May the Force Feeding Not Be with You

Pets who are not eating need to be nutritionally supported, but not with force feeding

Published: July 30, 2018
By Ethan Lofton from Durango, CO, USA (thanksgiving-1) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine yourself in the throes of the stomach flu (or a very, very bad hangover): Your stomach is doing flip flops, waves of nausea mercilessly keep coming, and the thought of anything that even remotely resembles food causes you to mentally calculate how quickly, if presented with, say, a Saltine cracker, you could make a mad dash to the toilet. Now, with those thoughts clearly in mind, imagine your loving partner or spouse approaching you with a turkey baster filled with gruel that he or she wants to squirt into your mouth. Syringe feeding is not only unpleasant, it also can cause aversion to food so that the patient is reluctant to eat. After all, ya gotta eat, goes the argument.

I believe our nauseated and ill cats and dogs must feel the same way when their well-intentioned, but ill-informed, human companions decide that it’s time for force feeding.

Cats and dogs can become hyporexic (eating less than normal) or anorexic (not eating any food) from a variety of illnesses. What they don’t do is calorie restrict due to mental health issues or because they want to “punish” us. A cat or dog who doesn’t eat is ill and even a few days of not eating can cause significant problems. For a cat, anorexia of just two days can cause fatty liver disease (hepatic lipidosis), which is life-threatening.

Those who are not eating need to be nutritionally supported. Many clients decide to take matters literally into their own hands/fingers and rub a small amount of baby food on their animals’ gums or hard palates several times a day. While this is a noble gesture, a jar of baby food contains only about 90 calories and won’t make a dent into the caloric needs of an 11-pound/5-kilogram cat (who needs 220 calories EACH DAY just to maintain basic body functions) or a 30-pound/13.6-killogram dog (who needs 479 calories, just to keep going). Sick animals require even more calories than well ones, so many jars of baby food need to be fed each day. It goes without saying that food designed for itty bitty humans is not a balanced diet for dogs and cats.

Force feeding is often stressful for the patient, who most times needs to be restrained in order to get the required volume of food in. While there are some cats who are fine with being sat up on a lap while wearing a towel for a bib, like a “kitty burrito,” most cats consider that to be an unnatural act. Dogs are often willing to take a few laps of gruel, but then turn away. 

In frustration and desperation, some clients “graduate” from feeding by hand to the feeding of small meatballs, but this also is problematic. Oftentimes these food orbs are not swallowed or only partially make their way down the esophagus (the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach), and so have the added risk of choking.

The previously mentioned turkey baster is sometimes employed, but this method risks aspirating (inhaling) food into the lungs. It’s also possible that the stream of liquefied food causes retching and even vomiting. In my clinical experience, less than half the contents of a turkey baster actually gets into the patient; the rest winds up on the floor, walls and the person wielding said baster.

So, with finger feeding, food meatballs and syringe feeding off the table, so to speak, how do we get food into our animal companions who won’t eat? The answer, feeding tubes, typically horrifies clients. Most humans equate feeding tubes with dire, last-ditch efforts to keep the Grim Reaper at bay. When I’ve recommended a feeding tube to clients for their anorexic pet, I’ve typically been met with wide eyes and horrific tales of relatives, friends and neighbors who were tormented by these devices in their final days. The fact is that in human medicine, feeding tubes are often (but not solely) used to stave off the inevitable. In veterinary medicine, we use feeding tubes to support patients so that they can recover.

When I had my own feline-exclusive practice, there was hardly a week in which we didn’t place a feeding tube. The only complaint we received from clients regarding placement was, "Why did I wait so long?" In fact, my staff and I typically received many thanks after the tube was placed and the kitty recovered. Over the years we amassed a number of feeding tube fans who were able to talk with on-the-fence clients and convince them with testimonials as to the ease and comfort of the tubes.

There are a number of feeding tubes that can be placed and much depends on the size of the patient and the veterinarian’s assessment of how long the patient will need to be nutritionally supported.

Esophagostomy tubes (E-tubes) are the most common feeding tubes placed in cats and dogs. Placement is done under anesthesia, the left side of the neck is clipped and prepared as for surgery; a small surgical blade is used to make an opening in the neck and the tube is placed. The tube is sutured in place and covered with a surgical wrap. Food is placed in the tube (which extends to the stomach) via syringes and the beauty of this type of feeding is that the exact number of calories needed can be given over several feedings a day. The client is required to check on the tube placement site daily and cleanse it. While skin infections can occur, these are easily treated with antibiotics. When the patient is eating normally, the tube is simply pulled out, the neck bandaged overnight and the small incision heals quickly and uneventfully.

