Ask a Vet: Why Is My Dog Acting Weird After Anesthesia?

Editor’s Note: is supported by readers and may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this post. Recommendations are based on personal experience and criteria outlined in the article.

Anesthesia is a wonderful but still frightening thing. It allows us to perform procedures on our pets while preventing pain and fear. But we’ve all heard stories about adverse reactions and unexpected outcomes. Even when things go great, it’s unnerving to see your dog acting weird after anesthesia. 

On average, it’s not unusual for a dog to whine, sleep a lot, or lose housetraining habits immediately after anesthesia. The same drugs that prevent pain can make him act a bit loopy for several hours after his procedure. Most dogs should be getting back to normal within 12-18 hours after anesthesia. 

intubated Frenchie on operating table
A dog under gas general anesthesia.

What Do Anesthetics Do to Dogs?

From the Merriam Webster dictionary: 

anesthesia (noun): loss of sensation with or without loss of consciousness

When veterinarians talk about anesthesia, in most cases we’re talking about inducing a loss of sensation (pain) and loss of consciousness at the same time. This allows us to do minor or major surgery and other painful, frightening procedures without undue stress on the dog. 

Most dogs get multiple drugs to induce general anesthesia. Giving a little bit of a few different things allows your vet to get the desired effect from each drug. This sort of balanced anesthesia regimen also reduces the risk that your dog will experience the negative side effects that occur when a high dose of only one drug is used. 

Anesthetic drugs all have different actions, but in general, they have the following effects on dogs:

  • Makes them unconscious
  • Provides pain relief
  • Makes the muscles relax

We have to do all these things while keeping the pet alive. Veterinarians and vet tech anesthetists carefully monitor each dog’s level of anesthesia frequently during a procedure. They use personal observation and instruments to monitor blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate/rhythm, pulse quality, gum color, eye position, blood oxygen and carbon dioxide level. Anesthetists make necessary adjustments to make sure body function is optimal while avoiding the sensation of pain and movement by the patient. 

There are many drugs to choose from to provide safe general anesthesia, but not every drug is perfect for every dog. 

How Long Does It Take a Dog to Recover from Anesthesia?

Most healthy dogs will be mostly recovered from anesthesia by the time you take them home in the afternoon or evening. The effects of the drugs may take 24 hours to completely wear off. 

You’ll probably notice their facial expression looks a little goofy. And it’s pretty common for them to be more sleepy than normal. But you should be able to rouse them to alertness. 

Changes in Appetite

Some dogs don’t feel like eating the night after a procedure but they should eat by the next morning. Offer something that’s easy to digest and tastes great. Boiled chicken breast and mushy white rice are a popular choice amongst canine convalescents. 

If your pet is not eating by 24 hours after the procedure, notify your vet. 

Changes in Drinking

Drinking more or less than usual is also common. If intravenous fluids were administered, your pal might not be thirsty for a good 12-24 hours but will still be urinating. 

Changes in Bowel Movement

Pooping habits often change during the day or two after surgery/anesthesia. Some anesthetic drugs, opioids, NSAIDs and other medications affect the GI tract leading to less pooping or sometimes more pooping/diarrhea. Severe frequent diarrhea or if it persists more than 8 hours should be reported to your veterinarian.  

Pooping/Peeing in the House

Loss of house training would not be surprising, either. Dogs might be too sleepy or confused to make it outside in time. If they had intravenous fluids during surgery, they might have a very full bladder. Don’t punish them, just clean it up and watch them for hints they need to go outside after that. 

Hiding or Acting Clingy

Recovering from anesthesia might be scary for your buddy. Some dogs deal with it by hiding and others want to stay near their favorite person all the time. Either one is OK as long as they’re not hiding in a dangerous place or where you can’t get to them to check their health status. 


Increased vocalization is pretty common when recovering from sedation. It can be upsetting for a dog owner but it usually passes within a few hours. 

Some dogs whine and cry due to insufficient pain management. Look for other signs like reluctance to move, hanging head, heavy panting, crying more when the pet’s incision is lightly touched, trying to lick an incision site, etc. 

Call your vet or go to the emergency clinic if you suspect your pet is hurting significantly despite using the prescribed medicine. 


Animals have no way of understanding what has happened to them after being heavily sedated. A pet owner can’t tell them, “It’s OK, you’ll feel normal in a few hours.” 

They might feel confused and anxious, wondering if they’re ever going back to normal or if there is something really wrong. Wandering or pacing around the house in confusion is not unusual. 

Just make sure you keep them from falling or getting into a dangerous situation. Limit them to one room and stay nearby to monitor their recovery. 

Staring into Space

Dogs looking “stoned” or “high” is pretty expected after anesthesia. An anesthetic drug can have a pleasant effect or cause anxiety and it’s impossible to predict which dog will react in which way. 

Staring into space is OK immediately after a procedure but should be worn off by the next day unless your pup is still taking strong pain medication. 

Wobbly Walking 

Stumbling, swerving and wobbling are somewhat expected after sedation. Your dog may be restless after anesthesia, too. Most of the time this lasts only a few hours. 

Wobbly walking after 24 hours or acting weird days after anesthesia should be reported to your veterinarian. 

What To Do During a Rough Recovery

There are some things you can do to soothe your dog and keep him safe after anesthesia: 

  • Keep him away from hazards
  • Bring food and water to him where he’s resting
  • Keep him in a quiet area away from other pets and kids
  • Reassure him, massage the top of the head over the acupressure point GV 24 to calm
Da-feng-men acupressure point on dog's head for calming (for when your dog is acting weird after anesthesia)
  • Offer special food if necessary-chicken and rice with extra water added
  • Go outside and watch him when he needs to potty
  • Keep him warm (or cool in hot climates)-check temp rectally if in doubt
  • Make sure he’s not licking any surgical incisions
  • Massage over the acupressure point Liver 3 to on the top of the back foot to soothe pain
Liver 3 acupressure point for when your dog is acting weird after anesthesia.
Liver 3 acupressure point on BACK FOOT
  • Give meds as directed-call your vet if you can’t get him to take pills
  • Ask your vet for advice-you may need different/more pain meds, sedatives
  • Play soothing music, I love “Through a Dog’s Ear”
  • Ask the vet if you can use an ice pack or cold compress on the surgical area
  • Let him rest until fully recovered-no walkies or dog park until fully recovered
  • Keep the lights dim
  • Stay positive and try not to show your anxiety since dogs feed off their people’s moods!

How Dogs Recover from General Anesthesia

Different drugs are metabolized in different ways. Some of the major pathways depend on the lungs, liver and kidneys. 

The lungs expel gas anesthetics during respiration. Diseased lungs might have altered absorption and elimination of gases. 

A dog’s liver cells work to break down drugs and eliminate the breakdown products via blood or the GI tract. Very diseased livers don’t have the cellular metabolism capacity to break down drugs. And in rare cases, even healthy livers can have an adverse or allergic reaction causing damage to the liver itself. 

The kidneys eliminate toxins and drugs by filtering the blood through their cells. These cells reserve necessary water and blood components the body needs while letting toxins and drugs pass through to the urinary bladder. Diseased kidneys have decreased filtering capacity and can’t eliminate drugs so they stay active in the body longer. 

All of these organs depend on good circulation to work properly in their role in drug elimination. Dehydration, hypotension and heart failure contribute to poor blood flow to organs. This can lead to a prolonged duration of action of drugs. 

French bulldog panting
Short faced dogs need special care after surgery and sedation

Factors That Can Slow Down Recovery

Brachycephalic Conformation (Smush Faced Dogs)

We all love our English Bulldogs, Frenchies and Shih Tzus but they can have anesthesia complications because the very short noses that make them so cute also cause breathing problems. These guys have breathing challenges even when they’re awake due to a small trachea (windpipe), small nostrils and extra tissue in their throat. And if you live with one of these cuties, you probably know how much they snore when they’re asleep, too.

The good thing is that when they’re intubated during general anesthesia, they often can breathe better than when they’re awake!

The trouble with brachycephalic dogs comes before and after they’re intubated. If they receive too much pre-procedure sedative, they might get so sleepy they don’t breathe well. 

Then during recovery, the endotracheal tube has to be removed when the dog regains consciousness. With a short-faced dog, most vets leave the tube in place as long as possible. If they’re still super sleepy when the tube is removed, they might have trouble breathing. 

Once you get them home, they should be fully awake and able to breathe normally (for them), but every dog is different. If your short-faced pup is still sleepy from their procedure, they could feel a bit panicky about not being able to get a breath without effort. 

It’s definitely a case for the emergency clinic when your dog is acting weird after anesthesia with difficulty breathing. 

dog is acting weird after anesthesia

Renal Disease

Identifying renal disease is one of the many reasons vets like to run lab tests before anesthetizing any dog. Most serious kidney problems will show up in a screening blood panel and urinalysis. 

Knowing about a kidney problem will allow your veterinarian to choose safer drugs. They’ll also be sure to watch your dog very carefully before, during and after the procedure to make sure things are going well. Plus, it’s good for you to know what’s going on inside your dog’s body and what to expect in the future. 

There are a couple of ways kidney disease can impact a dog’s experience with anesthesia. First, some anesthetic drugs are eliminated by the kidneys. 

Diseased kidneys might not be able to filter out the drugs at the expected rate so pets experience the effects of the drugs longer. Veterinarians generally avoid certain drugs (like ketamine) that depend on the kidneys for elimination when the kidneys are diseased. 

Second, an anesthetic episode can further damage the kidneys by decreasing the blood flow to them. Your vet will monitor for hypotension during surgery, but there is always some concern over being able to protect diseased kidneys. 

Don’t be surprised if your vet recommends taking extra precautions like having your pet come in the day before for IV fluids. Proper hydration can help normalize kidney blood flow during anesthesia. Although you’ll incur additional costs, it’s worth it to make sure your dog survives and recovers quickly from anesthesia!

Liver Disease

The liver is an important organ in removing many drugs from the body. When the liver is diseased, anesthetic drugs could have a longer than the expected duration of action. 

Now, there is a spectrum of liver disease from very mild to life-threatening. Most dogs with mild to moderate liver disease can be anesthetized safely. 

Here’s another time when screening lab tests can literally be lifesavers. Most serious liver disease will cause some sort of changes from normal lab values. 

If these abnormalities are found for the first time on preparatory lab tests, your vet might recommend delaying surgery until they can fully understand what’s causing the problem. 

Dogs with liver failure are a different story. Vets need to carefully choose the drugs they use because sick dogs might not be able to clear the drugs from their bodies. Dogs with liver failure may need to be hospitalized after their procedure or surgery to receive supportive care for the best chance of recovery.

There is another issue with the liver and anesthesia. There is no way to predict which dogs will have an unexpected (idiosyncratic) adverse reaction to drugs. Thankfully, this is pretty uncommon in dogs.  

Bulldog puppy walking through grass

Very Young Animals

Puppies younger than 12 weeks of age are more tricky to anesthetize safely for a number of reasons. For one thing, their liver function is not fully developed and they become hypoglycemic more easily than adults. 

