A pet that loses its appetite should not be confused with a dog or cat that is normally a finicky or picky eater. Many pets may graze throughout the day, periodically skip meals, or turn their noses up at their regular food (particularly if they have been fed people food or something more tempting!). This does not necessarily indicate an underlying problem, particularly if the behavior is routine for the pet and is not accompanied by weight loss, signs of gastrointestinal (GI) upset such as diarrhea or vomiting, or other behavioral changes. Loss of appetite usually implies a change in a pet’s normal pattern of eating. It can range from mild loss of appetite to anorexia (eating no food at all). It is important to recognize loss of appetite in our pets as a sign of underlying illness or distress.
There are many potential causes of loss of appetite in a cat or dog. It is not symptom of a specific illness, but rather a general sign that something is wrong. Underlying causes can run the spectrum from relatively minor and self-limiting to more serious medical conditions requiring intervention. Some of the more minor underlying conditions may be transient such as a minor GI upset, pain or discomfort, or stress, and we may be able to support our pets through these causes as they resolve.
We can start by tempting our pets to eat and keeping them well hydrated. If a cat or dog normally eats a dry diet then trying a canned food or adding some canned food to the existing kibble may be helpful. Many pets will find a canned food more palatable, and warming the food may also make it more appealing. Similarly, adding some cooked boneless skinless chicken, lean ground beef (with the fat poured off), cooked egg, or low-sodium chicken broth to the food may make the regular diet more appetizing. However, in tempting a pet to eat, it is important that we do not cause more harm than good. Tempting a pet to eat is not a free license to feed anything and everything. Fatty foods, highly seasoned foods, or changing the food type too frequently may contribute to an underlying GI upset. New foods should be gradually added to a pet’s diet, and it is important to avoid any known allergens.
A couple of “off” days is generally not a big problem as long as the pet is staying hydrated. However, it is not long before nutritional support becomes essential if the poor appetite persists. This support keeps the pet stable while a diagnosis is being worked out, and helps provide adequate nutrition which is essential for recovery. If unrecognized or left untreated, malnourishment can lead to further debilitation. This is particularly true for cats in which poor appetite can lead to the need for fat stores in the body to be used for energy. These fat stores are processed through the liver, and if excessive, can lead to liver damage and a condition called Hepatic Lipidosis.
It is important that you contact your veterinarian if your pet experiences a loss of appetite lasting more than 24-48 hours or if they begin showing other signs of illness. Your veterinarian will want to initiate additional care and to begin evaluation of your pet for the underlying cause. Some additional tools that are available to veterinarians to provide nutritional support include appetite stimulating medications, syringe feedings, intravenous (IV) nutrition in the hospital, and placement of feeding tubes for extended at-home care. Feeding tubes may be temporary or more permanent and generally require sedation or anesthesia for placement. This can be a relatively minor procedure for some of the temporary feeding tube options, such as an esophagostomy tube, and provide the most efficient and least stressful way of providing nutrition and medications to your pet while they recover at home.
Loss of appetite is a common complaint among pet owners. Many times, thankfully, the cause may be self-limiting and transient. We can often support our pets through these episodes by tempting them to eat and offering bland easily digestible foods. However, loss of appetite that is persistent or accompanied by weight loss or other signs of illness should not be ignored. Loss of appetite may be an early sign of distress or a more serious underlying condition, and timely recognition and intervention before the pet has completely stopped eating ensures a better chance at recovery. Please contact your veterinarian if your pet has experienced a loss of appetite. They will advise you on options you have to support your pet at home or will advise you when they feel your pet may need further evaluation and supportive care at the clinic.