A sustained loss of appetite (anorexia) is a clinical sign of many diverse feline health problems, ranging from diabetes, kidney disease, hepatic lipidosis, hyperthyroidism, and pancreatitis to conjunctivitis, asthma, and a fever. Food avoidance may also have its roots in a cat’s psyche: an animal may dislike a new food that is put before it, for example, or it may be upset if another animal moves into its home. “We’ve even seen cats who have lost their appetites after suffering the loss of a feline companion,” says Carolyn McDaniel, VMD, a lecturer in clinical sciences at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.. Whatever its cause, anorexia can have a severe impact on a mature cat’s health if it persists for as little as 24 hours. For a kitten younger than six weeks of age, food avoidance for just 12 hours can pose a lethal threat.
“Rather than being a disease entity in itself, anorexia is a very broad clinical sign,” notes Dr. McDaniel. The veterinarian’s challenge, therefore, is not only to treat the anorexia directly but also to search for the underlying cause—whether it be a dental issue, a gastrointestinal disease, or a psychological problem—and get the animal eating again. Anorexia is most commonly seen in hospitalized cats, and a moderately sick animal may seriously complicate its health problems by refusing to eat. Food avoidance also occurs with relative frequency among cats that are placed in boarding kennels. In any case, the condition is never the result of a cat’s simply deciding not to eat.
Consequently, Dr. McDaniel advises, “A cat that is not eating deserves to have a full veterinary workup—a thorough physical exam followed by any lab work and imaging that’s indicated by the exam.” In addition to checking the animal’s weight, temperature, internal organs, cardiac function, and so forth, such an exam will include a close look at the patient’s teeth and gums, since pain that accompanies dental disease is often responsible for a cat’s refusal to eat.
“Occasionally,” notes Dr. McDaniel, “we’re simply unable to pinpoint the underlying problem. We might consider the possibility that the cause of the food aversion is psychological.” But whatever condition is prompting the anorexia, she points out, “our first task is to begin treating the anorexia immediately—getting the cat to take in nourishment while we continue to search for the underlying cause.”
There are several ways in which to accomplish this task, some of which can be undertaken by a cat’s owner (with, of course, a veterinarian’s guidance and counsel) and others that require the technical expertise of veterinary professionals. These procedures include: force feeding; syringe feeding; tube feeding; and the delivery of appetite-stimulating drugs into a cat’s system.
In force feeding, the owner holds the cat’s mouth open with one hand, and, with the other, places small (marble-sized) balls of soft food, such as hamburger or tuna fish, into the animal’s oral cavity. The cat’s mouth is then held shut until the food is swallowed…and the process is repeated until all of the food is consumed. Unfortunately, this can be a messy, frustrating, and ineffectual way of getting nourishment into a cat’s system. Indeed, says Dr. McDaniel, “We’ve gotten away from the idea of forcing food into a cat’s mouth. That can make a cat’s aversion to food even worse.”
A superior option for providing an anorexic cat with nutritional support, she contends, is the use of an implanted feeding tube, which bypasses a cat’s mouth and delivers softened or liquefied food directly into its digestive system. “When the cat is ready to start eating on its own again,” she observes, “there will be no negative association with having food forced into its mouth.”
Medications are also available, she adds, that are appropriate for use in anorexic cats. Among these medications, she notes, is a drug called mirtazapine, which stimulates a cat’s appetite and also relieves nausea.
Dr. McDaniel strongly encourages owners to consult a veterinarian immediately upon noticing any signs of feline anorexia and to follow all advice on providing nourishment to their animals while the search for the cause of the condition goes on.