Underfeeding or Weight Loss in CatsCat Care > Cat Diet > Underfeeding or Weight Loss in Cats
In normal circumstances it is unlikely that a pet cat will be underfed. A healthy hungry kitten or cat will eat its food with enthusiasm and ask for more if it has not had enough. Routine weighing can detect weight loss, and this will eventually be noticed when petting the cat. Unexplained weight loss is a cause for concern, and the cat should be taken to a veterinary surgeon so that the cause can be investigated. It may be accompanied by other symptoms indicative of an underlying illness.
Stray cats and kittens that have been living rough are frequently severely malnourished. In the case of a kitten, this can have serious consequences for its growth and development, particularly if it has consistently failed to receive sufficient food. Even if the kitten is subsequently fed correctly, after a certain age it may have lost too much ground and its growth can remain stunted. Adult cats that are seriously undernourished usually look painfully thin and in poor condition. The fur may appear dull and matted, and the ribs and backbone are prominent and easily felt beneath the skin, which lacks subcutaneous fat.
A cat in this state may have a heavy burden of intestinal worm parasites, which weaken it further as it has no reserves or resistance to them. It is likely to be harboring skin parasites, particularly fleas and ear mites, which can be a further cause of serious debility. The cat is particularly vulnerable to bacterial and viral infections while in such a weakened state and is more likely to succumb to any form of illness. If its condition is very severe, it may be apathetic and have insufficient energy to resist the ministrations of people that it might otherwise not welcome.
A cat that is obviously in a severely weakened and undernourished state requires veterinary attention and may need to be put on a special feeding routine. One of the animal welfare charities, such as the RSPCA or SSPCA, will take care of the cat in case of any difficulty. In less severe cases, where the cat is willing and able to take food, there is no harm in giving it a good meal before deciding on appropriate further action.
It is sometimes necessary to employ considerable ingenuity and patience to persuade an ill or convalescent cat to eat. If a cat is refusing to eat, the best food to try in the first instance is a small amount of one that is a known favorite. At this stage, the aim is to get the cat to accept some food and not to worry too much about whether it is balanced or not. Foods with a strong taste are likely to prove more successful, e.g. fish such as sardines, pilchards or tuna or meat or liver in flavored gravy. This is particularly important if the cat is suffering from any respiratory disorder or nasal congestion, when its senses of smell and taste are impaired. Food should be warmed gently and milk offered if it is normally enjoyed by the cat. Smearing a little of the food on to the tongue or on to the nose, from where it will be licked off, may persuade the cat to sample the food. Specially formulated and highly nutritious foods designed for sick cats can be obtained from veterinary clinics and may be worth trying if the usual diet is rejected.
If all else fails, it may be necessary to attempt gently to force-feed a sick cat. This can be attempted only if the animal is weak but conscious and it is time-consuming, requiring care and patience. Liquid foods such as milk or a meat soup can be given by means of a disposable plastic syringe or eyedropper. If possible, two people should be involved and one should gently hold the cat from behind with the hands around its front legs. It may be easier to wrap the cat in a towel, just leaving its head free. The person doing the feeding should take hold of the cat by the scruff of the neck and tilt its head backwards so that the nose points upwards. The syringe is then inserted gently at the side of the mouth and one or two drops of food allowed to trickle out. Only a little should be given at each mouthful, with time allowed for the cat to swallow and take a breath. If the cat Boughs or makes a choking sound, its head must be lowered immediately. Stiffer food of a paste-like consistency can be given in this way or using the handle of a teaspoon to insert a small quantity into the side of the mouth.
The main danger with this form of feeding is the risk of inhalation of food and consequent development of pneumonia, which is often fatal. It is essential that only small amounts of food are given and to recognize at the outset that the process is likely to take some time. In fact, a cat will usually swallow only a small amount of food given in this way, and in order to try and make sure it receives enough, the whole operation needs to be repeated every two or three hours. It is worth persevering, however, as it is to be hoped the cat will soon feel well enough to start eating in the normal way.