Your dog won't eat. Or your cat is a picky eater. So what on earth do you do?
First, a caveat. No animal will willingly starve itself. But ALWAYS have your pet seen by a vet when there's a change in behavior. You need to rule out illness before embarking on solving a pet's eating problem. Be sure to check for a bad tooth as this is often overlooked as a cause of eating issues. The second caveat: Eating problems can be complex and the tips offered here are simplistic. I offer them with 30 years of experience as a dog owner, breeder, handler and fancier in the world of dogs, but you should discuss them with your vet to see if any are a plausible remedy for your pet's situation.
We'll start with dogs, and assuming that your dog is healthy but not a good eater, here are some potential reasons why and ideas for fixing it.
If you feed your dog treats during the day, stop. You want your dog hungry at meal times.If your dog is a show dog, remember that bait should be offered in TINY pieces, it's not meant to be dinner. When it comes to meals, put the dog's food bowl on the floor, give her 10 minutes to eat it, and if it isn't touched, pick it up and put it away. Don't feed again until the next meal, and resist the temptation to give treats. Do this for a whole week because what you're doing here is behavior modification. Remember, a healthy dog won't starve itself to death, but a stubborn, healthy dog could modify YOUR behavior if you cave in.
If you change pet foods frequently, stop. Frequent diet changes can create a finicky eater. The dog learns to "holdout" to see what will be offered next. When you find a nutritious diet your pet will eat, stay with it. If you MUST change the pet's diet, do it gradually over a two week period. Add a small amount of the new diet to the old food, and each day, increase the amount of the new feed while decreasing the amount of the current food. This gradual change will help prevent diarrhea, vomiting and finicky eating.
With picky eaters, it's important to feed a "super premium" brand of dog food. These foods cost a little more and are made with better ingredients, but they are nutritionally dense. This means that your dog is actually eating less in quantity than the cheaper brands bought at grocery stores (these foods have the nutritional value of bark), but because there are more "calories per cup" in a premium food, they're actually getting more nutrition. Look for brands such as Merrick's "Grammy's Pot Pie" (canned food), California Natural, Prarie, Canidae, Flint River, Nutro, Wellness, Eagle Pack Holistic or Nutrisource.
Mixing kibble with a small amount of canned dog food and water will also make it enticing. This next part is important: The single most natural way to increase a pet's appetite is to warm their food because it increases the smell and makes it more appetizing.
Perhaps your dog has a health issue or is on a medication that makes him not want to eat. She's under a vet's care, but the task of getting nutrition into her falls on you. Now what? First, understand that the less a dog eats, the less he WANTS to eat. Add to that the dog who comes to associate food with nausea and you have a real problem, so the sooner you can get your dog to WANT to eat on his own, the better. So much for the obvious.
We'll start with the simplest remedies and work our way up to a radical solution that worked for one of my dogs. Assuming that your dog is on a high quality feed but still not eating, you may need to go to the next step: making dog food taste even better.
You don't want to make these next foods a daily staple, mostly because the high sodium content of many of them would be contra-indicated for dogs in renal failure or with heart issues (if your dog does have kidney issues, check out a really informative web site here.) The following foods have been tried and tested by people in the dog fancy and are suggested ONLY as a means to jump start the appetite in a sick or compromised dog: Sardines, canned cat food, Gerber's baby food - especially turkey or sweet potato, braunschweiger, Limburger Cheese, broth, pureed liver, Dinty Moore Beef Stew, yogurt, cottage cheese/cream cheese, canned mackerel, scrambled eggs with cream cheese, chicken noodle soup - and even this one: hard-boiled eggs smashed up in French Vanilla yogurt, slightly warmed.
