A couple of weeks ago TheOldBroad asked for more information about a statement that appeared in my post on the importance of food intake in the face of illness.
The statement was, "some studies have shown that force feeding sick animals can actually increase their mortality rate," which I based on the following (all the references are noted at the end of this post):
Further, in experimental studies in mice,22 force feeding diseased animals resulted in higher number of deaths, consistent with results of the previous study.8
(Ollivett et al, 2012)
So while none of these papers directly studied whether force feeding cats results in higher mortality rates, I do believe that the preponderance of evidence supports this assertion.
I base my opinion on the studies mentioned above as well as research into the deleterious effects of other types of stress in cats. A paper that was published in the January 1, 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) is a good example.
Stress by itself was enough to make otherwise healthy cats have poor appetites, as well as vomit, bring up hairballs, urinate or defecate outside of the litter box, urinate or defecate less frequently than normal, be lethargic and less active, and avoid social interactions. These symptoms of illness all disappeared when the cats’ stress levels returned to normal.
During the study period, the cats were stressed by periods of cold temperatures, altered schedules, changes in who took care of them or where they lived, removing or rearranging furnishings or toys from their environment, loud noises, an absence of hiding spots or perches, and abrupt changes in diet. I’d argue that being forcibly restrained and having food squirted into your mouth when you don’t feel well is at least as stressful as what the cats in the JAVMA study experienced.
This is not to say that I’ll never force feed a cat. Kittens seem less averse to the procedure than do adult cats, so I’m more willing to syringe feed youngsters. Also, some adult cats are just exceptionally laid back. I’ll often try force feeding a patient for 24 hours or so. If I feel we can get adequate amounts of food in without unduly stressing the cat, we’ll continue. But if the process puts the cat’s health at risk (or the person doing the feeding), it’s time to move on to another option.
The best alternative is to get the cat eating voluntarily. This can sometimes be accomplished through better control of a cat’s symptoms (e.g., pain relief), enhancing the palatability of the food that is offered (e.g., a change in brands, warming it slightly, or adding a little tuna juice), and/or prescribing a medication that stimulates the appetite.
If these interventions fail to get a cat to eat, I resort to tube feeding. For short term issues, a nasogastric tube (through the nose and into the stomach) is usually adequate and can be inserted using just a topical anesthetic and/or light sedation. When I suspect that long-term nutritional support will be necessary, I recommend a more permanent feeding tube placed into the cat’s pharynx, esophagus, stomach, or small intestine.
While force feeding cats via syringe is often not a good idea, assisted feeding via the other options described here is very often a life saver.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Effect of nutritional plane on health and performance in dairy calves after& experimental infection with Cryptosporidium parvum. Ollivett TL, Nydam DV, Linden TC, Bowman DD, Van Amburgh ME. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2012 Dec 1;241(11):1514-20.
8. Quigley JD, Wolfe TA, Elsasser TH. Effects of additional milk replacer feeding on calf health, growth, and selected blood metabolites in calves. J Dairy Sci 2006;89:207–216.
22. Johnson RW. Immune and endocrine regulation of food intake in sick animals. Domest Anim Endocrinol 1998;15:309–319.
Sickness behaviors in response to unusual external events in healthy cats and cats with feline interstitial cystitis. Stella JL, Lord LK, Buffington CA. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2011 Jan 1;238(1):67-73.