We all love our dogs and the thought of them getting ill is awful. Unfortunately, cancer is common in dogs, particularly as they age. Just like humans, many cancers in dogs can be treated but there are certain symptoms that need careful management.
Many dogs suffering from cancer or undergoing cancer treatment suffer from a lack of appetite and weight loss. As owners, what can we do to help them through their illness?
What to feed a dog with cancer and no appetite
To ensure your dog is getting all the nutrients they need, there are several things you need to consider when choosing their food.
1. Fat content
Cancer cells prefer using carbohydrates as an energy source and are less likely to target fat cells. A dog’s healthy cells need fat to function normally, therefore, a diet high in fat (ideally 20-40%) is recommended for cancer patients. A high-fat content will also help your dog to gain a little weight.
Similarly, a diet with a high-calorie value will help the dog maintain weight as the cancer often causes a reduction in the absorption of nutrients. A high-calorie food means they have more nutrients available and will be able to put on weight
Protein is an essential nutrient in the production and repair of muscle tissue. Since cancer patients suffer muscle loss as well as fat loss, a diet high in protein can help to repair some of this damage. For dry food, the recommended protein content is 30-45%.
4. Low carbohydrates
As previously discussed, cancer cells like to use carbohydrates as an energy source, so the dog’s diet should be low in carbohydrates to avoid giving the cancer cells more energy. You should be looking for a dog food with less than 20-25% carbohydrates.
You should also consider providing supplements for your dog while they are receiving treatment. Many dog foods are fortified with certain vitamins and minerals but there are added nutrients recommended for dogs with cancer.
Arginine is an amino acid that benefits the immune system. It is also considered to have an effect on tumor growth. A value of 2% or more is recommended, but unfortunately, dog food companies do not label Arginine on their packaging. Your vet should be able to recommend the best brands or you can contact your preferred brand directly to check their Arginine level.
6. Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for dogs in daily life and more so when they are receiving cancer treatment. In particular, EPA and DHA which are found in fish oils are believed to have significant benefits. These fatty acids are known to have a direct effect on cancer cachexia. Many dog foods are already fortified with omega 3 so also check before supplementing it.
Do dogs with cancer lose appetite?
Yes, there are many causes of appetite loss for dogs with cancer. Each dog is different, as is the cancer they may suffer from.
- Nausea: nausea is a common symptom of many types of cancer and has a direct impact on a dog’s urge to eat.
- Location of tumors: any tumors located in the mouth, throat or intestinal tract may make eating painful, which leads to the dog not wanting to eat.
- Chemotherapy: as it does with us, chemotherapy often causes nausea and vomiting. This reduces the dog’s interest in food, but they do not understand that the treatment is making them sick. They may associate their food with feeling ill and will therefore avoid eating.
- Radiation: although radiation therapy targets the cancer cells, it also affects the healthy cells. A common side effect is the changes caused to saliva production, which makes eating and swallowing difficult, as well as causing inflammation of the mouth and throat.
The weight loss a dog experiences due to cancer is different to the weight loss a starved dog would suffer. Dogs with cancer suffer from “cancer cachexia” which is the loss of fat and muscle mass at an equal rate. Dogs suffering from starvation lose body fat first.
Cancer cachexia can occur even if the dog is eating an adequate amount of food. The connection is to do with malnutrition. The dog may be eating enough but not getting the nutrients they need for their body to function normally.
Often, the treatment itself is the biggest cause of weight loss. Chemotherapy alters the sense of smell and taste. Since dogs rely heavily on their sense of smell, they often go off their food while receiving chemotherapy treatment.
Similarly, radiation therapy causes changes to various parts of the body as mentioned earlier. Swelling or inflammation in the mouth, throat and stomach can make eating difficult, so many dogs lose interest in food. Additionally, this inflammation reduces the absorption of essential nutrients, so the dog is not getting enough.
How to get a dog with cancer to eat
It is natural for dogs suffering from cancer to lose interest in food. Whether that is due to a loss of smell and taste or discomfort when eating, there are some things we can do to encourage them to eat.
- Moistures and smell are important, so increasing both will help. For dogs with oral or digestive inflammation, wet food will be much easier to eat. The stronger the smell, the more enticing the food will be.
- Try feeding smaller and more frequent meals. If the dog is able to eat small amounts without vomiting or experiencing discomfort, they are likely to come back for more.
- Avoid giving medication and food together as this may cause your dog to avoid eating. If medication needs to be given with food, try hiding it in a treat your dog enjoys such as a roll of ham or lump of cheese. When they have taken this, you can then offer their normal dog food to eat.
Every dog is different and so too are their reactions to illness and medication. Try different techniques until you find the one that is best suited to your dog.