By Christie Long
A friend recently told me a sad story about his young cat that died fairly suddenly. She had stopped eating all but a little food and was extremely lethargic for several days. The family didn’t realize how sick the kitty was. By the time she got to the veterinarian, it was too late to save her.
Owners often are confused and unsure of what to do when their pets stop eating and/or become lethargic and withdrawn. When there are visible problems – limping, bleeding or vomiting – it’s fairly obvious to most people that their pet needs medical attention.
But what kinds of things make a normally active dog or cat sleep more, withdraw or refuse to participate in activities that they typically love? Do they just sometimes become more tired for no apparent reason? And is it normal for a healthy animal to stop eating suddenly? In most cases, the answers are a resounding “no.”
It’s important to know your pet’s typical behaviors well so that you can recognize dog health problems early. When a normally active dog or cat is not interested in playing or interacting with the family, something is wrong with your dog’s health.
Causes of acute lethargy include fever, pain (especially back pain), anemia (low red blood cells) and toxin ingestion. Neither fever nor anemia are diagnoses; in both situations testing is required to determine the root cause of the problem and to treat the underlying disease. Oftentimes, lethargy is the first sign that something is wrong and eventually other more obvious symptoms may develop. But by that time, your pet may be quite ill.
There are really no good reasons why a normal cat or dog would stop eating. Their drive to survive has been programmed for thousands of years into their DNA, as anyone who has ever witnessed a dog vacuum the kitchen floor for the tiniest remnant of food knows. Skipping one meal might not be cause for great alarm, but when a pet goes 24 hours without eating, something is amiss and needs to be checked out.
It’s important to note whether your pet shows any interest in food at all or does not even darken the kitchen door at mealtime. Does your pet try to put the food in its mouth but seems to have difficulty swallowing, or be unable to swallow? Does your pet smack or lick its lips after smelling food, indicating nausea? These are all important observations that will help your veterinarian figure out what’s going on.
The pets of today may be far removed from their counterparts in the wild, but they are programmed to avoid the appearance of weakness. If you are not tuned into the subtle signals your pet is sending, the result will be that when you finally realize something is wrong, your pet has been sick for sometime.
Early recognition in the slight changes in your pet’s behavior and attitude might be the difference between life and death.
Christie Long is a veterinarian at the VCA Animal Hospital in Fort Collins, CO. Long left her job in software sales in 2000 to travel for 13 months. Along the way, she was touched by the plight of the animals she saw and somewhere in the Nepalese Himalayas she vowed to return to school to become a veterinarian. While she often finds end-of-life situations heart-wrenching, she considers herself blessed to be called upon as a trusted adviser to families during difficult times. Dr. Long’s family includes her husband and travel partner, Wiley, their 5-year-old son, Wiley IV, their dogs Pancake and Gizmo and cats Sneaky and Sidh.