The Diet That Suddenly Works

Dec 5, 2012 by     4 Comments    Posted under: Tips & Advice

My last blog was about dieting, but a more serious concern is the diet that suddenly starts producing results without having changed your cat’s dietary routine. Diets don’t suddenly start working on their own and you cannot wish those pounds away (or we all might be “svelte”). Basically we are talking about what we call “unexplained weight loss”.

Unexplained weight loss is exactly that. Weight loss without a good (or known) cause. The list of causes of unexplained weight loss is fairly long, however, we can usually narrow it down with a little detective work.

Cats, by nature, are stoic and they will not tell you that they are sick until they have to, so you need to be a detective at home as well. Very often the only sign of illness is weight loss. Your cat will try to tell you that everything is fine, but the scale will tell you otherwise.

Being a veterinary detective, we start with the obvious- diet. Have you changed how and what you are feeding your cat? If so, did this change result in fewer calories fed?

Is your cat choosing to eat less on his/her own? A decreased appetite is not specific to any particular disease, but is important information. Is your cat having difficulty eating? This could indicate and underlying dental problem (although most cats will continue to eat normally in the face of advanced dental disease).

Is your cat having intestinal upset (vomiting and/or diarrhea)? This will interfere with proper digestion of food.

Is your cat drinking and urinating more than usual? This could indicate (most commonly) diabetes or an underlying kidney infection.

Is your cat eating more and/or stealing food, yet losing weight? This can be consistent with an overactive thyroid gland or diabetes.

Is your cat on a regular deworming program? Has your cat had a recent fecal test? Parasites can cause weight loss, however, unless there is an overwhelming infection, they are unlikely to cause a drastic weight loss.

These observations are very important and should be shared with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will need to perform a comprehensive examination on your feline friend. Very often a comprehensive examination along with a detailed history will help narrow the list of suspected diseases help develop a plan to uncover the problem.

In most cases an internal organ screen (blood and urine test) will be necessary. These screening tests give your veterinarian a lot of information – almost like an internal examination.

In some cases radiographs (x-rays) are needed. One of the causes of unexplained weight loss in seemingly healthy cats includes tumors in the chest. The chest is one area that cannot be palpated (or felt) during the examination because it is protected by the rib cage. Chest tumors can grow to a substantial size before causing obvious outward symptoms. An x-ray is necessary to check for chest tumors.

Once the screening test results are in hand, your veterinarian can either start treatment or discuss what additional testing (if any) is necessary. In most cases, if you have screened the blood, urine and stool and have normal x-rays and have still not found the cause of the weight loss, the next step is an abdominal ultrasound.

Ultrasound is a safe and painless way to evaluate internal organs in more detail. While x-rays show us the shape and position of the internal organs, an ultrasound can give us details of the internal parts of the organs. In cases of unexplained weight loss, we are especially concerned about the intestinal tract (one area where blood tests can’t accurately evaluate). The ultrasound can detect changes in the intestines and other organs and help pinpoint problems. While ultrasound will not always give you an exact diagnosis (a biopsy may be needed for this), it will provide a great deal of information and can help direct treatment, provide a prognosis (an idea of what to expect in the future) and other options to obtain a specific diagnosis.

Sometimes it is hard for cat owners to decide how far to go with testing. If you are unsure if you want to pursue an ultrasound and/or biopsy you need to discuss this with your veterinarian. Ultimately, the decision is yours. Our role as veterinarians is to help you make educated decisions about health care for your cats. Make a list of your questions and your concerns to review in your discussion. The most common question I get is “what will we do differently based on the results?” It isn’t possible to discuss treatments for every possible outcome of the testing, but it’s important to know that the results will be helpful.

So please watch your cat’s weight and be a veterinary detective at home. If your cat experiences unexplained weight loss, gather information and make an appointment with your veterinarian. It is much better for you and your cat if we can detect and treat a disease earlier than if we wait for your cat to show signs of illness. Unsure if your cat’s weight has changed? Most bathroom scales are not accurate enough to detect small changes in weight for cats. Either purchase an infant scale to use at home or call your veterinarian to see if you can bring your cat in to be weighed.

Dr Diana Lafer

Dr. Diana Lafer founded Cats Limited in 1995. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Wesleyan University and her veterinary degree from Cornell University. Dr. Lafer has a cat (Sparky), and a dog (Lucy). She enjoys spending time with her daughters, horseback riding, skiing, hiking, participating in triathlons, and volunteering for the Lakeville Pony Club.

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  • Robert Schmitt

    Dr. Lafer, thanks for writing this article for the blog. I will definitely share this on our clinic Facebook page. I see this all the time where I practice. I tell my clients that, unlike myself, an intolerable grump when I’m ill, kitties are so often silent sufferers. The walk around going about their business normally and yet have things going on inside that we just can’t see. So often the signs are so subtle that it’s very easy to miss – slight changes in weight, not eating quite as much as usual, drinking more or urinating more, or maybe just sleeping a little more (I know, it’s hard to imagine some cats sleeping MORE!). I think that this also illustrates the importance of regular visits to the vet, who may be able to notice some of these subtleties based on history and exam.

    I was also glad to see the thorough work-up you described when you’re trying to diagnose these issues. This can be frustrating for both client and doctor. I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of patients that are losing weight and yet the blood and urine tests come back completely normal. I understand that it can be difficult at times for clients when their feline friend isn’t acting sick but their doctor is suspicious that there may be something going on. This is exactly the time to be looking though because with many things, the earlier we catch it, the more we can do to reverse or slow down the progress of the disease. Not to mention, we may be able to help make them feel better too!

    Keep up the good work with the blog!

    Robert Schmitt, DVM
    City Cat Clinic
    St. Louis Pk, MN
    http://www.facebook.com/citycatclinicmn

    • Diana Lafer, DVM

      Dr Schmitt,
      Thank you for your comments. Cats are so reluctant to “talk about their problems” – so many of us find similar challenges with our feline patients.

  • I like how you put across that some results are purely academic and some will help us make informed treatment or symptom management decisions.

    • Diana Lafer, DVM

      Thanks Elaine. Yes, these situations do require some thoughtful discussion as well as realistic setting of expectations and goals. When in doubt, write down your concerns, questions and goals and find a time to have them addressed. You may end up making the same decisions, but may feel more comfortable making those decisions with more information. Sometimes we get all the answers we need, but at times an educated guess is the best we can do.

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