of the body. That’s a serious medical emergency! Cats unable to urinate can die within 72 hours if the blockage isn’t relieved.
Changing a cat’s diet helps in several ways. Switching to canned food, which is approximately 70% water, helps the cat take in more fluid. And some diets are formulated to produce acidic urine, which is more likely to dissolve struvite stones. Therapeutic diets also tend to be higher in sodium, encouraging the cat to drink more water. That, in turn, dilutes the urine, making it less likely that crystals will form into stones.
Using diet to dissolve stones is less invasive than surgery -- the other option for stone removal -- but the drawback is that it can take several months to work. Be patient, and don’t undermine it by giving your cat other types of food or treats.
To help the food do its work, scoop the litter box at least a couple of times a day so your cat will want to use it, and make sure he always has plenty of fresh water. Consider getting a pet fountain to increase his interest in drinking more often; lots of cats prefer running water.
Catching this problem early and treating it effectively with an appropriate diet is the best way to prevent it from becoming worse. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
-- As Thanksgiving approaches, some residents in Amarillo, Texas, can look forward to monthly pet food deliveries from volunteers, thanks to a partnership between Meals on Wheels of Amarillo and the newly established Texas Tech University School of Veterinary Medicine. The program, Animeals, which is also available in other parts of the country, will not only help people feed their dogs and cats, but may in the future deliver veterinary services, too, as the veterinary students progress in their studies.
-- Four dogs are in the running for Nationwide’s 13th annual Hambone Award, which recognizes the most unusual pet health insurance claim. German shepherd Bruin from Stevenson Ranch, California, fell off a cliff; mixed-breed Griffin from Chicago swallowed a full-length bamboo skewer; yellow Lab-golden retriever mix Sherlotte from Andover, Massachusetts, survived being submerged in a sinkhole; and miniature schnauzer Sophie from Kissimmee, Florida, was catapulted out of a golf cart. All of the nominated pets have made full recoveries. The winner receives the Hambone Award trophy and other gifts, and the veterinary practice that treated the winner receives a $10,000 award funded by Nationwide through the Veterinary Care Foundation, a charity that helps veterinary practices provide medical care for pets whose owners can’t afford treatment. See photos and detailed stories of the nominees and winner at HamboneAward.com.
-- Cat got hairballs? They’re not necessarily normal. Usually the barfed-up balls of fur are harmless -- although no fun to step on in bare feet -- but sometimes a hairball, or what looks like one, can signal a serious problem, especially if they occur frequently, contain blood or large amounts of digested or undigested food, or are slimed with large amounts of mucus. To help prevent them, groom your cat frequently. Learn more about trichobezoars -- the scientific name for hairballs -- at fearfreehappyhomes.com/hairballs. -- 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.