Encourage Food Intake Even in the Face of Illness

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Dec. 28, 2012

I’d be willing to bet that most of you who read this blog do not own Holstein bull calves. Neither do I, but one of the joys (and challenges) of being a veterinarian is the fact that we get to deal with multiple species of animals. While I don’t expect I’ll ever treat a calf again (it’s been 13 years, so my skills would be pretty rusty!), I still keep my eyes open for new information that relates to species outside the range of my expertise.

Studies of large animals are interesting, but often irrelevant to my day-to-day practice. Sometimes though, I’ll run across research in one species that I think is pertinent to most animals and probably to people as well. I came across one of these papers just a few days ago.

Veterinarians and other scientists at Cornell University looked into whether calves that were fed at a 30% higher plain of nutrition were more resistant to the effects of an intestinal parasite called Cryptosporidium parvum in comparison to calves that were fed in a conventional manner. They found that "after a pathogen challenge, calves maintained hydration, had faster resolution of diarrhea, grew faster, and converted feed with greater efficiency when fed a higher plane of nutrition."

The primary purpose of this study was to provide evidence that spending a little more money improving the diets of newborn calves pays off in the long run. Thinking more globally, however, I think this research points to the importance of good nutrition when it comes to fighting off disease. Every one of us, animal or human, requires the nutrients found in healthy foods to mount an effective immune response.

We need to eat well before we are sick so we have ample reserves, but we should also continue to eat, whenever possible, through all but the shortest of illnesses. According to one paper, "The presence or development of malnutrition during critical illness has been unequivocally associated with increased morbidity and mortality in people. Recognition that malnutrition may similarly affect veterinary patients emphasizes the need to properly address the nutritional requirements of hospitalized dogs and cats."

In most cases, I don’t recommend force-feeding pets that are completely uninterested in food (some studies have shown that force feeding sick animals can actually increase their mortality rate), but I do strongly encourage clients to prepare a home-cooked diet for their sick cats (bring it into the veterinary hospital if you have to). Something as simple canned tuna mixed with hard-boiled egg can encourage the intake of a little food and speed recovery and a return to a balanced diet.

If a cat’s appetite is not sufficient to bring in the needed calories and nutrients after several days, I generally try to convince owners to let me place a feeding tube. These simple but under-utilized tools can be life-savers.

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

Image: eyeing the hand that feeds her by aus36 / via Flickr

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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