Also, their small body size and lack of body fat make them susceptible to hypothermia (getting chilled) during anesthesia. 

If you have a young puppy who needs surgery or a procedure under anesthesia, ask your vet what to expect in terms of recovery time. They might want you to do some special feeding and warming after the event. 

Heart Disease

There is a spectrum of severity with heart disease, too. Many toy breed dogs with a heart murmur have little increased risk from anesthesia. On the other end of the spectrum is a giant breed dog with dilated cardiomyopathy. The big dog likely has or is close to congestive heart failure, making them a bigger risk for safe anesthesia. 

One problem is that we don’t always know about all heart disease before we put a dog under anesthesia. Fortunately, this is a pretty uncommon problem. Most dogs with significant heart problems have a murmur plus other symptoms. 

If your dog has known heart disease, your vet might recommend more testing so they can make sure your dog’s heart can handle anesthesia. If you know your dog has any issues with their heart, watch closely after the surgery. Difficulty breathing, coughing, and weakness are all cause to see a vet for help right away. 

Geriatric/Senior Dogs

Old age itself is not necessarily a high risk for anesthesia. It’s just that an older dog is more likely to have liver, kidney, lung and heart problems. We often notice that very elderly dogs don’t bounce back as quickly as young ones. 

greyhound lying down
Greyhounds present some anesthesia challenges.

Certain Breeds

Some breeds of dogs are known for responding to some anesthetic drugs in a unique way. Greyhounds are probably the most notorious for having trouble with anesthesia. 

Greyhounds are prone to delayed recovery from some drugs like barbiturates. They sometimes develop a high body temperature after anesthesia (hyperthermia). Some dogs, especially nervous ones, experience excessive excitation during recovery. Finally, a few dogs develop a dangerously high potassium level (hyperkalemia) after being anesthetized. 

Discuss these issues with your vet before the surgery or other procedure. If you notice extreme agitation at home, trouble breathing or weakness you must get a vet involved immediately!

Help Your Dog Recover Faster

A good recovery starts even before the day of surgery or a procedure. There are many steps you can take to help your dog have a good experience. 

Pre-Anesthetic Lab Tests and Other Diagnostics

In the old days, screening lab tests were optional in vet clinics. Now many vets won’t anesthetize an animal without running at least a small blood panel checking liver enzymes, kidney values, blood sugar and red blood cells. There are occasional surprises when we find a seemingly healthy pet has abnormal lab values. That can save them from having a bad experience with anesthesia, so don’t skimp on the recommended lab tests!

Good Hydration

If you’ve ever had a hangover or a bad stomach bug, you know dehydration makes you feel horrible. Imagine being anesthetized in that condition. The same goes for dogs. A dehydrated animal is more likely to have problems while they’re under including low blood pressure and prolonged recovery times. 

You can add a little low sodium chicken broth to your dog’s evening meal if you feed dry food. Also, ask your vet if you should keep your pet from drinking water the morning of the procedure. Sometimes they tell you to withhold food but not water. But make sure to ask because every situation is different.  

Maintenance Medications 

If your pet takes prescription medicine regularly, in most cases your vet will want you to continue giving it even on the day of the surgery or procedure. This is another situation you need your vet’s input on since there are so many variables involved. 

If you can’t get your dog to take a pill without food, make sure to tell your vet what you did and didn’t give when you drop your pet off at the clinic. 

Oral Sedative for Anxious Dogs

We have some awesome protocols these days for helping super nervous dogs relax on the day of a surgical procedure or dental cleaning. Ask your vet if your pet would benefit from taking oral medication to decrease anxiety even before coming to the clinic. 

Dogs who are relaxed when they arrive may require less anesthetic agent so they can recover faster. 

Prepare Home for Recovery

Depending on what sort of operation your pet is undergoing you’ll need to prepare your house to keep him safe during his recovery. 

At the very least, block off stairs and swimming pools so he doesn’t accidentally fall. You might want to block your buddy into just one room with baby gates so he doesn’t wander all over the house while he’s a bit loopy. 

Plan for Problems

Hopefully, you won’t need it, but make sure you know who to call and where to go if you have problems after hours. Most vet clinics refer their clients to off-site emergency clinics after hours. Ask your vet for the phone number and address of the clinic they recommend. 

Go to the emergency clinic if your dog has trouble breathing, can’t be roused, is bleeding more than a few drops, has an incision that is coming apart, has a seizure or has repeated vomiting or diarrhea.


Many dogs act strange after anesthesia for about half a day. Wobbling, whining and looking stoned are expected. We don’t expect trouble breathing, extreme pain or ongoing diarrhea.

If your dog is still acting weird or having unexpected symptoms the day after having anesthesia, call your veterinarian to report what’s going on. Your dog is depending on you!

The content provided on is for informational and entertainment purposes only. Our content is not intended to take the place of professional veterinary advice and should not be relied upon to guide or influence the medical treatment of any animal. For more information please see our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use page.

Pin Me!

Pinterest graphic (dog is acting weird after anesthesia)

How to Decide When to Euthanize a Dog with Liver Failure

Editor’s Note: is supported by readers and may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this post. Recommendations are based on personal experience and criteria outlined in the article.

If you’re here because one of your canine buddies has liver failure, my heart goes out to you. Whether it came on gradually or suddenly, this disease can be a real challenge for dogs and their human friends. 

As a general rule, I suggest euthanasia to my clients if their dog in liver failure stops eating for more than 48 hours. Other signs of poor quality of life include an inability to sleep well, repeated seizures, constant pain, soiling themselves and not wanting to interact with the family.

when to euthanize a dog with liver failure (Australian Cattle Dog)

Assessing Quality of Life

Putting myself in your shoes, if my dog’s liver was in end-stage failure, I’d remind myself that the prognosis for recovery is less than 20% even with very good care. I believe I would make the decision to help them die a peaceful death rather than living in agony for another few days. 

It’s never easy to decide when to euthanize a dog with liver failure but help is available. 

I recommend you go through a good Quality of Life questionnaire before deciding to euthanize. I like the HHHHHMM Quality of Life Scale which gives you a more concrete evaluation than some others. 

Quality of life questions focus on whether the animal can eat and drink, whether their pain can be treated, and how much they can participate in daily activities. 

Answer the questions as objectively as possible. Get a trusted family member or friend to give their opinion, too. Take a day or two to weigh your choices carefully.

Making the Decision to Say Goodbye

When I think of the dogs I’ve treated with liver failure, it seems there is a spectrum of disease. Some dogs only have a picky appetite and an increased incidence of vomiting. Other dogs were so sick they couldn’t do anything besides lay on their side panting and trying to get comfortable. 

It might seem obvious that the latter example would be a good candidate for euthanasia. But I know firsthand how hard it is to look at the situation objectively when it’s your furry family member. 

After it’s all said and done, I frequently hear comments from my clients that they feel they waited too long to euthanize their sick pet. I’ve rarely if ever, heard anyone say they felt they euthanized a very sick pet prematurely. 

cocker spaniel lying in grass with a ball

Why a Dog’s Liver is So Important

All the organs of the body are important in their own way but the liver does so many jobs it’s sort of extra important. It’s also a pretty tough organ that can regenerate even if most of it has been destroyed. Some of the jobs the liver does:

  • Can create new red blood cells
  • Produces proteins that aid blood clotting
  • Creates bile acids for food digestion
  • Metabolizes fats, carbohydrates and proteins
  • Stores vitamins and minerals
  • Removes toxins and drugs from the blood
  • Supports with the immune system 

What Happens to Dogs When Their Liver Fails?

Liver failure can be defined as a state of disease when liver function has decreased enough to cause severe illness. There are two main forms of liver failure: acute and chronic. Another common scenario is “acute on chronic” in which a dog with chronic disease suddenly gets a lot worse. 

Acute Liver Failure (ALF)

In veterinary medicine, ALF has been defined as a sudden loss of greater than 75% of the functional hepatic mass (3). 

Common causes of ALF include toxins, drug reactions, infectious disease, and parasites. 

Dogs with ALF seem to have a slightly better chance at recovery than those with a slower onset of disease. 

Chronic Liver Failure

Many dogs live with chronic liver disease that’s not bad enough to be called liver failure. Causes include copper accumulation, idiopathic (unknown cause), infections, and immune-mediated disease. When chronic disease progresses it causes cirrhosis and  liver failure. 

Physiological Consequences of Liver Disease

When the liver fails, many body systems are affected. Fluid builds up in the abdomen as less protein is produced by the organ and liver circulation becomes congested. Blood is slower to clot, infections are more likely and scarring of hepatic tissue ensues. 

High ammonia levels build up because of decreased liver metabolism of protein. This leads to a condition that adversely affects the brain (hepatic encephalopathy). The body sometimes even tries to bypass a diseased liver with alternate blood circulation routes. 

Two Irish Wolfhounds

Symptoms of End Stage Liver Disease

In a 17-year-long retrospective study of 49 dogs with acute liver insufficiency, the most common presenting symptoms were anorexia, vomiting, neurologic abnormalities, increased thirst and increased urination (5). 

Some other common symptoms include:

Poor AppetiteNausea from blood toxins, gastritis secondary to liver failure
VomitingNausea from blood toxins, gastritis secondary to liver dysfunction
Increased thirstPhysiological attempt to balance increased fluid loss and dilute blood toxins
Increased or decreased urinationDue to changes in thirst, electrolyte abnormalities, blood sugar abnormalities
Strange behavior (wandering, circling, vocalizing)High blood ammonia levels, hepatic encephalopathy 
SeizuresFrom buildup of toxin in blood, low blood sugar
Bruising or spontaneous bleedingAbnormal blood clotting
Jaundice (often seen on skin, tongue/gums and white part of eyes)Excess bilirubin in blood
Edema (noticeable fluid collection in legs, underbelly, etc)Abnormal lymph circulation or infection
ShakingReaction to toxin buildup or pain
DroolingSecondary to nausea
FeverResponse to liver inflammation or infection
Diarrhea, may be bloody, orange or yellow coloredAbnormal blood clotting, poor digestion, increased bilirubin 
Weight lossDue to poor appetite, abnormal food metabolism
Distended abdomen/ascites (fluid in the abdomen)Decreased albumin (a blood protein) production, increased pressure on liver blood vessels 
Increased pantingPhysiological attempt to balance blood gases, response to pain and nausea
Strong foul breath odorBuildup of toxins in blood
Dark yellow or orange urine High bilirubin levels in blood
Bloody or blackish stoolAbnormal blood clotting
Increased infections Poor liver function not supporting immune system
Crusting of lips, nose, feet, elbows and around the eyes Rare-hepatocutaneous syndrome possibly due to cellular starvation and nutritional imbalances 

What Caused Your Dog’s Liver Disease?

In one 2016 study, the most common causes of canine liver failure were cancer (27%), presumed Leptospirosis (8%), and ischemia/disruption of blood supply (2%) (5). Over 900 different drugs, toxins and herbs have been identified as the cause for ALF (3).


