Cat Eating
If humans can have eating disorders, is it possible that pets can too?

While dogs and cats can suffer from issues with eating, their problems don’t always parallel the disorders that commonly afflict humans.

Plus, diagnosing an eating disorder in a pet comes with an added caveat: It can be difficult to determine if the cause is behavioral, medical or even nutritional.

Check out these six bizarre yet classic eating antics commonly observed in four-legged family members.

The Overeater

For the majority of pets who eat too much, “it’s not an eating disorder as much as a feeding disorder,” says Dr. Julie Churchill, Ph.D., Diplomate ACVN, Associate Clinical Professor at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center. “Owners assume that if their dog is begging, it means he’s hungry.”

But dogs eat less to satisfy hunger, and more because food seeking is a normal canine behavior.

“It’s a preserved evolutionary trait from when dogs hunted, and it was feast or famine,” explains Dr. Churchill. “Dogs are gluttonous, opportunistic feeders — they’re capable of eating 16 percent of their body weight in one sitting, and they don’t turn it off when they’re full.”

And while cats were also born to hunt, it’s rare to spot a fat barn feline.

“Cats may hunt to excess, but they usually don’t eat to excess,” says Dr. Churchill, adding that obesity occurs in kitties “who don’t have a hunting ‘job,’ and have a food source that’s too available.”

Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t behavior and medical problems that can lead to overeating.

Certain medications can cause overeating, and it can also be a sign of an underlying medical condition, including hyperthyroidism, diabetes, Cushing’s disease and gastrointestinal diseases.

“I have seen cats who are cranky and irritable if they’re the slightest bit hungry,” adds Dr. Christopher Pachel, Diplomate ACVB, of the Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland, Ore. “They launch themselves at their owners with teeth and claws bared.” In such cases, Dr. Pachel recommends training to modify the behavior, but it’s sometimes also necessary to adjust a cat’s diet in consultation with a veterinarian to avoid adding weight.

The Under-Eater

While a dog can miss a day or two of meals, any prolonged stint without eating can be disastrous for cats, who can develop hepatic lipidosis, also known as “fatty liver disease.” In most cases, no amount of begging or wheedling can coerce these cats to eat, and they will literally attempt to starve themselves to death.

According to Dr. Pachel, although anorexia is often the first sign of illness, it can also have behavioral roots: “After the loss of a family member, whether it’s a pet or a person, pets may show signs that are consistent with depression, including social withdrawal and loss of appetite."

Dog Eating Shoe

The Random Object Eater

The list of nonfood objects that veterinarians have retrieved from the digestive tracts of pets is nothing short of amazing: knives, razor blades, steel guitar strings, children’s toys, nails, socks, screwdrivers and even rocks. Once, while performing a rectal exam on a dog, I even discovered part of a five-dollar bill!

The ingestion of nonfood items, known as pica, tends to occur more in dogs than cats.

“Anemia has been associated with cats eating clay litter,” says Dr. Churchill. "However, there’s rarely a nutritional cause for pica [in cats]."

The Wool Eater

In another twist on pica, some felines will suckle, chew and even swallow portions of wool blankets, sweaters and socks.

Although any cat can take to wool sucking, it occurs most often in Siamese and Burmese breeds.

“There is a genetic link in Oriental cats,” says Dr. Pachel. “But the problem can also be strictly behavioral or related to dietary or gastrointestinal issues.”

The Poop Eater

Few things disturb pet owners more than a dog who snacks on stool. Unfortunately, coprophagia, or the ingestion of feces, is common in dogs.

Although many would like to blame this disgusting behavior on nutritional deficiencies, it’s just not the case.

“Since dogs often eat feces when cleaning newborn pups, it’s just an aberration of normal behavior that can become a bad habit they enjoy,” says Dr. Churchill.

There are behavior culprits to poop eating, as well.

Dogs who are punished for having accidents in the house may eat their own feces to hide the evidence. And others may use it to seek attention because it’s almost certain to draw attention — even if it’s negative — from their owners.

The Social Eater

Some pets simply prefer to dine with company.

Certain dogs, for example, may not eat when they’re alone due to separation anxiety, while others are accidentally conditioned to behave this way by their owners.

“Dogs that get more attention for holding out than eating will often go on a hunger strike,” says Dr. Pachel.

Bottom line: Whether your pet shuns the food bowl or begs for extra helpings, if there’s a change in your critter’s eating habits, it’s time to see your veterinarian.

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