Written by Shannon Fujimoto Nakaya, DVM
Second to hydration, life is about maintaining a positive energy balance, which requires caloric intake. For sure, many people associate eating with an interest in living. Loss of appetite is often the symptom that motivates people to call a veterinarian, even if there were other indicators that something was amiss before the patient lost it's appetite. When making end of life decisions, whether or not the pet is still eating often weighs heavily into people's choices.
Factors that can affect appetite:
- Can't find the food: decreased vision
- Can't get to the food: decreased mobility
- Loss of smell (cats are particularly driven to eat by smell)
- Boredom, dislike certain flavors or prescribed diets or supplements
- Difficulty prehending the food (getting it from the front of the mouth to the back of the mouth)
- Difficulty swallowing
- Mouth pain
- Abdominal pain
- Indigestion, nausea
- Illness, disease, cancer
- Dementia, confusion
So here are some ideas:
- Moist food is generally more palatable than dry food.
- Try the canned version.
- Add water*
- Add broth*
- Add gravy*
- Add baby food*
- Warmed food is generally more smelly (stimulates the nose) than cold food. Cooking smells can stimulate appetite, for humans and for pets.
- Sometimes it's just about changing texture or presentation. This can be a great trick in patients restricted to specific diets.
- Try putting it in the blender -- canned or dry. Add different amounts of liquids to derive different textures. Make soup, puree, pate, little balls.
- Prescription dry food can be ground up, add water, mold into "cookies", and bake.
- Freeze into treats.
* FIRST AND FOREMOST, PLEASE pay attention to dietary restrictions based on ALL of your pet's health condition(s). Some pets are able to digest almost anything while others are very sensitive. Some pets are predisposed to vomiting, diarrhea, bladder stones, seizures with dietary changes. Giving ice cream to a pet with diabetes or pancreatitis UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, even if it has metastatic cancer, could just add to your pet's problems and make it feel worse, and would be completely inappropriate. Ditto with salty broths or foods and patients with heart disease or high blood pressure. In my world of caring for pets, rule number one is DO NO HARM. If there is any uncertainty, check with your veterinarian.
- Sometimes food tastes better when you go out to eat. I don't exactly know why this is, but it's true. I've more than a few clients bring their pets in having not eaten for more than a day. I'd open a can of something and the pet would devour it right in front of the both of us and then take a couple of treats afterwards. Maybe it was the excitement of going for a ride, or maybe the adrenaline of being at the veterinary office. But when it came to my own dog's wavering appetite, there were times when the prescription of going out to eat worked. I remember outings involving cheeseburgers, side dishes of shredded meat, teriyaki chicken, grilled bits of steak, and loco moco (the is a local Hawaii entree of a hamburger patty and a fried egg on a bed sticky white rice, topped with lots of (salty) brown gravy), and ice cream. The local take out places got to know us well.
- Home made diets and gourmet cooking for hospice patients. Not everyone believes in cooking for their pets. Even amongst veterinarians, there are those who believe that pets should ONLY eat pet foods, and those who believe that pets should NEVER eat pet foods. Whether it is commercially prepared or home made, organic or not, human-grade ingredients or not, feeding a pet is partly about nutrition and partly about philosophy. In the case of pre-hospice and hospice patients, second to dietary restrictions or recommendations based on whatever it is they've been diagnosed with, maintaining a positive energy balance and enjoying life through fine cuisine (as determined by your pet) is generally more important than regular balanced nutrition. At sixteen, my dog Nalu developed a degenerative brain condition. The rest of his body was functioning phenomenally well; his bloodwork. xrays, and cardiac evaluation were all textbook normal. But my food hound lost interest in food. Getting him to eat enough to maintain body weight became a project. I decided that if someone offered me gourmet meals three times a day, I would eat more than if someone offered me ordinary fare. At some point, I was no longer so worried about making sure he got all of his vitamins and minerals on a daily basis; I just wanted to keep calories going in to maintain a positive energy balance.
- If you are even thinking about cooking for your dog, you really should have a copy of Fresh Food & Ancient Wisdom: Preparing Healthy and Balanced Meals for your Dogs by Dr. Ihor Basko. You can download it straight to your computer. Still waiting for the cat version.
- In my situation, I prepared nutritionally balanced meals for my pet for several years. And then there was a time, when I just desired him to voluntarily eat something . . . anything . . . sometimes more balanced and sometimes not . . . sometimes nutritionally desirable . . . and sometimes not. I'm not advocating this lack of attention to nutrition under ordinary circumstances; I'm just sharing the ideas that desperation begot and that kept us going for a few more weeks.
- I decided the the smell of foods being prepared might stimulate appeite. My goal was easy-to-prepare meals with tempting smells and flavors. I made everything in small portions, sometimes feeding him right out of the (cooled) pan. Some of our entrees included: cottage cheese omelets, stroganoff (without the onions), beef stew, rotisserie chicken (with gravy made from the trimmings).
- Sometimes, I would "sneak" some pet food in (treating it as an ingredient) when I could.
- Cat food milkshakes with cat food and vanilla ice cream.
- Cheese and ground up kibble omlets
- Anthing topped with any kind of grated cheese and baked for a few minutes