6 Ways This Veterinarian Handles the Perpetually “Unhungry” Pet
“She hardly eats!”
“I’ve tried everything, and he won’t eat any of it.”
“She always gets bored with her food after only a few days.”
“He’s the most finicky cat in the world.”
“She’ll eat it for a week, and then she’ll never eat another bite.”
“Since he was a puppy, he’s only ever wanted to eat every other day. It drives me crazy!”
Ask any veterinarian, and she’ll tell you just how common such grievances are. Despite the deluge of obese pets in my patient population, plenty of pet owners bemoan their pets’ persistent low appetite.
Don't get me wrong: Any loss of appetite in a pet — be it sudden or gradual — could be a sign of a medical problem and calls for a visit to the veterinarian. Loss of appetite in a cat, especially, deserves prompt attention.
The pets I'm referring to have always had fastidious eating habits. They’re otherwise normal, and despite exhaustive diagnostic testing, their veterinarians can find nothing wrong with them.
The Agony of the Untouched Bowl
You’d think a lack of appetite would be a good problem to have. I mean, a low food drive would seem to suggest that weight control would be easier for the pets. But here’s the thing: It’s not always obvious how to deal with pets who don’t seem hungry.
When a physical examination, basic workup and even advanced diagnostics reveal little, if anything, wrong, it’s hard to know for sure what’s amiss with most of these picky pets. As it turns out, “unhungriness” is enough to make most owners anxious about their loved ones’ health.
Perhaps it’s that the pet-only fare just doesn't cut it compared to the good stuff on the stovetop. Maybe the animals' appetites are naturally less pronounced than others'. In any case, there’s no easy way to differentiate those possibilities from the less likely alternative: that the animal is ill and may require specialized testing to determine what is awry.
Getting to the Bottom of It
Given those possibilities, what’s a pet owner to do? Do you let your dog skip a meal? Intervene with fancy fare designed to pique your cat's finicky palate? Or head straight to your veterinarian and demand more rigorous testing for anything that might possibly be wrong? (For cats who eschew their food for more than a day or two, I suggest the latter.)
It’s a tough answer to know for sure — even for a veterinarian. To help clarify, here are some questions I ask:
1. Is the pet too slim? Just right? Or overweight (and still gaining)? Some of the “unhungry” pets I see aren’t as slim as you might expect. Not only are most of my problem eaters plumper than their reportedly sluggish appetites would indicate, it’s long been my experience that dogs and cats in our culture are more likely to be overfed than underfed. In other words, I suggest that many of our pets’ fussiness with food might be the result of not needing as much of it as they’re offered.
Now, most pets will eat themselves obese if you let them. Nonetheless, there’s a sizable percentage of pets capable of keeping themselves lean without human help. Which is why all but the possibly too slim and/or unthrifty tend to merit nutritional counseling over fancy testing, in my opinion. That's not to say your veterinarian is wrong to recommend testing — it's perfectly legitimate to look for underlying medical issues.
2. What’s the pet’s diet like? Pet owners don’t always realize that lots of the newer super-premium diets and treats are calorically denser than those of yesteryear. That is to say, they’ve got more calories per cup or per treat than what you might expect. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just something to take into account when feeding pets.
Knowing a pet's diet helps me make a few calculations to determine whether the animal is simply being offered more food than he needs.
3. What’s the pet’s breed type? Some breed types are naturally slimmer and more metabolically active than others. Others are actually renowned for their sluggish metabolisms. Giant-breed dogs and English Bulldogs, for example, tend to eat less — pound for pound, way less — than their small-breed counterparts. Which helps explain why my foster girl, a large English Bulldog, eats as little as my tiny Miniature Pinscher. And why Siamese cats and sighthounds always tend toward the slim.
That’s why I always try to square my patients’ sizes and breed types with their diets to determine whether their total caloric needs are being appropriately met.
4. How much exercise does the pet get? It should be obvious that a true couch potato requires fewer calories than a dog who competes regularly in field trials or other athletic pursuits. In fact, some surprisingly hefty sofa spuds thrive on a relatively small amount of commercial kibble per day. Impressive, right? Which is why pets might eat what their humans deem “almost nothing” yet remain perfectly healthy — as healthy as a couch potato can be, anyway.
A pet-specific activity monitor can be your friend at such times. I had one client document the serious inactivity of her Basset Hound with one of those newfangled devices. Until she witnessed firsthand how her dog’s activity level compared to that of others, she’d been unwilling to believe just how few calories a less-active dog requires.
5. Do other pets share the household? Do they eat at the same time? It’s often the case that pets must endure a competitive environment at feeding time. Some pets thrive in such an environment, while others retreat from their food prematurely when stressed by competition. Pets that compete for food should be fed in separate areas.
6. How old is the pet? I find that many pet-appetite-troubled owners are attached to animals whose metabolic processes have evolved as a result of the normal aging process. Some have recently aged out of adolescence. Their appetite changes result from a lower demand for growth-dedicated calories. Those pets are often bigger than ever, which is why their owners are justifiably confused as to why they might want to eat less.
Other pets may demand less food as they enter their geriatric years and their senses of smell and taste diminish. Still, loss of appetite in an older dog also deserves a trip to the veterinarian and shouldn't be written off as a natural part of getting old.
All of those issues are commonplace within the ranks of the healthy “unhungry.” Squaring appetite issues with one or more of the aforementioned factors makes it easier for me, as a veterinarian, to help suss out the possibility of actual health concerns.
The good news is that only a small percentage of the patients are truly ill. Most fall into one or more of the categories I've mentioned. Which should make their owners happy.
Trouble is, an equally small percentage of owners would rather agonize unnecessarily over their pets' intermittently poor appetite than accept them as they are. Which — I won’t lie — has a way of making veterinarians like me more than a little crazy. But then, I’d always rather deal with clients who are overwrought with concern over those who could give a rat’s backside whether their pets eat another morsel ever again. Given the choice, I’ll take the nervous and the prone to spoil over the wholly unconcerned. Wouldn’t you?