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Appetite and Health
Eating disorders are common in pets. Obesity associated with overeating may lead to various physical illnesses in pets, including heart, kidney and liver problems. Additional stress on joints from excessive weight leads to structural instability and arthritis. Contrary to popular opinion, most pets do not self-regulate the quantity of food they consume. A pet can gain weight when it is fed more than it needs. Overeating in pets is often associated with overfeeding by their owners. This often happens after neutering if food intake is not reduced or if food is always available.

To control your pet's weight:

Feed a well-balanced diet that is appropriate for your pet's individual needs.
Only feed your pet at its regular mealtimes.
Remove the uneaten portion when your pet walks away from its food bowl.
Avoid snacks or treats between meals.
Be sure your pet has some type of daily exercise.

If, despite your efforts, your pet is still overweight, it may be necessary to further reduce the amount of food it eats and increase its exercise. Your veterinarian can offer advice on your pet's weight-reduction program. Excessive appetite may be of medical concern and should be evaluated. A pet with internal parasites or an overly active thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism), for example, may be hungrier than usual and may not lose condition in the early stages of disease. Apparent weight gain may occur even without excessive food intake. This may be a consequence of other physical disorders, such as undiagnosed tumors or an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism). Consult your veterinarian about any weight gain or loss accompanying a change in your pet's eating habits. Certain foods can cause medical problems in some pets. Dietary intolerance, or food hypersensitivity, is a form of allergy that may result in skin problems (rashes, itchiness, hair loss) or digestive ailments (vomiting, diarrhea). Behavioral changes may also be associated with certain foods. Irritability and agitation may appear in pets allergic to certain foods. This resembles mood changes in people with allergic responses to a variety of allergens. Some foods appear to promote increased levels of excitement and general arousal. For example, overactivity may be related to high-protein diets. Give your veterinarian the opportunity to evaluate your pet and advise you regarding any health concerns.


Refusal of Pet Food
A decreased appetite is often the first sign of an underlying medical problem. Report this to your veterinarian without delay. A healthy pet may learn, however, that finicky eating is an effective way to gain its owner's attention. Many pets learn that if they refuse to eat commercial pet food, their owner will feed them "people" food. This may be more true of pet dogs than cats, who are naturally more selective about what they eat. Pets rely on their sense of smell to distinguish what they eat. This survival mechanism is so strong in cats that they will not eat what they cannot smell. A cat with congested nasal passages must be closely monitored until it recovers. Anorexia nervosa, the self-imposed denial of food in order to reduce weight, does not exist in pets. Anxiety-induced anorexia, however, associated with the anxiety caused by social isolation, for example, is relatively common. Pets boarded in kennels may initially refuse food during a period of adjustment. Most of these soon resume eating and require no further encouragement. Some pets become so depressed during periods of separation or confinement that they completely refuse food. This may be avoided if the pet's regular food is provided during boarding. A pet that has not eaten after 2 days must be examined by a veterinarian. If no medical problem is detected, medications that decrease anxiety or increase appetite may be necessary. Some pets avoid eating if eating is associated with negative experiences. For example, aggressive encounters between pets near feeding areas may cause a pet to avoid that location or food. Unless this is corrected by resolving the conflict between pets or changing the location of food, a dog or cat may go hungry. Your pet's appetite is heightened by your presence and praise. If you are often absent and your pet is fed only when you are at home, the pet may be forced to choose between socializing with you and eating. The pet may prefer social interaction to food when these are in conflict.


Pets quickly learn that various types of attention-seeking behavior can result in a food treat from an indulgent owner. A pet's desire for attention, such as for social interaction or exercise, can be misinterpreted as a sign of hunger. To discourage a pet that begs for food or refuses to eat pet food, all household members must completely discontinue rewarding attention-seeking behavior with treats or attention. If these treats are not totally withdrawn, begging will continue and may even accelerate. You must be consistent and dedicated to controlling your own behavior that may contribute to objectionable patterns in your pet. Food is not a substitute for love and attention. Most pets resume eating their own food when they learn that they will no longer be given table scraps. This may take several days, but your pet will certainly not starve in this time. To gradually reintroduce your pet to commercial pet food, mix table scraps with the pet food. Over several weeks, gradually reduce the content of "people" food toward a diet consisting exclusively of pet food. In the absence of underlying physical problems, overeating is occasionally associated with emotional causes. Such psychogenic polyphagia may coincide with a stressful event in the pet's life. Introduction of a new pet or anxiety associated with boarding can bring a sudden and transitional elevation in appetite. The problem may be escalated by unintentionally rewarding the pet with additional helpings of food or more attention while it eats. The cause of the pet's emotional upheaval must be controlled. It should be distracted from eating by using other activities, such as exercise.


Avoidance of Specific Foods
Pets have preferences for the type of food they eat. Some prefer dry food (kibble) over semi-moist or canned food, while others show no preference. Some pets dislike beef, for example, and eat only chicken-based foods. Your pet may learn to avoid a particular food if it perceives a bad taste or becomes ill after eating that food. Owners of hunting dogs may purposely bait the body of a prey animal with foul-tasting substances or with chemicals that induce nausea to discourage its consumption.


Aggression at Mealtime
Anxiety and general arousal in anticipation of mealtimes can result in agitated or aggressive behavior directed toward a pet's owner or another pet. Agitation just before mealtime can take the form of nipping at the owner or simply jumping or running. Some dogs yawn, scratch or lick themselves, while others chase their tail or dig. Such behavior does not indicate that the pet was deprived of food early in life. It may be seen in pets that have never known starvation and may be absent in pets that have experienced real hunger. Irritable aggression because of low blood sugar can be amplified by the excitement just before feeding. Competition between pets over food may also be expressed as outbursts of aggression. Perhaps the most common type of aggression associated with food is guarding behavior. This is a special type of aggression seen in animals that are defending a valued object, in this case, food. To curb aggressive or agitated behavior associated with feeding, the triggering factors must be controlled. If the antagonist is a dog that steals food from a cat, for example, feed the cat on an elevated surface out of the dog's reach. Pets that become aggressive toward each other should be fed separately and kept apart until their respective portions are consumed. This may require feeding them at opposite ends of the room or in different parts of the home, or feeding one outdoors while the other eats indoors. It may be helpful to increase the number of daily meals by dividing the total daily portion. This may alleviate the anxiety at mealtime by distributing it more evenly over multiple feedings. Feeding time is an opportunity to instruct your dog on appropriate behavior. Make your dog earn its food by requiring it to obey a simple command, such as "sit." This obedience practice sets a tone of calm and controlled behavior at mealtime. A dog that is uncontrollably and inappropriately excited must be taught an acceptable alternative behavior.


Vomiting Associated With Anxiety
Healthy cats and dogs may vomit relatively often. A pet may vomit digested food or regurgitate ("upchuck") undigested food soon after consuming a meal if it becomes anxious during or after eating. Some pets express anxiety by becoming aggressive before feeding. Other pets express anxiety at mealtime by regurgitating the meal soon after eating. It may be helpful to feed smaller portions at more frequent intervals. Place the food dish in a quiet location to give a nervous or shy pet more privacy. If vomiting occurs very often, produces blood clots or traces of blood, or is associated with any other change, such as lethargy or diarrhea, consult your veterinarian without delay.