Drugs are the one of the most common causes of fulminant liver failure in dogs (2). Some drugs cause direct injury to hepatic cells, but some drugs cause an idiosyncratic (unexpected) adverse reaction. Idiosyncratic reactions usually happen when the liver processes the drug into a toxic substance. 

Drugs that are more likely to cause idiosyncratic toxic reactions are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, trimethoprim-sulfa, Lysodren, ketoconazole and azathioprine. There is no way to predict which dogs will have a problem and which ones won’t. The drug might be fine in most dogs but can cause a major problem in a few. 

There are so many reports of different drugs, herbs and supplements causing liver problems in dogs, it would be impractical to list them all here. This list includes some of the more common culprits but ANY drug can cause an unexpected toxic reaction in any dog (9).

Drug Type/ClassDrug Name(s)
Acetaminophen toxicityTylenol, Paracetamol
Amiodarone (heart medication)Pacerone, Cordarone
Anabolic steroidsStanozolol, Winstrol
Arsenicals (heartworm infection treatment)Melarsomine (Diroban, Immiticide)
Antiadrenal drug (used for Cushing’s Disease)Mitotane (Lysodren)
Anticonvulsant drugs Phenobarbital (Luminal), zonisamide (Zonegran)
AntifungalsGriseofulvin (Gris-PEG), itraconazole (Sporanox),ketoconazole (Nizoral)
Antineoplastic drugsCCNU (Lomustine), Crizotinib, pembrolizumab
BenzodiazepinesDiazepam (Valium, Diastat)
Halothane (gas anesthetic)Fluothane
Immunosuppressants Azathioprine (Imuran)
Non-steroidal antiinflammatories (NSAIDs)Carprofen (Rimadyl), meloxicam (metacam), deracoxib (Deramaxx), firocoxib (Prevacox), ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin 
SulfonamidesTrimethoprim sulfa (Tribrissen, Bactrim), sulfasalazine (Azulfidine)
Tetracycline antibioticsDoxycycline (Vibramycin, Monodox, Sumycin), tetracycline (Tetracap)

Infectious Disease

Infectious diseases can set up house in the liver, destroying cellular function and tissue structure. All dogs are susceptible, but younger dogs, those that spend a lot of time outdoors have a higher risk of contracting the following infections: 

  • Viral – Canine Adenovirus I (puppies)
  • Bacterial – Leptospira, Salmonella, Rickettsial/tick-borne
  • Fungal – Histoplasmosis, Blastomyces, Coccidioides
  • Parasitic – Heartworms, protozoa
two Maltese dogs which are more likely to be born with a portosystemic shunt
Maltese dogs are prone to congenital liver disease

Congenital Disease 

Congenital disease describes a problem present at birth. It may not become apparent until much later in life. 

In normal dogs, nutrients are absorbed in the intestinal blood vessels and carried to the liver by the portal vein. A portosystemic shunt (PSS) is caused by abnormal blood vessels that bypass the liver. The result is that nutrients go directly to the body instead of being processed in the liver. The effect is similar to a dog that has a non-functional diseased liver. Some breeds with a risk of PSS are Yorkshire Terriers and Maltese Terriers. 

Portal vein hypoplasia is another anatomic anomaly that prevents blood from circulating through the liver properly. Breeds that may inherit this problem include Yorkshire Terriers, Maltese, Cairn Terriers and German Shepherds. 

Copper storage hepatopathy (CSH) has a complex genetic basis. It happens when too much copper is stored in the liver. It can be caused by an inability to excrete copper or excess copper in the diet of susceptible dogs. Breeds with a higher rate of CSH include Bedlington Terriers, Dalmatians, Labrador Retrievers, Doberman Pinschers and West Highland White Terriers.


The world is full of potential liver toxins and dogs like to eat lots of things they shouldn’t. Sometimes it’s a chewed ornamental plant from your yard or a fungal contaminant in dog food. Sometimes we never figure out where the toxin came from. 

old pennies
Pre-1982 U.S. pennies contain zinc which is toxic to dogs when ingested.

Some common toxins that can cause liver failure in dogs: 

AflatoxinToxins produced by certain molds. Dog food can cause liver failure if it contains high levels of aflatoxin. 
Amanita phalloides (Death Cap), Amanita virosa (Destroying Angel) & various other mushroomsWild-growing fungi contain strong toxins that affect the liver
Blue Green Algae (cyanobacteria)Type of bacteria that grows in water that is highly toxic to humans and animals
Chemicals, industrial solvents and heavy metals Lead (ammunition, batteries), zinc (pre-1982 pennies)
Pennyroyal oilPlant-derived oil used medicinally in humans and as a flea repellant in animals
Sago palmOrnamental plant
Xylitol (1)Sugar substitute used to sweeten many human foods
Sago Palm
Ornamental Sago Palm


The pancreas is a digestive and endocrine organ situated very close to the liver. Inflammation of the pancreas, a.k.a. pancreatitis is very common in dogs. In severe cases, the liver can be damaged by leakage of pancreatic enzymes into the tissues of the abdomen.


Primary liver cancer in dogs is pretty uncommon. It accounts for less than 1.5% of all cancers in dogs (7).

Metastatic cancer of the liver is much more common. That means it has seeded to the organ from another site in the body. Metastases from cancers like hypodermal hemangiosarcoma affecting other organs are more likely to occur in senior dogs.

Dogs with liver cancer may show typical signs of liver failure or instead they may have acute internal bleeding with no signs of liver failure. Hence, the final stage of dog liver cancer before death may be sudden weakness, pale gums, fast/weak pulse, abdominal pain and swelling. 

How to Know If Your Dog Has Liver Failure

  • Physical exam- a shrunken or enlarged liver, yellowed skin, abdominal pain, abdominal fluid wave/ascites
  • Blood tests: elevated liver enzymes, especially ALT (alanine aminotransferase). Concern when it is 4 times or more above the high end of the normal range–a dog liver enzyme ALT above 500 U/L is a sign of severe liver disease. But sometimes these numbers go back down in end-stage liver failure. Bilirubin is also elevated above 2.9 mg/dL (10). Bile acids testing checks liver function in less severe cases where the diagnosis is not clear. Blood clotting tests are usually prolonged, too. 
  • Radiographs
  • Ultrasound imaging
  • Biopsy-can often be done without doing invasive surgery

Dog Liver Enzymes Normal Range Chart

Liver Test Normal Range
Bilirubin, total 0-0.5 (mg/dL)
ALP 13-289 (U/L)
ALT/SGPT 14-151 (U/L)
AST/SGOT 18-86 (U/L)
GGT3-19 (U/L)
Normal ranges vary slightly from lab to lab (6).

Dog Breeds Prone to Liver Failure

Any breed of dog can be affected by toxin, parasites and trauma. But there are some breeds that seem to have more liver problems than others. Some have more congenital problems like portosystemic shunts and others are suspected to lack normal de-toxifying processes. 

  • American Cocker Spaniel
  • Anatolian Shepherd
  • Australian Cattle Dog
  • Australian Shepherd
  • Bedlington Terrier
  • Bichon Frise
  • Cairn Terrier
  • Clumber Spaniel
  • Dalmatian
  • Dandie Dinmont terrier
  • Doberman Pinscher
  • German Shepherd Dog
  • Golden Retriever
  • Havanese
  • Irish Setter
  • Irish Wolfhound
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Maltese Terrier
  • Miniature and Toy poodles
  • Miniature Schnauzer
  • Old English Sheepdog
  • Pekingese
  • Pembroke and Cardigan Welsh Corgis
  • Pomeranian
  • Samoyed
  • Scottish Terrier
  • Shih Tzu
  • Silky Terrier
  • Skye Terrier
  • Tibetan Spaniel
  • West Highland White Terrier
  • Yorkshire terrier
Corgis are prone to liver disease

Liver Transplants & Stem Cell Therapy

Technically, it is possible to give a dog a liver transplant from a donor dog. The reason it’s not done routinely is partly that it’s cost-prohibitive. The other reason is that graft rejection is a very big problem that is hard to control in dogs.  

It seems that stem cell therapy can help some dogs with sudden onset of liver disease. A Chinese study published in 2019 showed that canine adipose-derived mesenchymal stem cells injected intravenously helped restore some level of liver function in dogs with experimentally-induced liver damage (10). 

This research is encouraging but stem cell therapy in dogs has a long way to go to prove it’s safe and effective. 

Can My Dog Recover from Liver Failure?

The prognosis for dogs with acute liver injury/insufficiency is not good. Greater than 80% of these dogs die in spite of all treatment. Those with chronic liver disease have a better chance of long-term survival depending on the cause and whether a specific treatment is available. 

In general, once a dog has reached end stage liver disease the prognosis for recovery is poor. 

Scotties are prone to liver disease (when to euthanize a dog with liver failure)

Is Dog Liver Failure Painful?

Without speaking, dogs can still communicate whether they’re in pain or distress. You just need to watch them carefully and try to be objective when evaluating their behavior. Think about how your dog acts when he is happy and healthy. 

Now compare some key activities to how he is now. Is he eating enthusiastically? Does he greet you when you come home? Is he able to get outdoors to potty when he needs to go? 

Now, I understand how scary it is watching your sick dog deteriorate. You feel helpless when you don’t know how to help him.

The first step is to get your veterinarian involved. Even in cases where a dog is not expected to recover, we can often make them much more comfortable for the time they have left with you. 

Maybe you’ve already given your dog prescribed medications and special food to try to help him feel better. If he’s still showing the behavior changes I mentioned above, he is probably suffering.

It’s at that point that I personally consider euthanasia as a humane option for my own pets. 

What to Feed a Dog with End-Stage Liver Disease

It’s EXTREMELY important to consult with your veterinarian about the best food to choose in this situation.

In general, owners of dogs with end-stage liver disease are usually advised to avoid foods high in protein. A diseased liver cannot process protein normally and nutritional protein contributes to high blood ammonia levels. 

Prescription diets like Hill’s l/d are formulated with a limited amount of highly digestible protein to minimize ammonia formation while providing enough amino acids to support normal metabolism.  

You could opt to use a homemade diet, but please, please, please get help from a veterinary nutritionist. Your dog will probably love eating fresh food but if you don’t use the right recipe you could make things worse. 

I recommend you and your vet work with to develop a custom recipe for your dog’s specific needs. It’s not expensive and you may even be able to get a FREE recipe, depending on your dog’s nutritional needs. The recipes are simple and use common ingredients like potatoes and eggs. 

Feeding your dog 3 to 4 times a day may help since it puts less of a load on the liver to metabolize nutrients at one time. 

If your dog is nauseous, ask your vet about anti-nausea treatments. Many drugs can cause problems for dogs with severe hepatic disease, so don’t assume you can use something left over from a past prescription or prescribed for a different pet. 

close up of a Golden Retriever's face

Life Expectancy of Dogs with Liver Failure

The life expectancy of dogs with true liver failure is usually a few days to weeks. Even dogs with chronic disease have a poor prognosis once they develop a bilirubin level over 2.9 mg/dL, blood clotting abnormalities or hepatic encephalopathy.