Gastrostomy tubes (G-tubes) are placed directly into the stomach, usually by endoscopy, although they can be placed during a surgical procedure. Dogs and cats who need very long-term feeding, can have low-profile tubes placed. These tubes lie flush with the skin of the abdomen.

Naso-gastric tubes are typically only used for hospitalized patients. These are inserted directly in the nostril and, because of their small size, are limited for use with liquid diets and usually only for a few days’/weeks’ duration.

Cats and dogs who are well enjoy their food, whether they daintily pick at it throughout the day or inhale it in a matter of seconds. Those who don’t eat need to be evaluated as soon as possible by a veterinarian and, if the decision is made to place a feeding tube, it’s good to remember that these can truly be the life savers that help our animal companion be well again.


August 17, 2022

This is great advice for an animal that has the ability to recover. However, when an animal is on their death bed how do we give them food so that they don't become dehydrated and so that they don't starve to death? I currently have a kitty that's actively passing but she's too stubborn to just let go. I simply want to give her some/enough nutrition so that a lack of food doesn't add to her stress level or create discomfort in her final days. Up till 2 days ago she was happily lapping up food and water from a feeding syringe but since yesterday she hasn't been nearly as willing. Do you have any advice? Our vet isn't able to help with euthanasia until Friday. Today is Wednesday.

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
September 2, 2020

Hi Marta, that does sound like a difficult situation.  The decision for whether to place a feeding tube is one best made by you and your veterinarian, since you are the people who best know your cat and his quality of life.  Please let your vet know that the force feeding has become a problem, and they can help guide you.

August 30, 2020

Hello and Sorry for my bad english. My cat Chimero (13 years old) has chronicle renal failure , he's hungry but can't eat (split the food out and don't swallow, but try to eat it. I'm force feeding him from a month but recentely Is getting sick of force feeding. Even if he has a deathly illness Is It right to put the tube feeding?

May 15, 2020

Cindy, my cat is in a similar spot! Has possible small cell lymphoma cancer but not confirmed. Been treating with prednisone and an increased dosage for her back from 5 pounds to 10! Now has been sick with an unknown infection (could be spread from possible CA) the last two weeks and has lost the weight again. We will start the cholorambucil next week if she doesn’t eat. She wants to eat but doesn’t. I’m trying syringe feedings to see for now. My cat is 14 and never been sick before either. Would love to know what happens to your kitty!

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
May 8, 2020

Hi Cindy, I'm so sorry to hear about your dear kitty.  Unfortunately without knowing him, none of us can tell you what to do.  I'd recommend talking to your veterinarian about your concerns and asking about feeding options.

Cindy Shear
May 8, 2020

Please HELP. My sweet little cat boy is about 16 yrs.-never sick and now with likely intestinal lymphoma-so thin-down to 5Lbs. Wants to eat but won't. Anemic. On chlorambucil and pred. Am I cruel to try a feeding tube at this point?  I don't know what to do. Is he dying???

Amanda Coles
April 16, 2020

Great idea but cat can't have anesthesia according to three vet docs. So what do I do if syringe feeding is off limits? Put cat down or pray they eat eventually.

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
March 5, 2020

Hi Angelica, I'm so sorry to hear about your cat.  If you're concerned that she isn't eating or drinking properly and if you can't giver her the medication (cats can be so challenging to medicate!), please call your veterinarian today to talk to them about other options.

Angelica Kawewehi
March 5, 2020

My cat was ran over and her jaw was broken. The vet put a wire to fix her jaw, they said that she has been trying to eat the watered down food they were giving her, since I bought her home, I haven’t seen her even try. I’m not sure why, but she has been breathing through her mouth, which is causing her mouth to be dry. She has clawed and scratched me when I try to give her medicine, water and food with a syringe. I don’t even know if she is getting anything, because when I give it to her, it runs back out of her mouth. I don’t want her to starve or dehydrate! Is this time to ask for a feeding tube? It’s been 2 days since she has been home. I don’t want her to die! Advice Please

Sandi Leiby
January 30, 2020

I have a diabetic cat and this happened to him in October 2019. He has always been a picky eater and he wants to craze eat all day. He can’t do that anymore now that he is a diabetic. He develops ketones and has to go back to the Vet for fluids to flush them out. There must be a way to let him eat through out the day and be on his insulin. Praying for answers!

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