By Dr. Carl Palazzolo, DVM, LBAH.
Anorexia is defined as “not eating.” It is one of the most common reasons cats are brought in for an exam. Being the unique and complex critters they are, there are a multitude of causes of anorexia.
How can you tell if you cat is not eating? Usually it’s because the food bowl is not empty or your pet is losing weight. In pets with longhair coats, it is difficult initially to see if your pet is losing weight. Maybe your cat wants to eat but cannot because of a foreign body in its mouth. Those cats will be drooling, pawing the face, or rubbing their face on the ground. There may also be swelling on one side of the face.
If your cat goes 24 hours without eating, it needs an exam. Cats don’t do well when they don’t eat for over 24 hours, and it can have a serious affect on their liver, especially if they are obese prior to the onset of anorexia. During the exam, one of our doctors will check for the many causes of anorexia.
Our exam starts with determining your cat’s body temperature, since a fever can cause anorexia. Then, a complete oral exam is performed to check for the following causes of anorexia:
- Gingivitis or periodontal disease of the gums and teeth
- Stomatitis of the oral cavity in general
- Yellow gums (called icterus) as a sign of anemia or liver disease
- A foreign body stuck under the tongue or anywhere in the oral cavity
- Fractured jaw at the chin, called a mandibular symphysis fracture
- A fracture at the temporomandibular (TMJ) joint
- Burns from biting an electrical cord
- Ulcers on the tongue or anywhere in the oral cavity
- Inflammation of the tongue, called glossitis
- Clogged nasal passages, especially when an upper-respiratory infection (URI) is present
Oral exams are important for any pet presented with anorexia. Without this one, we would not have see the tumor on the tongue.
After the oral exam, the rest of the body, including lymph nodes, heart and lungs, and internal organs, are checked. This exam, combined with diagnostic tests like radiographs and blood panels, help us determine if any of the following are the cause of your pet’s anorexia:
- Liver disease, especially fatty liver (hepatic lipidosis)
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Kidney disease, especially toxins or chronic kidney disease (CKD).
- Heart disease, especially congestive heart failure
- Lung disease, especially asthma
- Bladder disease, especially UTI or inability to urinate
- Bacterial infection
- Viral infection
- Fungal infection
- Fractures, sprains or strains
- Aging, making it difficult to smell or see food
- Hormone disease like diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes)
- Eye disease like corneal ulcers, foreign bodies, uveitis, glaucoma
Eye pain that leads to anorexia can be serious and difficult to diagnose. Special equipment is usually needed for an accurate diagnosis.
- Facial-nerve damage
- Brain lesions such as tumor, inflammation, infection
- Skin disease, causing excess scratching, wounds or infection
This is a radiograph of the chest of a cat that was presented for not eating. The circled area is a mass in the chest, which caused the anorexia. Without this radiograph, we would not have known the cause of the condition.
If we cannot find any organic cause to your cat’s anorexia, the problem could be psychological:
- Doesn’t like the smell or taste of its food
- Spoiled food
- Change in routine
- Motion sickness
- High environmental temperature
- Pain from a source such as arthritis, fractures, cancer, bee stings or wounds
- Stress from too many cats in your household
- Territorial dispute that includes access to the food bowl
- Noise from fireworks
- Visitors your cat is not used to seeing
As extensive as these lists are, they’re not comprehensive. They were created to give you an idea of the potential causes of anorexia so you can watch for it. Close observation of your cat and its daily habits will go a long way to catching any potential cause early enough to be treated.
Treatment is obviously aimed at the initial cause. Other ancillary treatments include fluids, antibiotics, appetite stimulants, anti-inflammatories, pain medication and assisted feeding, including the use of feeding tubes.