The good news is that the liver is an amazing organ that can regenerate even if 80% of its mass has been destroyed (4). 

Even so, most dogs with signs that their liver has lost function have a poor prognosis. Liver injuries that happen very suddenly may have a better outcome than those that happen over a more prolonged period of time. 

A retrospective study of 49 dogs treated for acute liver insufficiency found that only 7 dogs, about 14% of all cases studied, survived and were discharged. Dogs with normal albumin and blood clotting and without ascites were more likely to survive (5).

One parameter used by your veterinarian to gauge the severity of the situation is whether the prothrombin time (a measure of blood clotting) is greater than 100 seconds. If it is, it indicates a grave prognosis (7). Death would be expected to occur within a few days. 

Even if a dog is able to get past the acute stage of liver failure, there is a chance they may progress on to widespread liver cirrhosis (scarring) rather than healing. If this happens, they could survive longer but would be expected to have significant clinical signs of canine liver disease. 

Dogs with chronic hepatitis can survive a long time with good supportive care from you and your veterinarian, depending on the details of the situation. I’ve worked with plenty of dogs who have had waxing and waning symptoms of liver insufficiency for years. 


Deciding when to euthanize a dog with liver failure should be based on basic quality of life questions. The underlying cause of illness and the prognosis given by a veterinarian will help guide your decision.

Dog euthanasia is a viable option if your dog won’t eat, has nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, can’t walk and seems uncomfortable most of the time. If most days are bad days, deciding to euthanize your dog will spare him the suffering he might have to endure for days before dying naturally.

The content provided on is for informational and entertainment purposes only. Our content is not intended to take the place of professional veterinary advice and should not be relied upon to guide or influence the medical treatment of any animal. For more information please see our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use page.

Click to View References
  1. Dunayer, E. K., & Gwaltney-Brant, S. M. (2006). Acute hepatic failure and coagulopathy associated with xylitol ingestion in eight dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 229(7), 1113-1117.
  2. Guilford WG, et al. In: Center SA, ed. Strombeck’s Small Animal Gastroenterology, 1996; 654.
  3. Hackett, T., DVM, MS, DACVECC. (2011). Critical Care Management of Acute Liver Failure in Dogs & Cats. In American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) forum 2011: Denver, Colorado, USA, 15-18 June 2011. Lakewood, CO, CO: American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. Retrieved March 26, 2021.
  4. Johnson, Tony, DVM, DACVECC. Acute Hepatic Failure: Yellow Is Not So Mellow. In International Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Symposium 2014: Veterinary Information Network, Davis, CA, USA. Retrieved March 26, 2021.
  5. Lester, C., Cooper, J., Peters, R. M., & Webster, C. R. (2016). Retrospective evaluation of acute liver failure in dogs (1995-2012): 49 cases. Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care, 26(4), 559-567.
  6. Plumb, D. C. (2018). Plumb’s Veterinary Drug Handbook: Desk. John Wiley & Sons.
  7. Scherk MA, Center SA: Toxic, Metabolic, Infectious, and Neoplastic Liver Diseases. . St. Louis, Saunders Elsevier 2010 pp. 1687-1689.
  8. Twedt, David C., DVM, DACVIM.  Acute Liver Disease.  In American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP) forum 2014: Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA. Retrieved March 26, 2021.
  9. Weingarten, M. A., & Sande, A. A. (2015). Acute liver failure in dogs and cats. Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care, 25(4), 455-473.
  10. Yan, Y., Fang, J., Wen, X., Teng, X., Li, B., Zhou, Z., … & Hua, J. (2019). Therapeutic applications of adipose-derived mesenchymal stem cells on acute liver injury in canines. Research in veterinary science, 126, 233-239.

Pin Me!

Pinterest graphic

Your Cat’s Not Eating Much But Acting Normal? 4 Main Causes

Editor’s Note: is supported by readers and may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this post. Recommendations are based on personal experience and criteria outlined in the article.

Cats have an instinct to hide any illness so they’re less susceptible to attack and social ostracizing by other cats. It’s a great tactic for survival in the wild, but not very helpful to humans who are trying to help them. 

As a whole, there are 4 big reasons why your cat’s not eating much but is still acting normal:

  1. Undiagnosed disease
  2. Pain
  3. Medication
  4. Anxiety  

It’s not at all unusual for a cat owner to show up at the vet clinic because of their cat not eating much but acting normal. Sometimes as I question them further, we identify some other symptoms that may have been overlooked initially. 

How to Tell if Your Cat Isn’t Eating

Since many pet owners free-feed their cats and also have multiple cats eating from the same food bowl, sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether or not a cat is eating. 

If you only have one cat, the easiest way to monitor their food intake is to count out the number of kibbles you put in the food bowl at the beginning and end of the day. Alternatively, you can weigh wet food or dry cat food on a gram scale. 

Compare the amount to their previous healthy food intake or if you’re not sure what it was, check the label on the cat food container to see how much they should be eating. But remember, the recommended amounts are often more than a sedentary house cat would eat. 

Get your vet to help you calculate how many calories your pet should be eating if you’re really confused.  

If there are multiple cats in the home, try offering an extra delicious meal to the sick cat in question while she is cordoned off from the other cats. Measure the amount of cat food you put in the food bowl and check it again after she is finished eating. 

A longer-term solution is to use a baby scale to monitor your cat’s weight weekly. For cats who have trouble keeping weight on or have a chronic disease, this is a critical aspect of being a good pet parent. 

Baby scales are relatively inexpensive. You can pick one up at a baby supply store or order one online like this one that I’ve used: 

Other Symptoms to Look For

Most of the time when I question people who have come to the clinic with a cat not eating much but acting normal, we can find at least a couple of other symptoms. When you see your cat every day, you might not think about small changes that are actually significant. Check this list and think about whether any apply to your kitty: 

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Crying for food but not eating it
  • Only eating treats
  • Weight loss (use your baby scale)
  • Poor coat (clumpy, dandruff, not shiny)
  • Increase or decrease in thirst & urination
  • Decreased poop in the litter box
  • Straining to have bowel movements
  • Hard stool sometimes with blood streaks
  • Smelly breath, thick saliva
  • Pale or yellowish gums
  • Hiding
  • Sleeping more
  • Playing less
  • Trouble jumping or stiff gait
  • Change in overall mood (grouchy, clingy, etc.)
  • Eyes look different (sunken, frowning eyebrows)
cat not eating much but acting normal

1. Undiagnosed Disease

Of course, any disease, toxin or trauma can adversely affect a cat’s appetite eventually.  But there are a handful of super common things your vet will want to check for, depending on your cat’s age, breed, sex, lifestyle and symptoms. 

Urinary Tract Disease

The urinary tract includes kidneys, ureters, urinary bladder and urethra. Kidney disease is prevalent in domestic cats.

The two most common forms we see in felines are chronic and acute disease. Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is the most common and is more likely to occur in an older cat over the age 7.

A senior cat often has some degree of CKD by the time they’re 12 or so. Symptoms of CKD include weight loss, decreased appetite, increased thirst and urination.

Urinary tract infection can be centered in the bladder, kidney(s) or can affect both. Cats with only a bladder infection are less likely to have a poor appetite than those with infected kidneys.


The pancreas is a gland that is adjacent to a cat’s stomach and intestines that secretes enzymes to break down fat. The pancreas becomes inflamed when the enzymes leak into the glandular tissue and start to digest it. 

Chronic feline pancreatitis is pretty common. Affected animals may have vomiting, loose stool, or decreased appetite. Or they may not show any symptoms at all. 

Pancreatitis is diagnosed with blood tests and imaging including ultrasound. 

Liver Disease

The most common cause of liver disease in cats is hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver (1). This can happen when a kitty starves for any reason and too many of the cat’s body fat stores are metabolized in the liver. The fat essentially “clogs” the liver, interfering with its normal function. 

This disease is usually secondary, meaning it is caused by another disease rather than just happening out of the blue.

Cholangitis/cholangiohepatitis is the term used to describe inflammation of the liver and biliary system. This is the second most common cause of feline liver disease. The cause is usually a bacterial infection, parasites, or auto-immune disease. 

Symptoms of liver disease include vomiting, poor appetite, soft feces, weight loss, yellowing of skin/gums/whites of eyes, and dark yellow urine. 

These diseases are diagnosed with blood tests, imaging and biopsies.

Intestinal Disease

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is not uncommon in cats and can happen concurrently with pancreatitis and cholangitis, in which case it’s called “triaditis.” 

IBD results when a cat’s immune system sends too many inflammatory cells into the tissues of the intestinal tract. The tissue becomes thickened and has poor absorption of nutrients. The underlying cause of IBD is often unknown but could include parasites, cat food allergies, and microbiome imbalances.

Symptoms of IBD include vomiting, poor appetite, diarrhea or constipation and weight loss. However, some cats with IBD don’t have many symptoms.  

IBD is diagnosed with blood tests, imaging and biopsies. 

Diabetes Mellitus

Diabetes mellitus in cats occurs when there is not enough insulin or the body has stopped responding to insulin. Without insulin, “blood sugar” or glucose from ingested food cannot get inside cells. Too much glucose stays in the bloodstream and causes problems like dehydration. Since they’re starved for fuel, the tissues of the body start to waste away. 

Symptoms of this disease include weight loss and increased thirst, appetite and urination. 

Usually, we see increased appetite and weight loss, but some animals can also have a diminished appetite, especially in advanced disease states.


The thyroid gland is part of the endocrine system and is situated on the front part of a cat’s neck. This gland makes hormones that help control the body’s metabolic rate. 

In hyperthyroidism, one or more cancerous nodules form in the gland and cause it to secrete a lot more thyroid hormone than the body needs. This leads to a high metabolic rate and weight loss. Other symptoms include a voracious appetite, constipation and change in behavior (often more grouchy). Although we usually see increased appetite, some instead have a low appetite. 

An elderly cat over the age of 10 years is more likely to have an overactive thyroid gland. Your vet will diagnose the disease based on one or more blood tests. 

Infectious Disease

There are all sorts of organisms that infect felines, making them sick enough to stop eating. The major categories of infectious disease with a few examples of each follows:

Infectious AgentCommon Examples
VirusFeline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP)
Feline Herpes Virus (FHV)
Feline Calici Virus (FCV)
 BacteriaE. coli
Staphylococcus sp.


The Big C is a topic most of us would like to just forget about. But as cats live longer with less exposure to trauma and infectious disease, their cancer rates go up. 

Domestic felines get all sorts of cancer, but a few of the more common types area: 

  • Lymphoma (usually affects the intestinal tract)
  • Carcinoma (basal cell tumors of the skin is a common type)
  • Mast Cell Tumors (affects the skin, spleen or GI tract)

2. Pain

Pain is a major reason cats lose their appetite (also called hyporexia or anorexia). Pain can be secondary to most diseases but here are a few big ones we look for when diagnosing feline hyporexia/anorexia: 

Dental Disease/Stomatitis

Mouth and dental problems are very common, especially in elderly cats. Even if your cat’s teeth and gums don’t look super diseased, there may be problems under the gumline.

