7 Food Tips to Help Sick Pets

By PetMD Editorial on Aug. 1, 2016
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7 Food Tips to Help Sick Pets


By Carol McCarthy


Animals, like people, can experience days when they feel “under the weather” without being acutely ill. When that happens, you can help soothe your four-legged friends’ symptoms at home in part by making wise food choices, in consultation with your vet. 


If your pet is suddenly turning up her nose at her food bowl, that often means she doesn’t feel well. Whether it is an upset stomach, diarrhea or a respiratory infection, some simple steps can go a long way to putting your pet back on the path to wellness.

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Know When to Take a Break

If your cat or dog is vomiting, consider withholding food for a short period of time. Dr. Cathy Lund, owner of City Kitty, a feline-only veterinary practice in Providence, Rhode Island, advises giving your cat’s digestive system a rest for 12 hours. A dog with a roiling stomach might need a break from eating for 12-24 hours, Dr. Neil Marrinan of the Old Lyme Veterinary Hospital in Old Lyme, Connecticut says. After the break period, you can try slowly reintroducing a bland diet of boiled chicken and rice, or small amounts of your dog or cat’s regular food. If the problem persists, seek veterinary care. 

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Make It Appealing

If your pet hasn’t eaten for 24 hours, try to make her meal as appealing as possible. Tempt her with special treats in a size or texture (large or square, for example) that she might find unique and enticing. For cats, a whiff of some tasty human food, such as tuna, might be enough to get her appetite back, says Lund. If your pup won’t eat, Marrinan suggests topping your dog’s kibble with hot water or broth to pique your dog’s interest. 

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Make It Stinky

Cats who can be prone to respiratory infections may have nasal congestion, which makes it difficult to smell their food. Enhancing the food’s pungency can stimulate the appetite. “The more stinky it is, the more cats like it,” says Lund. You can microwave the food for a few seconds to boost aromas or add a dab of anchovy paste. While dogs are not as prone to upper respiratory infections as cats, warming up your pup’s food to enhance its aromas might also entice him to eat, Marrinan says. 

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Baby Food for Your ‘Baby’

Both Lund and Marrinan explain that human baby food, found in the small jars on your grocery store shelves, is an easily digestible choice for a cat or dog with tummy trouble. Just be careful to avoid ones that include onions, which can cause damage to red blood cells.


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Pumpkin and Sweet Potato Power

Minor digestive upset such as diarrhea occasional vomiting and constipation is not uncommon in dogs, and can be addressed by mixing pumpkin or cooked sweet potatoes into your dog’s food, says Marrinan. He suggests a large spoonful for big dogs and no more than a teaspoon for very small ones.


Pumpkin and sweet potato are packed with vitamins and fiber that support your dog’s gastrointestinal system. The fiber keeps the digestive system regular and can help get it back on track after a bout of either diarrhea or constipation, Marrinan says. These vegetables are also good sources of iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc and antioxidants. If your dog’s vomiting, diarrhea or constipation does not clear up after 24 hours, you should seek veterinary treatment.

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Go Bland

Sometimes bland food is best for a pet with an upset stomach, and rice can be a good choice for dogs and cats. “Rice is a very digestible carbohydrate, and can be given for stomach upset and diarrhea,” Marrinan says. “Rice powder and oatmeal are nutritious and can help restore water balance within the GI tract.” However, Marrinan notes that home cooking should not supply your cat or dog’s main diet because it could be deficient in some of the nutrients your pet needs.

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Keep Portions Under Control

Obesity is a common problem for dogs and a major risk factor for certain diseases—including some types of cancer. Feeding your dog a healthy diet every day and controlling portion sizes can help your dog avoid illness down the road. “If you prevent obesity or feed to get your dog back to a healthy weight, you can reduce your pet’s risk of cancer and other diseases,” Marrinan notes.

The obesity and cancer link is less clear for cats. “[Cats] do risk diabetes and liver disease when they are overweight,” says Marrinan. “Feeding at mealtime, with an empty bowl most of the day, can help them maintain a healthy weight.” Most adult cats can do well when offered 2-5 small meals throughout the day.

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Talk to Your Vet

A loss of appetite or stomach upset might be a passing annoyance, but pet parents should always consult their veterinarians before mild symptoms have a chance to worsen. And digestive problems in both cats and dogs can have an underlying medical cause, such as pancreatitis or cancer. “It’s never wrong to call and get an opinion on what might be happening,” Lund says.