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.