As we are in the midst of holiday season, it seems appropriate to discuss a topic that is likely to cause nightmares for any veterinarian states Nicole McCready, MDVM, at Camelwest Animal Hospital in Phoenix, AZ. Being presented with a cat who won’t eat frequently causes anxiety, and a feeling of urgency by veterinarians to correct the situation. The old thought of “If you wait long enough, they’ll eat” just isn’t the case with cats. They can and will starve themselves. To make matters worse, once a cat has stopped eating, it can be very difficult to get them eating again–even if you correct the initial cause!
When presented with a cat who won’t eat, there are two main goals your veterinarian is presented with:
1. Determine what’s going on and correct it if possible
2. Try to get calories and nutrition into the cat
Number 1 is a no brainer… Of course we have to find out why the cat isn’t eating. That’s why you brought him in, right? Your veterinarian has to be like a detective. Unfortunately your kitty can’t just tell us why it’s not eating. He doesn’t just walk in with a sign on his side that says “the rotten tooth in my mouth hurts” or “my kidneys aren’t working and I’m nauseated”.
There are many causes of a cat not eating, some obvious, and some not so apparent. It could be anything from a painful infected tooth, cancer, nausea from organ failure, endocrine or hormonal diseases, stress in the home, or even a change in the food that the cat doesn’t like. Your veterinarian may ask you quite a few questions about the household, including about the other pets that live there, people in the home, any food changes, any other symptoms such as vomiting, and how long the problem has been going on.
A complete physical examination of the cat will then be performed. Often the cause of the decrease in appetite can be discovered after a 20 minute consultation. The next step will be some diagnostics, often a blood workup, a urine analysis, and x-rays, to find out about organ functions and look for signs of cancer or other physical abnormalities.
While we are waiting–either for diagnostic results, or to do something about the problem (like scheduling dental work), we will focus on the second goal — Calories! It is critical that your cat gets food back into their system. When a cat goes without eating they start to utilize the fat and muscle stored in their body. This sounds like a good plan, except that cats have the peculiar issue of the fat clogging up their liver. This can cause a potentially fatal type of liver disease called Hepatic Lipidosis (any vets reading this just shuddered a little bit).
Hepatic Lipidosis is the worst kind of catch-22. It’s caused by severe anorexia, and makes the kitty feel worse, so they REALLY don’t want to eat. The most important aspect of treating the disease is to get food into the cat. Of course, this is going on in a cat who probably has some other disease that has already made them not want to eat!
Sometimes the kitty has to be force fed, your veterinarian may use appetite stimulants, or we may recommend a surgically implanted feeding tube. This may seem drastic, but getting adequate calories into your cat may make the difference between life and death. There are times an owner may think “But I got that tablespoon of food into her this morning…” or “She ate two bites of chicken…” but this is really not sufficient. Until you are able to get your cat to eat a whole chicken breast over the course of a day, you are not getting enough in (Note! DO NOT try to force a whole chicken breast into your cat– its likely to be unpleasant for both you and the cat. Follow the advice of your veterinarian regarding getting food into your cat, feeding amounts, and proper techniques).
An anorexic kitty may seem like a relatively minor issue, but as your veterinarian’s palms are becoming sweaty. If we’re recommending a list of diagnostics and force feeding, please realize your vet is just trying to prevent the snowball from rolling downhill any faster. If your cat stops eating, DON’T WAIT– take him to your vet! The sooner your kitty is seen, the more likely we can resolve the issue and get your cat eating again without any major interventions.
Nicole McCready, MDVM
Camelwest Animal Hospital
10045 W. Camelback Road #105
Phoenix, AZ 85037