How I Deal With 'Unhungry' Pets

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: August 17, 2015
Published: March 31, 2010
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It’s not always obvious how to deal with pets that aren’t hungry. Do you let them skip a meal a la naturale, or do you intervene with fancy fare designed to pique the palate?

Lest you be confused, let me be clear: In this case I’m definitely not talking about the normal-weight dog who turns his nose up at his kibble whenever it’s clear that something more culinarily appealing is in the works on the stovetop. But it’s not always so obvious: Is he truly feeling punky today, or is the doggy-specific fare just not cutting it compared to the good stuff on the countertop?

It’s especially frustrating for owners of naturally picky pets. After all, it’s these tough-to-please pets that strum their owners’ last raw nerves with the recurrent stressful question: Is she feeling poorly or is it just her nature? Is she just a low food drive kind of animal whose trim frame is perfectly informed by her occasionally upturned nose? Or, is she a chronically ill animal who requires special testing to determine whether her gastrointestinal makeup is constantly or episodically awry?

Not to hijack this blog post, but let me reiterate: This entry is not about the owner of the fat pet who agonizes unnecessarily about his pet’s intermittently poor appetite. Nor is it about the one who claims her obese cat won’t eat unless she’s fed by hand. These are essentially human maladies for which there are no easy answers. Rather, the issues to which I refer deal more strictly with the true sickies I see.

OK, so now that we’ve acknowledged that there are individual animal issues (the picky ones), and individual human issues (the crazy ones), we can move on to the solution: how to know whether you need to worry about your occasionally anorectic (I-don’t-want-to-eat-today) pet or not — for which there are a couple of rules of thumb:

1. Cats should never skip a day. If they do, it’s enough of a reason to see the vet. Period. Their metabolism is such that any lapse in appetite — especially in fat cats — not only signals a likely illness, but may potentially lead to a more serious health consequence, in and of itself (reference fatty liver disease, for one).

2. Vomiting or diarrhea, tummy grumbling (aka borborygmus), or other gastrointestinal (GI) signs are important signs. Cat or dog, if they’ve got these symptoms it usually means your pet is feeling poorly and needs a vet-see. Obvious signs are sometimes a God-send in these cases, since now you know you need to take action.

OK, so now that you know you’ve got a poorly beast or a potential sickie, the next step is either agreeing to a vet visit (for cats, or if the symptoms are pronounced enough), or taking it easy and waiting it out with the most counterintuitive approach you can try: withholding food altogether.

I know it sounds all wrong, but that’s often the best thing you can do. For simple GI maladies, a nice, relaxing gut break is all you may need — for dogs, anyway. They can go for days without food and still recover beautifully, as if nothing ever happened. Unfortunately, cats require more cautious attention. A day or more is NOT cool. Which may mean force-feedings are in order.

For starters, I try to diagnose my patients to the best of my ability. Whether one eludes me or not, I typically treat all of my validly anorectic (non-eating) pets with anti-emetics (anti-nausea drugs) to ensure that I have a minimum of throwuppy-ness on board. Then I feed them anything I think they might like: sliced turkey, canned tuna, crumbled sausage, fresh ground beef...

If that’s a no-go, I’ll search harder on my dogs and force-feed my cats. Alternatively, I’ll place a naso-gastric (up the nose) or esophageal tube (surgically implanted in the neck) into my feline patients to ensure I get some calories into them. But that’s not always a recipe for success. Vomiting sometimes ensues. Which leaves me right back where I started: What the heck is wrong??

In case it’s not already apparent, this is a necessarily uncomfortable and stressful endeavor. Lots of trial and error. Lots of trying hard NOT to feed my patients their favorite foods so they won’t develop an abhorrence for their once-favored foods (if you’ve ever had too much tequila you’ll know what I mean). Lots of holding my clients’ hands and working hard to see what’ll elicit a positive response. And lots of hoping things will all work out.

And usually they do. Because animal appetites being what they normally are, my patients typically respond to our ministrations. Still, I get it. Watching your pet walk away from her food bowl has got to be a demoralizing proposition. But then, I get kind of funny when anyone rejects my fare. What can I say? Like all good home cooks, I’m kinda sensitive on that subject.


Dr. Patty Khuly

Image: fastfun23 / Shutterstock

Last reviewed on August 17, 2015