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Encouraging Your Sick Pet to Eat

By: Renae Hamrick, RVT

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Remember what your mother always said... "Feed a cold; starve a fever." Nutrition is a key component in healing the body, but eating can be unpleasant when you are ill. Because pets don't understand the value of nourishing their bodies when they are ill, it can be especially difficult to encourage them to eat.

Is it Okay to Feed Your Pet?

Before encouraging your pet to eat during his time of illness, you should check with your veterinarian. It may not be ideal to feed him at this time. Especially if your pet is vomiting, you should not offer food or water. If your pet has had significant vomiting and/or diarrhea, and should be concerned about dehydration and therefore IV fluids from a veterinarian are probably a better solution than food and water. After all, if he is vomiting he is not going to be able to keep it down.

Encouraging Water Intake

Proper hydration is crucial in the healing process; however, the ill or painful pet may not be interested in drinking. It is important NOT to force water into your pet, as it could lead to aspiration pneumonia if your pet is not swallowing appropriately. Listed below are several options to encourage water intake.

1. Give your pet an ice cube to lick.
2. Give a cat a running faucet or fountain dish from which to drink.
3. Allow your pet to lick water from your hand or your finger.
4. Feed canned food, as it has a higher water content.
5. Add warm water or low-sodium broth to your pet's food.
6. With your veterinarian's permission, offer small amounts of Pedialyte.
7. Adding an ice cube to the water bowl can encourage some pets to drink.

Foods to Encourage Your Sick Pet to Eat

First of all, if your pet is acting sick and not wanting to eat, the safest thing is to take your pet to your veterinarian and allow them to evaluate your pet for an underlying cause. It is important not to overlook this important symptom of a problem.

There are pets with diagnosed problems that just don't feel well and want to eat. For these pets, there are several things you can try. If your pet does not have interest in his everyday food, you can try offering something special. Sick pets may reach the point where some form of nutrition (within reason) is better than no nutrition. Often offering a pet a small amount of a new food will stimulate their appetite and encourage them to eat. Consider your pet's illness before selecting the foods. For example, if your pet has been nauseous, offer bland foods. Avoid rich or fatty food and table scraps if possible. For diet recommendations for your pets particular problem, check with your veterinarian.

To encourage your pet to eat, begin by offering healthier choices, such as a quality, canned or semi-moist pet food, a carrot stick (for dogs), boiled chicken or hamburger, tuna, etc. Meat-flavored baby food is a tasty, bland food that is good to entice a pet's appetite. Do NOT feed only baby food as a primary nutrient source, as it does not contain enough calories to sustain your pet. Make sure you avoid foods containing onion in cats because onions can be toxic.

If healthier food choices are not working, you can try some pet "junk" food. Peanut butter (for dogs), pet snacks, lower-quality canned food (which is usually more palatable), sandwich meat, etc. are some possible choices. Small amounts of cat food can be very enticing to dogs, as it has more protein than dog food. Do not feed large amounts of fatty foods, as this can lead to other health problems, such as pancreatitis.

Feeding Methods to Encourage Eating

It's not just the food you offer, but how you offer it that can encourage eating. Some sick pets will be more willing to eat if you pet them and talk to them while you offer food. You may even try hand-feeding or spoon-feeding. Be careful not to spoil them with these techniques for longer than necessary, because your pet may begin to expect this every time he eats.

Putting a dab of peanut butter, baby food, or canned food on your pet's nose or tongue forces the pet to try the food. Sometimes tasting it makes them realize the food is worth eating after all. Do NOT use much force with this method. Stressing the pet can make him feel worse and less likely to eat.

Sometimes feeding in a different location can entice some pets to eat. This can work with cats. Offer them food in rooms, locations or on counters where they normally don't go. You can also offer foods on different plates or bowls. Some cats prefer flat plates over deep bowls. It has been found that some pets even prefer different textures of bowls or plates.

Heating a food or mixing it with warm water helps release the aromas of the food, making it more interesting to your pet. This is especially helpful for pets with upper respiratory illness that might not be able to smell the food.

Be Patient

Be patient with your ill pet. Do not spend more than a couple minutes at a time trying to get them to eat. Offer various foods several times throughout the day. Of course, do not show frustration or anger if your pet will not eat. If you feel that you are unable to entice your pet's appetite, consult your veterinarian for further care.


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