How to get sick animals to eat: our top 10 tips
Updated: Jan 8, 2019
We all know that it can be a real struggle to persuade sick dogs and cats to eat. Part of the job of a veterinary clinical nutrition resident (specialist in training) is to create and adjust an appropriate nutritional plan for all the patients in hospital. Often, this involves trying lots of different things to encourage a sick animal to eat.
So here are some useful tips and tricks I've learnt along the way. Please note that I'm not talking about the nutritional goals for different diseases here, but rather just some practical strategies you can try to encourage eating. If your pet is unwell, please always seek the advice of your own veterinarian.
1) Be flexible in your approach to feeding a sick animal
I often hear from owners who are determined to feed their cat only canned diets, or their dog only raw meat-based diets. They aren't prepared to compromise, even when their pet is sick. We all know that when we are sick, we don't always want to eat what we normally eat. For example, foods with strong aromas may worsen nausea. So be prepared to offer foods you normally wouldn't, because unfortunately your pet can't tell you what they feel like eating.
2) Consider and try feeding dry diets
Dry diets for dogs and cats are getting a fair bit of bad press these days, however, for sick animals they can be invaluable. The main reason for this is that they are energy dense - much more so than canned diets or raw diets (which are mainly water). Of course, hydration is important. But it can be disheartening to happily watch your cat eat half a can of food, only to realise that it contains just 36 kcal - the same number of calories as only 9 grams of dry food! If you want caloric value, you just can't beat dry diets.
Ziwi Peak air-dried diets for dogs and cats
These air-dried meat-based diets are AAFCO-formulated (complete and balanced), highly palatable to most animals, and contain an impressive 5.6 kcal/gram - one of the most energy dense diets I have come across. Perfect for animals with a poor appetite (but not so good for a greedy, overweight Labrador!)
3) Be prepared to hand feed
It goes without saying that helping your pet to eat by either bringing the bowl close to them, or offering food by hand, may really help. This is particularly the case if they aren't as mobile as they normally are. Again, dry food can be handy here - it's much easier to feed kibble by hand, compared with canned food.
4) Don't give up easily
Patience and a little persistence are often rewarded. Just because your pet won't eat now, doesn't mean they won't eat in an hour's time. Some relaxed cuddles and scratches for five minutes before feeding may do a world of good too.
5) Try some different treats
I know that we always recommend feeding complete and balanced diets. However, treats can be really helpful sometimes. They are often highly palatable and energy dense. Some of my favourites include:
'Temptations' Treats for cats
There are four things that are amazing about these treats:
1) I 'm not sure exactly how they make these things so palatable to most cats, but it's pretty impressive. Often cats in hospital will eat these, when they won't eat anything else.
2) They are a good size for hand-feeding.
3) They are 2 kcal per treat, which means it's easy to work out how many kcal your cat has eaten: 10 treats = 20 kcal. Again, they are energy dense, so a smaller volume is required.
4) Perhaps surprisingly, most of these treats are AAFCO-formulated and complete and balanced (not in Australia sadly), so you can feed them as your cat's sole diet for a while, and not have to worry about deficiencies.
Orijen Six Fish treats for both dogs and cats
These treats have a strong fishy aroma, but that can really work for some patients, particularly dogs or cats with nasal disease or a reduced sense of smell (common in geriatric animals).
I've found these treats to be highly palatable to most dogs and cats. They aren't complete and balanced, but they do provide an impressive omega-3 fatty acid (EPA & DHA) boost, due to the 100% fish content. In fact, this may be one of the easiest ways to increase the omega-3 content of your cat's diet, given that most cats aren't too keen on fish oil.
Other freeze-dried meat or fish treats
There are lots of different companies making these now. Some different options you can try include freeze-dried chicken breast, salmon, tuna, green-lipped mussel, or venison.
Freeze-dried treats are handy because you can feed them as individual pieces, or crumble them to a powder to add and mix with other diets.
Again, these treats are obviously not complete and balanced, so don't feed them as a sole diet for more than a day or two.
Typically these treats are high in protein and fat, and contain around 4.3-5 kcal/gram, depending on the fat content.
Some other popular treat options for both dogs and cats include cooked chicken breast, canned sardines or tuna, peanut butter, or cheese. Please always check with your veterinarian before feeding any new treats, as high fat treats may not be appropriate for all patients.
6) Consider a feeding tube
Many pet owners find feeding tubes quite intimidating. I can understand this, as they do sound invasive. However, it's important to know that feeding tubes are generally very well tolerated by most animals - they can still play, run, and groom, and do all the normal things they like to do. Feeding tubes can give you piece of mind (you can top up your pet's food intake if they've had a bad day) and remove the stress and struggle that may be associated with syringe-feeding or hand-feeding. Please contact us if you'd like more information or support with feeding tubes.
Above: My own cat, Griffin, with an esophagostomy feeding tube. You can see he has a comfortable fabric collar on, and that he's very much enjoying relaxing on my desk at work.
7) Feed little and often
Large volumes of food can worsen nausea and increase the risk of vomiting. Offer your pet small meals frequently to avoid this.
8) Start small and don't be in a hurry
If your pet is sick or recovering, a quarter of their normal food intake per day is probably a sensible goal to aim for. You can gradually increase their food intake by 20-30% per day, depending on how they are going. Ask your veterinarian for more advice about this.
9) Try feeding in different locations
Some dogs may be more keen to eat outdoors. Some cats may be more likely to eat if they are comfortably settled in a place they really like (on a bed, or a lap, for example).
10) Seek help
If your pet has a poor or worsening appetite for more than a day or two, please visit your veterinarian. It is important to find out the cause, and to begin appropriate treatment, if necessary. Your pet may need anti-nausea medication, for example, or intravenous fluids.
Thanks for reading, I hope these tips are helpful. Please contact us if you would like more help or advice feeding your pet: firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: This content is not intended to be a substitute for the professional recommendations of your pet's veterinarian. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding the medical condition of your pet. If you think your pet has a medical emergency, please call or visit your veterinarian or your local veterinary emergency hospital immediately.