Pets with Cancer: How to Stimulate your Pet’s Appetite

Appropriate nutrition is important for any pet with cancer.  Every effort should be made tohand feeding dog encourage pets to eat on their own.  This often involves hand feeding of highly palatable food frequently with small portions.  Often times, pets with cancer will not eat commercially manufactured pet nutrition products and home cooked meals may be all the pet is willing to eat.  Home-prepared diets are not convenient and tend to be more expensive.  It is important to work with your veterinarian to try and establish the best diet for your pet.  Board-certified veterinary nutritionists can be very helpful in developing a nutritional program for your pet, particularly if feeding home cooked meals.  Your veterinarian can also help try and determine if the cause of the decreased appetite is due to the cancer, side effects of the cancer treatment (such as chemotherapy related), or due to other issues unrelated to the cancer or its treatment. Use of drugs to stimulate the appetite may be considered to help stimulate the appetite, but are best used in a short-term setting rather than as a matter of routine.

Appetite stimulants used to encourage pet nutrition intake

There are a number of appetite stimulants that can be used to try to encourage a pet to eat.  Examples of appetite stimulants used in animals to encourage pet nutrition intake include mirtazapine, cyptroheptidine, and steroids such as prednisone.  They can benefit some pets that have a decreased or altered appetite, but it is important to monitor food intake to know if appropriate calories are being consumed.  Owners can have the perception that their pet is eating appropriate amounts of food when appetite is improved with stimulants because they are pleased to see that their pet is eating some food, even though it is not sufficient enough to maintain weight. It has been observed that appetite stimulants may initially increase the appetite, but that intake over extended time periods may be unchanged.  Feeding tube placement should be considered over prolonged use of appetite stimulants as early feeding tube placement typically has a better outcome in maintaining weight than waiting until the pet is severely debilitated.

Other measures that can be used as appetite stimulants to encourage pet nutrition intake

Other measures exist besides appetite stimulants that can help encourage pet nutrition intake.  Having a variety of different commercial foods that meet the animal’s nutritional needs can be helpful.  Owners can than feed one of the pet nutrition products and keep the others in reserve if the pet becomes disinterested in a particular food.  If an pet eats a particular food and then tires of it, it should still be kept as an option in the future, as some pets will often eat the food again at a later date.

Feeding smaller meals more frequently can be helpful and helps maintain the freshness of the food.  Animals tend to be more inclined to eat highly odorous foods.  Flavor enhancers can be considered as well, but should be appropriate for the patient.  Cats tend to prefer meat or fish flavors, while dogs are more variable and may prefer meat flavors or sweet flavors such as yogurt, maple syrup or applesauce.

Altering the temperature of the food may be helpful as well.  Cats often prefer foods that are warmed, while dogs can be more variable and may like foods warmed, at room temperature, cold or even frozen.  Feeding the pet in a different setting that is stress free can be helpful.  Instead of feeding out of the regular food bowl, feeding from a dinner plate or in a different location may encourage food intake.

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Dr Stephen Atwater

Stephen W. Atwater, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVIM (oncology) is a board-certified veterinary oncology specialist. His professional interests include utilizing emerging therapies for difficult to treat cancers.

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  1. avatar Anna says:

    When my precious dog Blue was sick and didn’t want to eat, a friend gave me some Natural Balance dog food rolls and this was the only thing that got him to eat and take his medicine. I was so thankful to have found something soft and nutritious to make the whole process easier, and he liked the food so much it lifted his spirits while he wasn’t feeling good. Posting in hopes my experience will help other pet owners who are having trouble stimulating their dogs appatite.

    1. Thank you very much for your success story. When pets are sick, it is often difficult to get them to take their medicine without which they won’t feel better. I have heard others state similar experiences to yours. The rolls can be useful for getting pets to take their medication or for training since you can use small pieces, and they are palatable and appear to be balanced. Since the rolls are balanced, you do not have to stick to the general rule of thumb that treats should be < 10% of calories fed to a pet. But, the rolls have some limitations. The rolls are fairly low in protein (17.9% calories from protein), so it is not a preferred nutritional source for an overweight pet or one with low energy needs, as they might not eat enough to meet their daily protein needs. Also, Natural Balance does not put any of their products through AAFCO testing for nutritional adequacy and just seem to rely on a formulation method of producing their products.