The photo below shows a small resorptive lesion on a cat’s tooth. It doesn’t look too serious but it’s very painful!

Orthopedic Disease

Orthopedic disease might be from a congenital problem or a degenerative problem like arthritis. Arthritis is common in cats over age 10. It doesn’t usually disturb their appetite, but in advanced cases the pain can become overwhelming.

Decreased mobility can also interfere with a cat getting to its normal feeding location and make it harder to compete with other cats for access to food.

Young tabby cat with bandaged front leg and wearing an e-collar


Trauma is more common in outdoor cats. They get abscesses from fighting with other cats, injuries from dog attacks and sometimes even tangle with automobiles.

Indoor cats are less likely to experience traumatic injuries, but they are not immune to it. I’ve seen cats with broken legs after falling from their favorite perch atop a tall book case.

3. Medication

Drugs and supplements are meant to help sick cats feel better but most come with one or more possible side effects. This list only represents a few of the many types of meds that affect feline eating habits:

MedicationCommon Examples
AntibioticsClavamox, amoxicillin, Orbax
Pain medicinebuprenorphine, gabapentin, robenacoxib
Blood pressureamlodipine, propranolol
Anti-parasiticsdewormers, flea/tick control
Vaccinesrabies, fvrcp, FeLV
Over the Counter Supplementsvitamins, herbal medications, nutritional supplements

If you’re giving your cat any prescription medications or even non-prescription supplements, they could affect her appetite. Talk to your vet before discontinuing prescription meds, but over the counter supplements should be stopped right away if your cat is not eating much but acting normal. 

4. Anxiety

Anxiety is underappreciated in most house cats. Sometimes owners just think their kitty is shy. But hiding, resorting to defensive or aggressive behavior, crying to go outside, etc. are some of the behaviors associated with anxiety. 

The smallest thing can cause a cat’s anxiety level to skyrocket. The most common anxiety-provoking events include:

Source of AnxietyCommon Examples
Changes in the Home Environmentnew house or furniture, people, animals, noise, daily schedule, etc.
Other Petsanother cat, a dog, or exotic pet
Diet Changesbrand, flavor, formula change, dry to wet or vice versa,

If you believe your cat is suffering from anxiety, try Feliway diffusers and spray in the room he stays in most of the day.

I recommend you wait on trying over-the-counter anxiety remedies until your cat’s general health has been cleared by a vet. Once he’s been checked over, Composure calming chewable treats for cats are easy to give and well-tolerated. The ingredients gently soothe your cat’s nerves.

If you don’t see a good response, ask your vet if you should try a prescription anxiolytic medication instead.

Don’t allow him to hide all the time! Block off areas where cats can hide so deeply you can’t get them out (under couches, beds, etc.) Work on building his confidence. Keep bully animals away until you can make changes that help the intimidated cat feel more confident. 

Fear and anxious behavior is a whole topic for another article. If you want some good tips now, check out Jackson Galaxy’s website.

Diagnosing the Cause of Decreased Food Intake

As much as we’d all love to make a diagnosis based solely on a symptom or two, that’s rarely possible. Your vet has to play detective and try to put the pieces together for a non-verbal creature. 

The first thing we need to figure out how to best help your furry friend is a thorough history. Make sure to tell your vet about any subtle changes in behavior or appearance you’ve notice in the last few weeks to months. Note and new foods, treats, supplements and medications. Tell your vet if your cat has been exposed to any new cats in the recent past. 

Next comes what vets call a “minimum database” compiled from the results of basic testing. Basic tests usually include:

  • Complete blood count (CBC)
  • Blood chemistry panel
  • Thyroid testing
  • Urinalysis
  • Radiographs and/or ultrasound imaging

Based on history, symptoms and the results of the basic tests, your vet might need more information to rule out or confirm suspected diseases. 

The cost of building a minimum database will vary a lot depending on your location. To give you a ballpark idea of cost, I would say expect to spend $50-$100 for a vet consult, around $300-$400 for lab testing and another $200-$400 for radiographs. 

If your cat needs referral to a specialist or 24 hour care facility for hospitalization, the bill can go up precipitously. Make sure to let your care providers know your budget parameters so they can prioritize testing and care to get the best outcome possible. 

Long haired seal point cat not eating much but acting normal

What if Your Vet Can’t Make a Diagnosis?

The feline physiology is complex and ever-changing. There are some cases that go without a specific diagnosis even after extensive testing. 

Sometimes more testing or referral to a specialist will help make a diagnosis (for more money). But there will always be cases where nobody really knows what’s making your cat not want to eat. 

The good news is that even if there is no specific diagnosis, there are many things that can help your cat feel better in most cases. 

How Long Can a Cat Go Without Eating

When cats don’t eat, their body mobilizes fat from their body, processing it in the liver to produce energy. When too much fat is mobilized in a short time, the liver becomes overloaded and toxic. 

Overweight cats are at higher risk for developing a fatty liver. In some cases, this sort of liver disease can start after 48 hours without food. 

An otherwise healthy cat who is not overweight might be able to go for 2-3 weeks and experience up to 25% weight loss before the liver is adversely affected (2).

How to Get Your Cat to Eat Again

The most important thing to do is get your veterinarian involved. Getting more information will hopefully allow for a specific diagnosis and targeted treatment. 

Depending on how sick your kitty is, he may need hospitalization for more aggressive treatments and monitoring. Some of the most common supportive care hospitalized cats receive include: 

  • IV fluids, electrolytes and vitamins
  • Anti-nausea medication
  • Pain medication
  • Medication specific to a disease
  • Nutrition either by IV route or feeding tube
  • Appetite stimulants

Let’s assume your cat has a relatively minor health condition like chronic, low-grade pancreatitis that flares up once a year or so.

In addition to continuing prescribed medications, I’d like to pass on a few tricks I’ve learned to get your cat to eat. 

parmesan cheese food topper can help whet a cat's appetite

Food Toppers 

An easy thing to try for a cat who is a bit off their food are food toppings or additives. One surprising thing that works well due to it’s delicious flavor is the probiotic supplement Fortiflora. Using this has the added benefit of stabilizing the good gut bacteria. 

There are a few pantry and refrigerator staple foods that are safe for cats and might help them feel hungrier. The first is parmesan cheese–you can use pre-grated cheese or grate it yourself over your kitty’s meal.  

Some cats like a small amount of oregano added to wet food. 

Adding slightly warm liquid to dry or canned food increases palatability of food. Try chicken broth or tuna water.

Wet Cat Food

This one is kind of hit or miss, depending on your cat’s preferences. Some cats HATE wet food and some think of it as a special treat. 

I like to offer kitten food or prescription high-calorie food (like Hill’s a/d) to cats who are eating a little but not much. That way they don’t have to eat as much to get the nutrition they need.

Get several cans of food–different brands, flavors and textures. Put about a tablespoon of each on its own separate saucer and let your cat choose.

You might try a cooked, “fresh” style cat food like the ones from FreshPet. It’s found in many grocery stores and some cats really love it. I would try serving it slightly warmed with a little chicken broth mixed in. 

Table Food

Most cat owners have been brainwashed that they should never give their pets table food (a.k.a. people food). But here’s a shocker: cat food and people food are both just food

You can choose carefully and offer lean meats, meat-based soups, or even Gerber chicken baby food

I’ve had many clients tell me that rotisserie chicken is a favorite amongst pets. And Oscar Meyer bologna seems to be magical for some cats!

Make sure you avoid giving anything that contains garlic or onion as those ingredients are toxic to cats when fed in significant quantities.

Spoon Feeding

I don’t know why, but some animals will eat better if you sit with them and feed them from a spoon. Try doing this with some warmed Gerber chicken baby food. 

Be sure to let your cat lick it from the spoon and don’t force it on her. If she turns away several times in refusal, don’t keep pushing the issue. 

Spoon feeding baby food is more of a short-term solution while you implement other treatments. It’s hard to get enough food into a cat to meet their nutritional needs feeding them this way. 

Special Diets

For pets with certain medical conditions like kidney disease and inflammatory bowel disease, prescription cat food like low residue, hypoallergenic, or high calorie might be the best choice. 

Ask your vet to give you a few flavor and texture options to try. Cats can be so stubborn about trying new things, but we’re fortunate these days to have plenty of choices. 

cat eating from a saucer

Change the Feeding Routine

Try feeding meals in a quiet area away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the family. Try variations like sitting in the room at meal time and coaching them on vs. leaving the kitty alone. 

Try putting the dish on a counter or bed. Try using a large flat dish instead of a bowl. 

How about giving him a large box with doors and windows cut out to use as a “fort” and offer meals in there?

Some cats prefer to eat when their humans are eating, so try enjoying meals together. 

Appetite Stimulant

There are several prescription medications used to stimulate appetite in cats. The most common these days is mirtazapine

Mirataz ™ transdermal ointment for cats

Mirtazapine comes as a pill, a compounded liquid or even as a gel you apply so it’s absorbed through the skin. The commercial transdermal product is called Mirataz (click to view on–prescription required to purchase). 

This medicine works well for most cats and only has to be given every 2 or 3 days in most cases.  

Anti-Nausea Medication

Sometimes it’s more a matter of controlling nausea that stimulating hunger. Your vet may recommend giving your cat injectable or oral famotidine, omeprazole, or maropitant. 

These meds are well-tolerated without frequent side effects. It’s worth trying one or more of these with your vet’s help to see if your buddy will feel better enough to eat on her own. 

Feeding Tubes

A feeding tube is a flexible hollow tube placed either through the nose or side of the neck into the esophagus or stomach. Sometimes tubes are placed through the abdomen into the upper GI tract for longer term use. 

Although feeding tubes seem extreme, they’re actually not that difficult to place and cats tolerate them well. 

Don’t hesitate to ask your vet if your cat would benefit from having a feeding tube. It will allow you to feed him with liquified cat food through the tube. This avoids the stress of fighting to force feed your cat orally several times a day. 


Some healthy cats occasionally skip a meal. If they go for more than 36 hours without eating, it’s time to get a vet involved. 

Diagnostic testing is pretty good at identifying underlying reasons for poor eating habits in cats. Although it costs money, it will cost a lot of time and money if you and your vet have to guess at what the problem might be. 

Try one of the tips mentioned in this article to persuade your cat to eat (food toppers, change feeding routine and food, table food, appetite stimulants). 

If your cat continues to not eat much, let your vet know. A feeding tube can be a real lifesaver, allowing you to get nutrition into your cat with less stress while you address other health issues. 

The content provided on is for informational and entertainment purposes only. Our content is not intended to take the place of professional veterinary advice and should not be relied upon to guide or influence the medical treatment of any animal. For more information please see our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use page.

Click to View References
  1. Armstrong, P. Jane, DVM, MS, MBA, DACVIM (SAIM) (2011). Hepatic Lipidosis in Cats. Western Veterinary Conference, St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota.
  2. Armstrong, P. J., & Blanchard, G. (2009). Hepatic lipidosis in cats. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 39(3), 599-616.
  3. Scherk, M., DVM, DAVBP. (2011). Mellow & Yellow: Treating the Cat with Hepatic Lipidosis. Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference, Vancouver BC Canada: CatsINK.

