I am hard-pressed to find words that strike as much panic into the hearts of pet parents as these two: “feeding tube.” I can understand the initial hesitation that owners may have regarding the placement of a feeding tube in one of their pets, which I think has a lot to do with the way they are used in human medicine.
When owners hear the words, they immediately think of hospice situations, where feeding tubes are placed as last-ditch efforts. They are sometimes thought of by owners as instruments of prolonged suffering. I also think pet parents may perceive a feeding tube as invasive or painful, or they fear that it will interfere with their pet’s normal social interactions, all of which are untrue.
Feeding tubes provide nutritional support for our pets when they are too ill to eat, or when they have lost their appetite for one reason or another. They are not usually placed in hospice-type situations. Instead, they are placed to help our pets maintain their nutritional health while getting over an illness. Any pet with a disease process that causes anorexia (or severely decreased appetite) is a candidate for a feeding tube. While hepatic lipidosis in cats is probably the most common cause for feeding tube placement (more on that condition in our next blog!), other diseases may warrant it as well, including:
- Oral pain from dental disease or oral surgery
- Side effects from chemotherapy
- Kidney disease
- Gastrointestinal disease
Though feeding tubes are also placed in dogs, they are most commonly placed in cats. Any cat who has not eaten for over 48 hours, or one who has eaten less than half of her normal diet for three days, should be considered a candidate for a feeding tube. If the affected cat is very young or very old, feeding tubes should be considered sooner.
Your veterinarian may try a day or two of medical therapy, such as appetite stimulants, to try to get your kitty to eat, but if these fail, the best thing for your cat is to get a little help nutritionally. There are several different types of feeding tubes, but the two most common are nasogastric tubes and esophagostomy tubes. Like everything else in life, each kind of tube has pros and cons.
Nasogastric tubes are narrow tubes that run through the nasal cavity. They are easily inserted and require no anesthesia. They are also somewhat well tolerated. Their biggest limitation, however, is also one of their benefits. Because the tube is so skinny, veterinarians are limited in the type of nourishment that can pass though it without causing it to clog. For the patient who needs nutritional support, this can be very frustrating.
On the other hand, esophagostomy tubes are wider and make feeding easier. Anesthesia is required for placement, and they run through the side of the neck into the esophagus. Not only food, but also oral medications can easily be given right through the tube.
Your veterinarian will go over feeding tube instructions in depth before your kitty is sent home with you. You’ll be responsible for feeding your pet several times a day, as well as keeping the feeding tube site clean. Owners often ask how long a tube will need to be used, and the answer, of course, varies. Your pet can eat normally with a feeding tube in place once she’s feeling better, so many veterinarians will wait until your pet is eating normally for several days on her own before pulling the tube. On average, you can expect your cat to have a feeding tube for two to three weeks.
If your veterinarian has recommended a feeding tube and you still have hesitations, ask to speak to another pet parent who has been through it. They will certainly relieve your anxieties about the whole thing. In fact, most people tell me that they wish they had agreed to a feeding tube sooner!