Sometimes, you may need to "jump start" an appetite with something so enticing, it's irresistible. Here is the original recipe for "Satin Balls," one of the most requested recipes on Wellpet, Showdogs-L, VetMed, and other popular e-mail lists for serious dog people:
10 pounds of cheap hamburger meat
1 lg. box of Total cereal
1 lg. box oatmeal
1 jar of wheat germ
1 1/4 cup veg oil
1 1/4 cup of unsulfured molasses
10 raw eggs AND shells
10 envelopes of unflavored gelatin
pinch of salt
Mix all ingredients together, much like you would a meatloaf. Divide the batch into 10 quart freezer bags and freeze.Thaw as needed and feed raw! (This is also a good way to put weight on a skinny dog, increase energy, and to alleviate itchy, flaky skin). This isn't a substitute for meals, it's meant to whet a dog's appetite. If the dog is eating this eagerly, start mixing it with kibble gradually. The idea is to wean them off the Satin Balls and onto kibble.
Next, we move on to "fixes" that come in a tube or pill. Remember that the point of these products is to stimulate an appetite and are not long term solutions; We start with Re-Vita whose products are said to be effective for problem appetites; "Pet-Tinic" is a liquid dietary supplement containing iron, copper and 5 essential vitamins. The palable meat-flavored liquid is readily accepted and one "tester" reported that it brought back her pet's appetite almost immediately, Because of its contents, you'll want to have your vet's approval before using this. "Nutri-Cal" is pure nutrition that squeezes out like toothpaste; dogs like its taste and it's a quick way to get nutrition into a dog. When diluted with water, Dyne High Calorie Dietary Supplement can be used to combat dehydration and provide energy because each ounce provides approximately 150 calories containing vitamins and minerals that maintain constant therapeutic blood levels.
If none of the aforementioned tips work, this is where I get pretty serious because my own philosophy is that a lack of appetite is a lousy reason for a dog to die. What you'll read next isn't pleasant - but if you love your dog, you have to get nutrition into her. As far as I know,there are four ways to do this when the dog can't eat on his own: syringe food into the dog's mouth, stuff food down the dog's throat, hook the dog up to an IV, or insert a stomach tube. I've done all of them at one time or another. And they all stink, but they're preferable to the alternative: a dog who wastes away and dies.
Syringing: You'll need a couple of large syringes from your vet. Using canned food; determine the amount your dog needs to sustain his weight, divide that amount in half and spoon that much into a blender (you and this blender will become inseparable over the coming days). Add enough warm water to blend easily into a very fine puree and for each meal, gently syringe the puree into the side of the dog's lips. Or, you can cut to the chase. Pry the dog's mouth open and squeeze the syringe plunger down so that the food trickles to the side and back of the dog's mouth. It takes a bit of time to get the hang of this since you don't want the dog to aspirate food into his lungs. Speak to the dog soothingly and praise him when you're done. Remember, it's not the dog's fault he's unable to eat and it's only temporary until the appetite comes back.
Stuffing: This was my least favorite means of getting food into a dog. It was messy and degrading. In a nutshell, you make "food bombs" that are narrow enough to slide down the back of the dog's throat. These "bombs" are a mixture of wet & dry food that's been pureed into a texture that allows shaping. There are folks out there who are really good at doing this - and some dogs who just don't eat well become so used to eating this way that they'll stand calmly, lift up their little heads and open their mouths like guppies in anticipation for the next "bomb." Since all we care about is getting nutrition into the dog, if this works for you,that's what counts.
IV: A "no brainer." At this point, a dog is so ill that this is pretty much the last resort. It's no substitute for the calories gotten from real food, but sometimes it serves as a band-aid until the dog is back on its feet and able to eat the real thing.
Stomach tube: Proverbially speaking, this is what separates the men from the boys. When I was faced with a dog whose heart medication caused anorexia but who was otherwise healthy, I had but little choice to pull out all the stops. Syringe feeding, food bombs - these were not long term solutions. Guided by my vet, we made an informed decision to insert a stomach tube. Mind you, at the time we thought it would be a short term fix until my dog ate on his own. Keep reading.
The first tube put in was an ugly, brown rubber tube that was SO long, it had to be wrapped around my dog's mid section and secured with a lady's tube top when not in use. I prepared the food as if I was going to syringe it into my dog's mouth, only it was syringed into a tube that had been inserted into his side over the stomach. In less than a week, the dog knew the sound of the blender, knew what was coming and would lie down on his side in preparation for his meal.