Pin Me!

pinterest graphic

Vet’s Choice: The Best Cat Foods for Constipation

Editor’s Note: is supported by readers and may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this post. Recommendations are based on personal experience and criteria outlined in the article.

Mr. Kitty was an older cat that suffered from chronic constipation for years. I’ll never forget his sad face when he came to the clinic to have his stool manually removed every couple of weeks. Back then most vets believed the only and best cat foods for constipation were the high fiber ones we also prescribed for weight loss. 

As a general rule, these days veterinarians recommend pet owners try different dietary approaches to see which works best. The four recommended categories of food for constipated cats are:

Wet food is always recommended over dry food. 2 to 4 weeks of feeding is usually long enough to know whether a particular product helps your cat’s bowel regularity.

Systematic Food Trial for Your Constipated Cat

It’s impossible to know which food is best for your individual pet without trying it for a couple of weeks. Some do better with high fiber foods while others thrive on low-carb diets. 

As for how to choose which food to try first, start with wet cat food that’s higher in fiber than the current food. You can use dry kibble with similar qualities if you absolutely have to. 

If there is no improvement after 2-4 weeks of eating 100% of the new food, move on to low residue cat food (with average or low fiber) for 2-4 weeks. If that one fails to get things moving, a hypoallergenic prescription diet (with average or low dietary fiber) is the next stop in this experiment. 

To summarize, the best cat foods for constipation are preferably a wet (canned) version of food from one of the four categories mentioned above. Change to the new food gradually over 7 days and continue feeding it for at least 2-4 weeks.

Vet-Recommended Foods for Cat Constipation

We are fortunate to live in these times with a huge number of pet food products from which to choose. It does make it a bit overwhelming to choose just one, though. This article should give you a decent list of products to try. 

I’ve chosen one standout product in each category, but there are lots of other choices. I’ve evaluated a bunch of foods to find some good options. I looked at a few criteria: macronutrient ratio (carbs 15% or fewer desirable), dry or wet form, prescription or over-the-counter, widely available vs. regional, cost per calorie, manufacturer track record for producing high-quality and safe food. 

Choose one food from the following categories and feed it for a full 2-4 weeks before trying a different one. I recommend starting with high fiber, then low carb, then highly digestible and finally hypoallergenic food. 

Bag of Blue Indoor Cat Food-a decent high fiber choice for constipated cats
High Fiber Cat Food from Your Grocery Store

High Fiber

With product labels being so vague, you need to keep an eye out for certain terms manufacturers use to indicate high fiber. Some of the buzzwords to look for on labels that probably mean the food is high in fiber are: 

  • Hairball Control
  • Indoor Cat
  • Weight Control

These formulas often contain more fiber than average. They may also contain fewer calories, which is great if your kitty is overweight but not great if your he is normal weight or too skinny. If your cat doesn’t need to lose weight, check the calorie count and make sure you’re feeding enough to maintain. 

Non-Prescription Choice

High Fiber Wet Food: Blue Buffalo Healthy Gourmet Adult Pate Indoor Chicken Entree

(Protein 39%, Fat 57%, Carb. 4%; Crude Fiber 9% Dry Matter)

Pros: low in carbohydrates, higher in fiber, includes soluble fiber sources like flaxseed and guar gum, 

Cons: quite high in fat-might bother a sensitive cat, only 2 flavors: chicken and salmon, only available in pate form, relatively lower cost, available at grocery and pet supply stores, etc.

High Fiber Dry Food: Blue Buffalo Wilderness High Protein Grain Free, Natural Adult Indoor

(Protein 36%, Fat 37%, Carb. 27%; Crude Fiber 7% Dry Matter)

Pros: Relatively lower in carbs for dry food at 27% of calories, higher in fiber at 7% dry matter, includes soluble fiber sources like peas and flaxseed, grain-free for sensitive cats, low cost and convenience of dry food. 

Cons: relatively lower cost, available at grocery and pet supply stores, etc.

Prescription Choice

High Fiber Wet Food: Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets OM Overweight Management Savory Selects With Turkey

(Protein 53%, Fat 30%, Carb. 17%; Crude Fiber 7% Dry Matter)

Pros: Only 17% of calories from carbs, high fiber, high protein. 

Cons: soluble fiber content may be lower based on ingredient list, prescription only, cost is higher than non-rx food, may have to special order. 

High Fiber Dry Food: Hill’s Prescription Diet Gastrointestinal Biome Digestive/Fiber Care

(Protein 35%, Fat 16%, Carb. 35%; Crude Fiber 8% Dry Matter)

Pros: contains both soluble and insoluble fiber, prebiotics, lower cost than prescription canned food

Cons: high in carbohydrates, cost, need a prescription, may not be available as canned food, limited to one flavor and texture, vet may have to special order the food or write you a prescription to get it elsewhere

Low Carbohydrate

When it comes to low carbohydrate food, it’s difficult to tell which ones are and which ones aren’t. In general, dry foods are hardly ever low-carb. Canned foods may or may not be. Don’t be fooled into thinking grain-free formulas are necessarily low-carb because they usually contain starches to replace the grain. 

If you’re looking for a low-carb canned or raw food, the best resource for you is Dr. Pierson’s food list at Try to find one that has less than 15% of calories from carbs on that list (there are many options). 

She doesn’t list any dry foods because they’re not ideal for overall health. Also, there aren’t very many dry cat foods that have a low carbohydrate level. I’ve listed a couple in the chart that you can use if you absolutely cannot get your cat to switch to canned food.  

Non-Prescription Choice

Low Carb Wet Food: Weruva Grain-Free Natural Canned, Classic Recipes

(Protein 65%, Fat 32%, Carb. 3%; Crude Fiber 3% Dry Matter)

Pros: Low carbohydrate level at 3% of calories coming from carbs, grain-free, moisture content is especially high at 85% of dry matter, high protein, the fat level is not extremely high like some low-carb foods, no prescription needed.

Cons: very high cost for non-prescription food, may be difficult to find (try ordering online).

Low Carb Dry Food: Young Again 50/22 Premium High Protein

(Protein 44%, Fat 44%, Carb. 8%; Crude Fiber 3% Dry Matter)

YoungAgain Low Carb Cat Food

Pros: one of the only non-prescription low carb dry cat foods available in the US at this time, low in carbs at about 8% of calories, great for dry food addict cats, contains multiple fiber sources including soluble fiber, no prescription needed, relatively low cost, free shipping on orders over $30.

Cons: low moisture level, smaller family-owned company doesn’t have the reputation of the larger companies, contains small amounts of potato starch, only available on the YoungAgain website.  

Prescription Choice

Low Carb Wet Food: Purina Veterinary Diets DM Dietetic Management

(Protein 43%, Fat 52%, Carb. 6%; Crude Fiber 5% Dry Matter)

Pros: low carb level at 6% of calories, moist food, cats like the flavor, relatively inexpensive for prescription canned food, contains multiple fiber sources including soluble fiber. 

Cons: higher in fiber than many low carb canned foods may be a problem for some cats, only available by prescription, may need to special order from a vet or buy online

Low Carb Dry Food: Veterinary Diets Purina Pro Plan DM DM Dietetic Management

(Protein 52%, Fat 37%, Carb. 11%; Crude Fiber 3% Dry Matter)

Pros: only 11% of calories from carbs, high in protein, formulated to prevent bladder stones.

Cons: low moisture level, contains several highly processed ingredients, relatively high in fat, higher fiber level than average-may cause problems for some cats, relatively expensive for prescription food, prescription-only and may have to special order from your vet or buy it online. 

Highly Digestible/Low-Residue

Ingredients of the products in this category have been processed in such a way that they’re easy for the digestive tract to break down and assimilate. Low-residue diets are also designed with a low fiber level.  

Some pet food manufacturers do digestibility studies, especially for prescription low-residue foods. But most commercial formulas are not analyzed this way. 

Without this testing, we can really only guess at how digestible a given recipe is based on its ingredients. 

Therefore, I strongly recommend using a prescription low-residue food for this step of your experiment. If you absolutely cannot do that, here are some of the key phrases to look for on labels on non-prescription products:

  • Sensitive Stomach/Skin
  • Gentle
  • Gastrointestinal/Digestive
  • Low Residue

Non-Prescription Choice

Highly Digestible Wet Food: Iams Grain Free Chicken

(Protein 39%, Fat 49%, Carb. 12%; Crude Fiber 5% Dry Matter)

Pros: grain-free, low/average fiber level 5% maximum of dry matter, low carb at 12% of metabolizable energy, non-prescription, simple ingredients–mostly chicken, wet food.

Cons: higher cost for an OTC product, not a good option if your kitty has issues with chicken.

Highly Digestible Dry Food: Purina ONE Sensitive Skin & Stomach

(Protein 34%, Fat 15%, Carb. 34%; Crude Fiber 2% Dry Matter)

Pros: low cost, the convenience of dry food, low/average fiber, moderate fat, no prescription necessary, widely available, cats like it.

Cons: highly processed, contains grains, low fat/high carbohydrate content.

Prescription Choice

Highly Digestible Wet Food: Hill’s Prescription Diet m/d GlucoSupport

(Protein 46%, Fat 41%, Carb. 13%; Crude Fiber 3% Dry Matter)

Pros: available as wet or dry food, lower carb level at 13% metabolizable energy, lower fiber level at 3% of dry matter, formulated to help with weight loss

Cons: requires a prescription, your vet may have to special order it, higher cost, limited flavors and textures

Highly Digestible Dry Food: Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets EN Gastroenteric Naturals

(Protein 47%, Fat 17%, Carb. 19%; Crude Fiber 6% Dry Matter)

Pros: Low carb content for dry food at just about 18%, high in calories means you don’t have to feed as much and makes the overall cost lower, highly digestible (proven with testing), helps prevent urinary crystals, contains omega fatty acids (fish oil), cats seem to love the flavor. 

Cons: prescription only, only one flavor available, highly processed, dry food.


I don’t recommend non-prescription products for cats who truly need to go through a hypoallergenic food trial. The reason is that I don’t trust that the ingredients are strictly controlled enough to make the food trial accurate. 

For a legitimate hypoallergenic food trial, prescription food is well worth the extra money. If you’re going to go through the hassle, you might as well do it right the first time. 

If you just want to try changing protein sources, you can do this by choosing a non-prescription product that claims limited ingredients. Rabbit, duck, and pheasant are novel protein sources that work well for cats. 

Non-Prescription Choice

Hypoallergenic Wet Food: Natural Balance L.I.D. Limited Ingredient Diets Duck and Green Peas

(Protein 31%, Fat 58%, Carb. 11%; Crude Fiber 9% Dry Matter)

Pros: wet food, grain-free, only one protein source that is likely to be novel to your cat, available over the counter, the price per calorie is moderate.

