Trigger warning: Recognizing (and removing) the triggers of feline anorexia


9 tips to help cats in your veterinary clinic have less stress and more appetite

(Getty Images)Whether a cat presents to your clinic with anorexia or develops it during hospitalization, you can take steps to manage each case while the cat is in your care. According to Susan Little, DVM, DABVP (feline), during a presentation at the Western Veterinary Conference, the first step is to understand what anorexia is (and isn't) and how it's triggered.

Don't miss these stress signals

Make note of the following information daily since many of these factors could indicate a stressed kitty (e.g. for muscle conditioning scoring, cats can lose muscle mass quickly and easily when sick or when their nutrition is inappropriate):


Pulse rate

Respiratory rate

Body weight

Body condition score

Muscle condition score

Amount of food actually eaten

Amount of water consumed

Estimate of urine quantity

Fecal quantity and score

Vomiting evidence

Anorexia is a nonspecific clinical sign that can be indicative of myriad underlying medical conditions, Little says. Triggered by stressful changes, such as hospitalization or illness, it is never a disease in itself. Unlike hyporexia, which describes a reduction in appetite, anorexia denotes a loss of appetite for food and requires more aggressive treatment, often in the form of assisted feeding.

Anorexia in cats is particularly serious. Cats are protein dependent, and according to Little, they need up to 9 g protein/kg/day. Proteolysis is much faster in cats than in dogs. A day or so with suboptimal food intake can start catabolism of their own muscle mass.

Little says managing anorexia and hyporexia in hospitalized cats requires more than just knowing the triggers, however. Veterinary teams must make concerted, comprehensive and consistent efforts to recognize and minimize these triggers every day. Little has removed some of the legwork by identifying common triggers of anorexia and hyporexia in hospitalized cats and pairing them with her top tips for minimizing stress and maximizing comfort:

1) Trigger: Withholding without reason

Since many veterinarians fail to write specific orders for feeding cats, food may be withheld unintentionally. But there are few reasons to withhold food from a cat.

2) Trigger: No place to hide

Cats need privacy, so providing a hiding place in the cage is important. Place the litter box at the front of the cage (near the door), and put food and a hiding box in the back.  

3) Trigger: Noisy nuisances

Be mindful of all of the noises you and your colleagues have learned to tune out. The dinging front door bell, beeping machines and barking dogs can be interpreted as threats by cats, causing them to believe their lives are in danger.

4) Trigger: Blinded by the light

Pay attention to lighting. Cats see best in low light, so make sure lights are turned off or dimmed whenever possible, as long as it does not impair monitoring.

5) Trigger: All business and no pleasure

Give cats attention beyond feeding and medication, such as petting, brushing or talking to them. Some daily interactions should be pleasurable, not medical.

6) Trigger: Foreign food

Don't change a cat's food while hospitalized. This can cause food aversion associated with stress, pain or nausea. Instead, wait until it is home and feeling better to start a gradual change to a new diet.

7) Trigger: Consistent inconsistency

Cats love predictability and consistency. A disruption such as a cage cleaning can be stressful, so keep cage cleaning times separate from feeding times.

8) Trigger: Cage cleanings

Speaking of cage cleaning, unless there is a medical reason to do a full cage cleaning every day, just spot clean cat cages as needed. Full cleanings require cats to start over on marking their territories and making their cages familiar. Spot cleaning can decrease the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections and stress.

9) Trigger: Nausea neglect

Learn to recognize the signs of nausea in cats, such as lip-smacking, turning away from food and food refusal, as well as vomiting. If an anorectic or hyporexic cat presents with nausea, address the nausea first. Once it is controlled through medication, you can offer cold or room temperature food intermittently. This avoids food aversion by reducing the odor.

For additional resources, Little recommends these free guidelines from Feline-Friendly Nursing Care Guidelines and Feline-Friendly Handling Guidelines.

Dr. Meghan E. Burns owns Connect Veterinary Consulting. Her expertise includes marketing, product and business development, key opinion leader management and medical writing.

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