Each day before I approached the blender, I always offered the dog his meal in a bowl since it was my fondest desire that the dog eat like a dog. After many weeks, however, I knew this wasn't going to happen. Ever. At this point, my vet and I had a frank discussion about options and he mentioned a permanent tube, one inserted from the inside out. The "Bard" was a gastronomy device made of silicon that was successfully used to feed disabled children but had never been used in canines. My nearly 14 year old Puli would be the first dog to have the slick silicon "button" inserted. It fit flush against his stomach and a little "lid" flicked open like the flip-top portion of a tube of toothpaste. Compared to what I had been working with, it was a Porsche compared to an Edsel and no one else ever knew it was there.
The tube enabled my dog to live a couple of more years. Feeding him took less than five minutes and afterwards, he would run with the other dogs,bark into the wind, enjoy the sun on his back and know that I adored him. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Because of the seemingly radical step we took to ensure this dog's survival, it wasn't something I discussed openly. Too many people out there feel that if a dog can't eat on his own, he's not meant to live. To them I say, "Phooey." The dog wanted to live, to survive and feel the hand of those who loved him rubbing his ears. But he couldn't eat. His spirit was willing and he would have done anything to please me, but this one thing he couldn't do. How then, was I to deny him the one thing I could do to help him?
Cats: Needless to say, cats are not like dogs. They can get liver damage from not eating even for just a day or two. When a cat stops eating, their body will start to use its fat stores as fuel. The old fat stores are mobilized to the liver, which should begin fat burning. But when the fat arrives at the liver, the liver doesn't burn the fat efficiently and it accumulates in the liver.
The resulting liver disorder is known as "hepatic lipidosis", or "fatty liver disease." This condition may be suggested when blood tests show impaired liver function. Getting fatty liver disease is not isolated only to cats, and fasting cats don't always get this condition, they just seem more prone to it when they don't eat.
But according to the Cornell Online Consultant, there are 454 more possible Diagnoses for Feline Anorexia. Wow. A good web site you can visit here explains the different reasons a cat might not be eating, from acid stomach to ulcers and including fatty liver disease. The bottom line, however,is that you have less "wiggle room" when a cat won't eat. Tries these tips:
-Warm the food because warmed food has a stronger smell which will make a cat want to eat.
-Handfeeding: Sit with your cat and talk to her. Offer a little piece of food to her.
-Offer special treats like canned or pouched food instead of dry kibble.
-Offer tuna and cheese or milk or cream, all in small amounts.
-Tasty liquids, like water from tuna packed in water or, rarely, oil. Avoid tuna packed in vegetable broth as itmay contain onions. Try clam juice or low-salt chicken broth. Avoid onions and anything made with bouillan as it's too salty;
-Sprinkle some catnip on the food.
Pull out all the stops and make some Home Made Cat Food with this recipe:
Switch off the protein sources with each batch or two. Switch between:
- Half Pound of minced boneless chicken breast or thigh
- Six Ounces of dark-mean ground turkey or minced turkey
- Half Pound of lean, minced beef
- Half Pound of minced beef, chicken or turkey heart. About three times a week, include one chopped hard-boiled or scrambled egg. Occasionally substitute a five-ounce can of salmon or tuna for the meat. Avoid canned salmon or tuna for cats that are prone to urinary tract infections.
Mix foods together.
There are some drugs that can help stimulate a cat's appetite including Diazepam (Valium). Other drugs to ask your vet about are Periactin (generic name Cyproheptadine), Serax (generic name Oxazepam) and Dalmane (generic name Flurazepam). All have potential side effects so it's important to talk with your vet.
Syringe feeding and feeding tubes as mentioned in the section for dogs is also an option for cats.
Good luck and know that you're not alone. Feeding issues are among the most frustrating of concerns.
S.E. Szeremy is a writer, breeder/owner/handler of Pulik and creator of [http://www.KnobNots.com], the friendly alternative to "Beware of Dog" Signs that won't make your pet sound vicious: Transform a door into a safety billboard for people and pets.
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