Cons: not the gold standard for a hypoallergenic diet–may contain trace amounts of other proteins, has a high fat content (58%) which could irritate a sensitive stomach, peas are a controversial ingredient, some cats might not like the flavor.

Has a higher fiber level at 9% which could be favorable or unfavorable depending on the cat. 

Hypoallergenic Dry Food: Natural Balance L.I.D. Limited Ingredient Diets Duck and Green Peas, Grain Free

(Protein 30%, Fat 29%, Carb. 41%; Crude Fiber 4% Dry Matter)

Pros: grain-free, widely available, low cost compared to prescription diets.

Cons: not the gold standard for food allergy trials (may contain traces of other proteins), high in carbs at 41%, relatively high cost for non-prescription food, dry form, some cats might not like it. 

Prescription Choice

Hypoallergenic Wet Food: Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Selected Protein Adult PD in Gel Canned

(Protein 31%, Fat 53%, Carb. 16%; Crude Fiber 11% Dry Matter)

Royal Canin PD cat food

Pros: low carb content at 16%, moist form but also available in dry, somewhat less processed than hydrolyzed diets, cats seem to like it.

Cons: peas are the first ingredient, high cost, prescription only.

Hypoallergenic Dry Food: Royal Canin Ultamino

(Protein 23%, Fat 35%, Carb. 42%; Crude Fiber 6% Dry Matter)

Royal Canin Ultamino cat food

Pros: many vets consider this the gold standard for food allergy trials, works well for food allergy.

Cons: highest cost among the hydrolyzed dry diets I reviewed, prescription only, dry form only, some cats might not like it. 

Get Free Shipping on Orders Over $49 at!

Does Switching Cat Food Cause Constipation?

Changing food too quickly can confuse the beneficial organisms living in your cat’s guts. You could see a worsening constipation or even diarrhea with sudden food changes. 

Remember, always change your cat’s diet gradually over 7 to 10 days to allow your cat’s GI microbiome to adjust. 

Feed the new food for at least two weeks before drawing a conclusion about whether the litter box problems are better, unchanged or worse. 

How to Choose the Best Cat Food for Constipation

Choosing the perfect food for your cat might take some trial and error. I looked at dozens and dozens of prescription and non-prescription cat food products in search of the best options to recommend to my clients and readers. 

In this section, I’ll outline the specific characteristics looked for when considering which foods to recommend. You can use these same criteria if you want to use something that is not on my list. 

Moisture Content

A constipated cat should eat moist food with at least 70% or more moisture on the label’s guaranteed analysis. You can choose canned cat food, frozen raw cat food or make a balanced homemade recipe. 

Here I go again discussing why cats should eat a high moisture diet. 

Domestic felines are descended from desert-dwelling creatures whose physiology makes them great at conserving water. At the same time, we now know that a cat’s body sends thirst signals based on the dry matter content of food rather than the moisture content of the food. 

Put in simpler terms, cats eating low-moisture dry food don’t drink more water to make up for the moisture lacking in the food. They just don’t get thirsty. Cats who eat canned cat food end up taking in quite a bit more moisture (because it’s mixed into the food) than cats who eat dry cat food.  

In the real world, we have cats who are so habituated to dry food that switching is very difficult. You can feed dry cat food, but your kitty might not have as good an outcome as with wet food. If you must feed dry kibble, take extra steps to encourage more liquid intake like adding broth, using a water fountain, etc. 

Carbohydrate Content

Many veterinary specialists find a low-carb diet benefits many health conditions, including cat constipation. Look for products that contain 15% or fewer calories from carbohydrates. A lower percentage, like under 10%, may be necessary for some animals

Felines are obligate carnivores, meaning they require nutrients that are only found in animal-based diets. Animal-based food, i.e. meat, contains little to no carbohydrate. 

That’s not to say that all kitties do poorly while eating carbohydrates. But they’re not evolutionarily set up to thrive on a diet based on rice, potatoes and peas. 

Too bad it’s such a challenge to figure out which foods are high-carb and which aren’t! Current labels don’t require carbohydrate content to be displayed, but it can be roughly calculated based on the label’s “guaranteed analysis.”

When I send my clients out to look for an over-the-counter low-carb diet, I send them to Dr. Lisa Pierson’s list at She has listed the carb content on dozens of foods. 

Fiber Content

Some cats with sluggish bowels do better with a lot of dietary fiber while others get worse. 

For one thing, they did not evolve to eat lots of plant fiber. In fact, cats don’t require any fiber in their diet. However, a small amount of fiber (5% of dry matter or less) is beneficial to colon health. For another thing, not all fiber is created equal in terms of how the digestive tract reacts to it. 

Most pet food labels list only crude fiber maximum percent. This is a very inaccurate measure of the total dietary fiber in the product, often underestimating the amount. Unfortunately, it’s hard to accurately compare one product to another using crude fiber.  

Soluble vs. Insoluble Fiber

Included in the crude fiber quantity are the two main types of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble. Unfortunately, typical pet food labels do not list soluble and insoluble fiber quantities. 

If a product claims to be “high fiber,” that usually means high in insoluble fiber (1). You’ll have to check the ingredients to make a guess as to how much soluble fiber is in the ration. Here are some common ingredients to look for: 

Soluble Fiber IngredientsEffect on a Constipated Cat’s Stool
PectinMoistens and decreases bulk
Citrus PulpMoistens and decreases bulk
Guar GumMoistens and decreases bulk
Soy FiberMoistens and decreases bulk
InulinMoistens and decreases bulk
Insoluble Fiber IngredientsEffect on Stool
Beet PulpMoistens and increases bulk (larger stools)
CelluloseMoistens and increases bulk (larger stools)
Pea FiberMoistens and increases bulk (larger stools)
Rice BranMoistens and increases bulk (larger stools)

Soluble fiber can help many cats with difficult bowel movements. This type of fiber can be dissolved in water and comes from plant foods like psyllium husk, oats, beans and peas. In commercial diets, soluble fiber ingredients include pectin, citrus pulp, guar gum, soy fiber or inulin.

Soluble fiber increases water content in feces but decreases bulk. It forms sort of a gel in the GI tract, lubricating feces so they’re easier to pass. The other great thing about soluble fiber is that it feeds the good bacteria in your cat’s GI tract, acting as a “prebiotic.” 

Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and is found in things like whole grains, wheat germ, and vegetables. In commercial food, insoluble fiber ingredients include beet pulp, cellulose, pea fiber and rice bran

Insoluble fiber retains water in feces but also causes it to be bulkier. This kind of fiber can help in some cases, but cats with decreased intestinal tract contractions often do worse with bulkier feces. 

Ideally, you’d feed a diet with a balance of soluble and insoluble fiber. Again, these numbers are not listed on cat food labels, so it’s impossible to choose the best one without calling the manufacturer for more information. You might just have to make a guess and experiment to see how your pet reacts. 

Too Much Fiber: Side Effects

Too much fiber added too fast can cause digestive tract cramping, diarrhea and excessive gas. Excessive soluble fiber eaten over a long period of time can interfere with absorption of important minerals in the diet. 

Add fiber to the diet slowly and gradually increase the amount over several weeks’ time. If your cat is currently eating food with 2% crude fiber, you might change to a food with 5% crude fiber rather than jumping directly up to 7% crude fiber. 

Fiber and Megacolon

Finally, consult with your veterinarian if your pet has megacolon (or even chronic severe constipation). High fiber cat food can make things worse if your cat’s colon is unable to have normal contractions. These cats tend to do better with highly digestible diets.  


I remember learning about digestibility in my first animal nutrition class. I was surprised to hear that two diets made from essentially the same ingredients might give an animal very different levels of nutrition. 

Different parts of the same basic ingredient are easier to digest than others. For example, chicken muscle is easier to digest than chicken by-product which may contain a lot of “gristle.” 

Ingredient processing and combination also affects digestibility. It’s harder for an animal to absorb nutrients for raw meat than from cooked meat. Cooked, ground rice is easier to digest than raw, whole rice. And high fiber content decreases the overall dry matter digestibility of a food formulation (1). 

Overall, veterinarians find low-carbohydrate, animal protein-based meals are better for most cats. Look for ingredient lists without a lot of plant and starch items like peas, potatoes and lentils. The food might also say it’s good for cats with sensitive stomachs.                 

We have a plethora of prescription cat foods that are formulated for high digestibility. They often contain a higher level of carbohydrates and are not exactly what you’d call natural. Still, they work miracles for some cats, so don’t turn up your nose at them until you’ve tried them. 

Palatability (Tastes Good)

Palatability is not a big problem with most dry foods. Manufacturers figured out a long time ago that they can spray concentrated flavoring on the surface of just about anything and cats will eat it. I think that’s part of the reason cats get addicted to dry cat food–it’s like kids eating Doritos and not wanting to eat an apple because it doesn’t taste as good. 

If your kitty is a dry food addict, switching to canned or wet cat food might take some ingenuity. One easy trick is to sprinkle Purina FortiFlora® on the canned food. It has a concentrated animal protein-based flavoring that cats love. 

Even the best canned food won’t help your cat’s constipation if it’s not eaten. But it’s not always because it tastes bad. It could just be due to a strong habit formed by eating kibble since kittenhood. 

Check out Dr. Pierson’s tips to get dry food addicts to switch to wet food. Be patient, it is possible to out-stubborn your furry friend without starving her.

orange and white cat crouching behind a white food dish

Price and Availability

There is a huge spectrum of cat food available at different price points. If your cat has a serious constipation problem, your vet might recommend prescription food. Most prescription products are a lot more costly than grocery store brands. But if it saves you trips to the vet, the cost will be well worth it. 

Non-prescription cat food appropriate for cat constipation is available anywhere you can buy pet products. There are good choices at both grocery stores and pet supply stores. These days you can get just about any pet product delivered to your door by ordering online. 

There are also many choices of prescription nutritional products for more severe feline constipation these days. Your veterinarian will be able to make a recommendation based on your cat’s unique situation. Prescription cat food is often available at your vet’s clinic and also from online retailers with an OK from your vet. 

Treats for Cats with Sluggish Bowels

Unless your vet has prescribed a very strict elimination/food allergy diet, it’s OK to give one to three small treats per day. Avoid high carbohydrate treats and opt instead for high-protein natural treats. 

Bonito flakes are called “kitty crack” by some because kitties go crazy for them. These are simply dehydrated fish flakes. They’re small and have a low calorie count. 

Dehydrated chicken hearts are a great option for cats who don’t like or can’t tolerate fish. You can also try dehydrated chicken liver, but don’t give more than a couple of ½ inch pieces each day since they’re high in vitamin A. 

Cats on a specific hypoallergenic diet can be given pieces of their kibble for treats. There are a few hypoallergenic treats available, but ask your vet before using these. They could mess up a very strict diet trial. 

Non-Food Factors to Experiment With

When choosing a new diet to help your cat’s bowels, consider the current diet. Look at how much crude fiber it contains, what the protein source is, and what the moisture level is. With any new diet, you need to change at least one of those factors and do a feeding trial for a couple of weeks. 

