Sadly, many of us have faced a situation where a kitty loses his/her appetite. This usually happens when they suffer from a disease that makes them feel nauseous, or sick in some way. It is very common for cats with Chronic Renal Failure (CRF), to not want to eat. Even in acute situations, if cats go off their feed, they will often completely lose all interest in food. The longer they go without eating properly, the less they seem to respond to food. It is critical to not let a cat get into this downward spiral.
With some cats, there is no way they will tolerate assist/force-feeding so they may need a feeding tube.
However, if your cat will tolerate assistance in feeding or assist-feeding as it is often referred to, it can stimulate his/her appetite enough to want to eat on his/her own. It's akin to "priming the pump" because in some cases cats really are hungry but just don't feel well enough to eat. Once they taste food, it gets their juices going, and the start to eat on their own.
Or maybe they get tired of well-meaning humans like me shoving food down their throats, and decide it's best to just eat on their own!
Note: Please do not let your cat go more than 24 hours without any sort of food. Caution is warranted because cats can develop hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease) from not eating. Obese cats are especially susceptible to developing this problem.
Below is the technique my husband and I used (very successfully) with our first cat Boo Boo in 1998 and later with Hunny Bunny in 2002 the last 6 weeks of her fight with breast cancer as well as with Trikki after his cancer diagnosis in 2010.
We assist-fed Booey for 1.5+ years, and wish we had started sooner. He lived for 20 months after his diagnosis of CRF and Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (read Booey's Story); we know in our hearts he would have left us sooner had we not syringe-fed him.
Alas, both our girls -- Missy (17), and Pigpen (16) are currently dealing with HCM and PKD (and CRF), respectively, and have very poor appetite. We started syringe-feeding them back in December 2011 when they were first diagnosed. After 2 weeks of assist-feeding, they both started eating on their own. Unfortunately, they are both now back to eating sporadically, if at all, so we are syringe-feeding them again.
What to feed
Raw food is best (yup, I'm biased!:), and since that's what my cats have eaten for over a decade and a half, when they're sick, that's what I feed them. Currently my cat Pigpen, who is allergic to poultry, is eating her usual bison alternated with pork. Missy gets a bigger variery e.g. chicken, turkey, rabbit, etc.
Alternatively, one can feed cooked homemade food or an rx Hills AD (not for long-term use) or Carnivore Care (also not ideal but better than nothing).
If you're not a rawfeeder, you can stick to canned food e.g. the newer all-meat formulas by EVO, Wellness, Wysong, & Merrick which are all smooth and easy to administer via syringe.
For raw and cooked meat, run it through a blender with just enough meat stock to blend it together so the mix is still thick but can be sucked into a syringe.
I started out using a Magic Bullet because that's what I had on hand. I use the larger one for my smoothies, and the smaller/shorter one for my cats' food. Ah who am I kidding, both are for the cats, time for me to buy a new one for myself!
How much to feed
An advantage of raw food is a little goes a much longer way than canned. I feed my cats the same amount as they ate prior to their illness. For raw-fed cats and those on a cooked meat diet, aim to feed (in ounces) 2.5-3% of their ideal body weight.
For canned food, feed 25-30 calories per pound of ideal body weight.
My girls currently get around 90g or 3.2 oz of food based on the calculation of 8lbs of body weight times 16 = 128oz times .025 = 3.2oz or 99 grams of raw meat. I use this scale to measure the exact amount per meal prior to adding broth/water.
How often to feed?
Ideally, one should feed smaller meals spread out over the day e.g. 6 feedings of 15g per feeding. Know that once you add stock/broth/water to blend meat, you'll end up with more volume i.e. more syringes than expected.
To give you an idea, when I prepare my girls' food, 15gms of my ground rawmix when mixed with broth (~2 Tablespoons) yields around 25cc of blended meat. In other words 5 of the smaller/5cc syringes.
We do feed 6 times a day, but then we're fortunate to have flexible schedules. One also has to balance the frequency with a cats' impatience and how much their tummy can hold in one sitting without making them uncomfortable.
- Hand or face towel or gentle/soft nap microfiber cloth
- Lots of paper towels
- Bowl of tepid water (can put a drop of lavender hydrosol (NOT essential oil!) or a drop of Bach's Rescue Remedy in it)
Small (5ml = 1 teaspoon) plastic syringe from the pediatric section of the drug store. Some Target stores and other pharmacies carry a non-rubber 5ml syringe; you won't see it on the shelves, so ask at the pharmacy counter.
