Coping with loss of appetite

dog food in a bowl on a white background

By Katie Anderson

For many pets and their owners, meal time is an enjoyable experience. Your dog stands by his dish, eagerly wagging his tail in anticipation of food, and your cat begins to purr at the sound of the can opener. As your pet ages, you may notice a natural decline in his or her appetite. However, if your pet suddenly stops eating or begins to lose weight, a trip to the vet may be in order. Loss of appetite (or anorexia) and weight loss can be caused by most diseases, including infections, glandular diseases, cancer, or organ failure. Most pets attempt to hide pain, and anorexia may be the only sign they show of discomfort. In addition, anorexia and weight loss may be caused by stress from changes in routine, environment, or diet. If your pet is losing weight or has stopped eating for more than 24 hours, it’s important to have him or her examined by a veterinarian, who will perform a physical exam and some routine tests to diagnose the cause of these symptoms.

Treating anorexia and weight loss first and foremost requires treating any underlying illnesses. Depending on your pet’s condition, your veterinarian may prescribe a number of drugs, including pain medications. There are also several strategies you can implement to help increase your pet’s appetite while their condition is being treated or while they are in hospice care. These include:

Change diets: to help prevent weight loss, your veterinarian may recommend a diet high in protein or fat. If you normally feed a dry diet, switching to canned food may also help improve your pet’s appetite. Always consult your veterinarian before switching diets.

Improve palatability: Add flavored toppings or low-sodium broth to your pet’s food. Warming food to body temperature (being careful not to overheat the food to the point it burns your pet’s mouth) may also help stimulate appetite.

Appetite stimulating drugs: Your veterinarian may choose to prescribe medications such as cyproheptadine or mirtazapine to stimulate appetite.

Liquid diets: For pets that cannot eat solid food, feeding a liquid diet through a syringe or feeding tube may be an option.

Many chronically ill pets will continue to eat food and drink water until they simply can no longer do so. For these pets, anorexia may indicate severe pain or distress as the end of their life approaches. Euthanasia may be the most humane choice in these situations, and it’s certainly okay to consider this option.

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