Meal Size and Frequency

You should also think about how often your cat is fed. Smaller, more frequent meals may help increase contractions in the lower digestive tract. 

When thinking about how much they’re fed, be realistic about their access to treats and other foods. If they’re eating more than one or two very small treats each day, make sure you use one that “matches” the food you’re feeding.  

Litter Box 

Cats are naturally fastidious animals. They want a litter box that is private, quiet, conveniently located and clean. 

A senior feline might do better with a low-edge entry box. Consider putting a box on each level of your house, too. 

Provide one more litter box than the number of cats living in your home. Two cats should have at least three litter boxes. 

Scoop all boxes daily and dump and scrub with soap and water weekly. But be careful about changing locations or the type of litter you use because some cats are very particular about their potty! 


Exercise immediately after meal time may also improve your cat’s digestion. So if your kitty is in the habit of laying about in a “food coma” after eating, get out the toys and get him moving for 15 to 30 minutes. 

Weight Loss

Be honest about your pet’s weight status, does he need to lose weight? Obesity is a big risk factor for cat constipation. You might need to use a diet formulated for weight loss but at the very least feed no more than the amount recommended on the product label. You might want to weigh out each meal on a kitchen scale since a few extra grams of food can make a big difference to an animal that only weighs around 10 pounds!

Looking for more Cat Constipation Remedies? Click to Read My Other Article… 

Dietary Supplements to Ease Bowel Movement

There are many, many supplements offered for every cat ailment you can possibly imagine. Most don’t cause harm, but waste your money and might cause hard feelings between you and your cat if they don’t want to take them. 


Supplements that are worth a try include probiotics. Some foods contain extra probiotics, but I think it’s worthwhile to try adding some to your cat’s food. I recommend either Proviable DC which is flavorless or Purina Fortiflora which is considered absolutely delicious by most cats. Use the supplement for at least a month before you decide whether or not it’s helping. 

Canned Pumpkin

Adding natural food-based fiber to wet cat food can work well for some. Canned pumpkin has 28% crude fiber on a dry matter basis (1). A tablespoon or two per day is probably the maximum amount most cats will tolerate before they refuse to eat. 

Psyllium Husk

Psyllium husk (a.k.a. Metamucil) is a fiber supplement for humans that contains both soluble and insoluble fiber. Add ¼ teaspoon to meals one to three times per day. These are not recommended for long-term use as they can interfere with mineral absorption. 

The content provided on is for informational and entertainment purposes only. Our content is not intended to take the place of professional veterinary advice and should not be relied upon to guide or influence the medical treatment of any animal. For more information please see our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use page.

Click to View References
  1. Hand MS, Thatcher CD, Remillard RL, Roudebush P, eds. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 4th ed. Marceline, MO: Mark Morris Institute; 2000:725-881.
  2. National Research Council (2006, July 24). YOUR CAT’S NUTRITIONAL NEEDS A Science-Based Guide For Pet Owners. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from

Pin Me!

Graphic with orange cat

My Dog’s Elbow Callus Is Bleeding (Help!)

Editor’s Note: is supported by readers and may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this post. Recommendations are based on personal experience and criteria outlined in the article.

Patty wrote in with this question about a dog elbow callus problem:

“My dog’s elbow callus is bleeding. He’s a 6-year-old Mastiff and weighs about 100 lbs. He’s had calluses on his elbows for a long time but last night I noticed the one on the left side was bloody and might be infected. He doesn’t act like it hurts when I touch it. Why is his elbow bleeding and is there anything I can do to help him?”


What Is a Dog Elbow Callus?

Elbow calluses are normal but are often more prominent in large breed dogs. Calluses are the body’s way of trying to protect the underlying tissue of the elbow joint. But the dry, thickened skin is repeatedly traumatized when a heavy dog lays down, especially on a hard surface.

A dog elbow callus can turn from quiet to ugly when the hair follicles become plugged from constant pressure. Inflammation and infection follow after the follicles dilate and rupture, allowing bacteria to invade. Eventually, a dog owner finds the dog elbow callus bleeding or that it’s red and oozing. Dogs often lick these painful pressure sores, contaminating them even more.

Why Dog Elbow Calluses Turn Ugly

Several conditions contribute to infected, bleeding dog elbow calluses:

Moderate calluses may not cause any problems. But if the tissue becomes overly dry and thickened they tend to crack, become raw and bleed. Living in a dry environment will make the skin drier and more fragile. Older dogs tend to have more problems with sore elbows than younger dogs.

Patty’s question is one that’s on a lot of people’s minds as the season changes and dry, indoor climates take over. There are several things you can do to help your dog be more comfortable–for quick relief try Douxo Calm Gel spray and some removable dog elbow pads. Read on for more solutions…

Callus Turned Dog Elbow Infection

As mentioned above, when a dog’s elbow calluses are repeatedly traumatized, hair follicles get plugged and rupture. The outer surface of the skin breaks down and the underlying tissue gets contaminated by dirt, hair and bacteria.

When you think about the number of pounds per square inch a 100+ pound dog puts on his elbows when he lays down, it’s not hard to see why cracked elbows get infected.

ulcerated dog elbow callus
Raised, ulcerated sore on a dog’s elbow callus

A dog elbow infection can become a deep skin infection (also called callus pyoderma) with anaerobic bacteria. That type of bacteria thrives in a low-oxygen environment and can be tougher to clear.

It’s also not unusual for the tissue of a dog’s elbow to get so gnarly it makes your vet wonder if it’s actually cancer.

Once your dog’s elbow gets to the point of being raw, raised and oozy, it’s going to be more of a project to get it to heal. Your vet will probably recommend sedating your dog so they can do a biopsy and collect a deep tissue sample for bacterial culture. The cost for these procedures will likely be in the $800-$1200 range, depending on your location.

Why Can’t My Vet Just Suture the Elbow?

It would be so much easier if we could surgically correct a dog’s infected elbow! But most veterinarians are very cautious about elbow surgery.

The reason is that it’s pretty much impossible to keep a dog from putting pressure on his elbows. Nine times out of ten, the surgery site will break open in a matter of days and your dog’s elbow skin is worse off than before surgery.

How Long Does It Take Infected Elbows to Heal?

Healing time depends on the duration and severity of changes to your dog’s elbow. A dog with a superficial skin infection will usually heal within 10-14 days with proper care. Your dog may need topical disinfectants, oral antibiotics, therapeutic elbow pads and maybe even an e-collar to keep him from licking the healing tissue.

Deep skin infections take a lot longer to heal. Once your vet has done a culture to determine what kind of bacteria are growing, they will also find out which antibiotic will be the most effective against it.

Most dogs with deep elbow infections need to take oral antibiotics for weeks or months. You will also need to be diligent about disinfecting the tissue and minimizing trauma by using elbow pads and offering a thick dog bed your buddy can’t resist.

What Is an Elbow Hygroma?

Dogs’ elbows sometimes form a fluid-filled cyst, called a hygroma (with or without a callus). Hygromas are much more susceptible to trauma, plus they may be uncomfortable for the animal to lie on.

When hygromas are traumatized too much, they can develop inflammation or infection inside and on the surface. Sometimes they break open and become chronic sores.

Hygroma on a Mastiff's elbow (dog elbow callus bleeding)

Hygroma on a Mastiff’s elbow.

An elbow hygroma may never cause any problems. But if it becomes infected, treatment options are limited. Many vets are reluctant to do any kind of surgery to remove a complicated hygroma because the long-term outcome is so poor in most cases. That’s because it’s so difficult to stop a large dog from subjecting his elbows to continual trauma, the surgical sites can never heal.

The good news about an uncomplicated hygroma is that they can resolve without invasive treatment. You just need to provide lots of cushioning with super comfy, soft bedding like the one linked below. The bad news is that some dogs strongly prefer to lay on a hard surface. For bed nay-sayers, the only reasonable option is to have them wear elbow pads.

Treatment That Removed My Dog’s Elbow Calluses

Right around the time I got this question from Patty, I noticed my own dog’s elbow callus was bleeding, inflamed and mildly infected. She doesn’t even lay on a hard surface, but it still happened.

Douxo Calm Gel works great for dog elbow callus bleeding

I used Douxo Calm Gel spray to get the oozing areas to heal. I applied it once or twice a day (before meals so she wouldn’t lick it or lie down and wipe it off right away) and my dog’s skin slowly healed and even regrew hair. Now I use a combination of The Blissful Dog Elbow Butter and Douxo Calm Gel spray to prevent dog elbow infection in the callused skin.

BEFORE: Inflamed elbow callus on my dog

dog elbow callus bleeding

AFTER: The same callus after Douxo Calm Gel spray

healing dog elbow callus after home remedy treatment

How to Prevent & Remove a Dog Elbow Callus

Your best bet is to get aggressive about keeping your dog’s elbow calluses small or even reversing them. Here are some steps you can take to stop a dog elbow callus bleeding and prevent dog elbow sores…

Increase Humidity

Use a humidifier in the room where your dog spends the most time. The increased moisture in the air will keep his calluses from becoming so dry.

Coconut Oil for Mild Elbow Calluses

This special oil has a mild antibacterial effect, smells great and is a good moisturizer. Coconut oil is available in most grocery stores, but it’s not as thick as products made specifically for a dog elbow callus.

Use Dog Elbow Butter for Very Dry Calluses

I like The Blissful Dog Elbow Butter which contains heavy moisturizers like shea butter and beeswax which are non-toxic to dogs even if they ingest some. Apply dog elbow butter at least once a day but be sure to clean off any residue with mild soap and water before putting more on.

Apply Douxo Calm Gel to Ulcerated Calluses

This stuff is almost miraculous in healing ulcerated skin lesions! Spray it onto inflamed areas once or twice a day. Do it right before feeding or taking your dog for a walk so the gel doesn’t get wiped off right away. You can apply Douxo Calm Gel two or more times a day. Try alternating applications with dog elbow butter.

Provide a Thick, Soft Bed

Get a bed that your dog loves to lay on. Try a thick orthopedic foam bed with a bolster. I recently bought a couple of beds from Furhaven with memory foam and cooling gel foam. My dogs love them as much as their much more expensive beds and you can’t beat the price!

Use Dog Elbow Pads

Use dog elbow pads if your dog is the type who prefers to lay on the floor. These may be the only thing between your dog and bad elbow infections or hygromas!

When to See a Vet

If the calluses develop redness, swelling or pus you should have your veterinarian examine them. Dog callus infections can be treated, but if they’re left too long can become chronic.

Patty, I hope your big dog will cooperate with your efforts to help him. Sometimes dogs just don’t understand when we want to rub stuff on their skin or make them wear strange contraptions. Our lives would be so much easier if we could speak dog, don’t you think?

Best Wishes,

Dr. Thompson

You can ask your own question on our ASK A VET page!

The content provided on is for informational and entertainment purposes only. Our content is not intended to take the place of professional veterinary advice and should not be relied upon to guide or influence the medical treatment of any animal. For more information please see our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use page. 

How I Healed My Dog's Bleeding Elbow Callus