Big (15ml or 1/2 oz) plastic syringe for larger cats and/or if you cannot find smaller syringes. In the U.S. there is a brand called "Four Paws" which works well for bigger cats. It is available at pet/feed stores or from amazon - I like the tapered one which I snip off at about 1/2 way down the tip to make the opening larger.
We had 3 problems with the regular "pet" syringes -
(1) The rubber in them gets stuck more easily for some reason so that when you push on it, you never know if a whole lot of food will come spurting out or nothing at all,
(2) We found that even when it isn't acting up, it deposits too much food with each squirt so a lot of it ended up on us, on Booey's chest, and on the walls etc. This is despite the fact that he was extremely well-behaved.
3) They do not hold up well to washing/cleaning because the rubber dries out.
Two non-syringe alternatives to syringes that have been mentioned on my forum are icing bags (experiment with various plastic tips) and droppers.
Some cats will accept food if offered on a spoon. If so, great! In other cases, they won't willingly lick or eat off a spoon but will accept a quick deposit of food in their mouth via spoon. Both these situations are great, but if your cat won't accept food from a spoon, syringe-feeding it is.
Steps in syringe-feeding:
- Blend food. Add supplements (optional) - digestive enzymes, yogurt or probiotics - various strains of lactobacilli and bifido bacteria, and anything else relevant to your cat's situation. I add ghee to their food to help them gain some weight.
- Draw up the food into the syringes before you go in to feed your kitty.
- Hold and pet your kitty speaking soothingly. If your cat is spooked, apply 1 drop of Rescue Remedy or ABFE's Emergency Essence on your thumb, and rub it on the inside of one of your cats' ears. If you like, you can place a 3-6 mo. infant-sized bib around his (her) handsome (pretty) furry neck if you're dealing with a longhaired cat.
- If you're doing this without another human to help you, straddle your cat so that s/he faces away from you, and cannot back away from the feeding. In our case, John holds our cat in his lap, and I syringe the meat. Some cats do better if placed on a counter or on top of a washer. If you go this route, place a towel/blanket under their feet.
- Gently press down on both sides of the upper jaw to get the mouth open. If you're touching the right spot, the jaw will hinge open; if it doesn't, do not force, and instead try to find the magic spot.
- Press down gently on syringe plunger. With some of our cats, we've found it works best to not squirt it from the side; instead we would lift the chin a bit and squirt down at an angle but from the front of his mouth. Be careful because kitty can gag or choke if you try to squirt the liquid straight down his throat.
Some cats e.g. Bunny & Missy, do better if you come at them from the side. Cats can be susceptible to aspiration pneumonia, so always take it slow and easy and when in doubt stay toward the front of the mouth and squirt from the side, not front.
- Give kitty time to swallow the food and lick lips, then squirt again. We squirted each tiny (5cc) syringe 4-5 times or so, i.e. 1cc per squirt, with breaks in between.
During breaks, if you spot any food on kitty's lips or mouth, dip the washcloth in water, and wipe away. Dab the mouth dry so as to not make kitty any more uncomfortable than s/he already is.
- Give your kitty his/her favorite treat(s), and lots and lots of pets, chin scratches, and cuddles. Handsome devil Boo Boo loved being combed so we had a petting session afterwards, and he purred for us.
That's it! Ha, how easy I made that sound. And to tell the truth, even cats who were difficult to handle at the vet's, have been surprisngly amenable to feeding.
So don't assume the worst. Think positive, and before, during, and after a session, keep a positive feeling about you so your cat doesn't pick up on it.
With assist-feeding, John and I have saved cats from the brink of death. And even when death is near, giving them sustenance has kept them comfortable. Without food, they would have had a more difficult time and a poor quality of life.
Syringe-feedings gave Boo Boo an extra 1.5 years of life, and gave Bunny & Trikki the strength to fight cancer. Neither seemed to mind the inconvenience. Both were getting herbs and supplements twice a day anyway, so we tried to make the process as seamless as possible. As I said, we are currently feeding Missy and Piggy, and they're holding their own.
Over the years, John and I have assist-fed countless kitties, and would do it again in a heartbeat. At the risk of overstating it, I'll say assist-feeding is a lifesaver. Don't be afraid to try it.
Good luck, and best of health to your felines from me and mine.