Overview of Feline Anorexia (Loss of Appetite)
Anorexia is a term used to describe the situation where a cat loses his appetite and does not want to eat or is unable to eat. Appetite is psychological, dependent on memory and association, as compared with hunger, which is physiologically aroused by the body’s need for food.
There are many causes of anorexia in cats. Often, a loss of appetite is the first indication of illness. Diseases of the digestive system (esophagus, stomach, intestine, liver, pancreas), the kidneys, the blood, the eyes, mouth, nose, and throat, the skin, the brain, and many other organs in the body can cause a loss of appetite. Pain of any cause can also make a cat less willing to eat.
Alternatively, cats will occasionally refuse food for reasons that are much less serious, such as dislike for a new food, or behavioral reasons (new home, new animal or new person in household, etc.)
Regardless of cause, loss of appetite can have a serious impact on your cat’s health if it lasts 24 hours or more. Very young animals (less than 6 months of age) are particularly prone to the problems brought on by loss of appetite.
Diagnosis of Loss of Appetite in Cats
Because of the numerous causes of anorexia, your veterinarian will recommend certain procedures to pinpoint the underlying problem. These may include:
Physical examination including buccal exam (looking at the gums), auscultation (listening with a stethoscope), abdominal palpation (feeling the size and shape of the organs in the belly), and taking the temperature and weight
Complete blood panel and urinalysis (urine test), to screen for certain diseases of the internal organs
X-rays of the chestand the abdomen
Fecal examination (microscopic evaluation of the stool to look for parasites)
Additional tests, depending on initial test results
Treatment for Anorexia in Cats
Treatments are of two kinds: “specific” and “supportive.”
“Specific” treatments are those that deal with the underlying cause. That is, they either slow down or eliminate the problem that caused the loss of appetite in the first place. Examples of specific treatments that reverse loss of appetite include giving antibiotics to eliminate a severe bacterial infection, surgically removing a foreign object that was blocking the intestine, treating dental disease that made chewing painful, and so on.
“Supportive” treatments are those that help sustain a cat that is debilitated as a result of not eating. Examples include fluid therapy such as intravenous fluids (“IV”) or subcutaneous fluids (injections of fluid given under the skin), hand feeding or coaxing to eat, appetite-stimulating drugs, and others. For tips on getting a cat to eat – please read Tips on Getting Sick Cats to Eat.
Supportive treatments do not reverse the problem that led to the loss of appetite. They simply help “carry” the animal through the most difficult part of the illness.
Home Care for Anorexia in Cats
Home care is concerned with observing your cat for possible reasons for his anorexia and helping him to eat.
Note whether any recent change has occurred in the home environment, such as a recent move to a new home, a new person in the home or the addition of a new pet. These may contribute to the loss of appetite and should be mentioned to your veterinarian.
Note whether any other symptoms are present. The presence of symptoms in addition to loss of appetite should prompt a veterinary examination sooner, rather than later.
To combat dehydration, some animals can benefit from being given oral rehydration supplements such as Pedialyte®. Ask your veterinarian whether this is appropriate and how much should be given. Also, for tips on getting a cat to drink, please read Tips for Encouraging Your Cat to Drink.
Additional feeding techniques. If an animal is unwilling or unable to eat, feeding may be enhanced with certain techniques such as warming the food so it is easier for the cat to smell it, mixing in certain home-cooked ingredients specifically suggested by your veterinarian, or offering the food by hand or with an oral syringe. Any warmed food should be checked to make sure it is not too hot, which could scald the mouth or digestive system. This is particularly a concern when the food is warmed (unevenly) by microwave.
New foods. When therapeutic diets are prescribed for a certain medical condition, a cat may not eat that diet immediately. Mixing with the previous diet and gradually decreasing the amount of the prior diet over several days can be tried in order to avoid cutting the appetite completely.
Young animals (6 months or less) are particularly fragile when not eating, and loss of appetite for even 12 hours in a kitten of 1-6 weeks of age can be life threatening. Regular milk (i.e. cow’s milk) is poorly balanced for cats, soft drinks (soda pop) and sport drinks are usually much too sweet and are deficient in electrolytes, and soup (e.g. chicken soup) is usually too salty and does not provide enough nutrients for energy. These infant animals may need to be fed a milk replacer by syringe if they have not yet been weaned; balanced milk replacers for cats are available. Oral rehydration solutions made for children are less well-balanced, but are still better alternatives than soda pop, chicken soup, etc. It is essential that you consult with your veterinarian to determine what to feed and to determine how much to give.