Changes in eating habits
It's not just failure to eat - as we discussed above - which can be a cause of concern. Changes in food preference and in eating patterns and appetite can all potentially be early indications of problems and would benefit from veterinary attention.
Changes in food preference will often be the first clue of mouth and dental problems - dogs may become less keen on chew treats and chewing toys, for instance, cats may become less interested in dry food, and rabbits may remain happy to eat their pellets and fresh greens but reduce their hay intake - or vice-versa, for that matter! Any change in food preference or chewing behaviour should prompt an examination by the vet, who will be looking initially for any obvious source of dental or oral problems, which may be causing discomfort or difficulty. In dogs and cats, causes commonly include periodontal disease caused by plaque accumulation, but damaged teeth, dental abscesses, tongue or other soft tissue injuries, gum disease, and infections or tumours in the mouth can all sometimes be implicated.
In rabbits and rodents, the first sign of dental disease is often a change in eating behaviour, which can sometimes be associated with 'cudding' - allowing half chewed food to fall from the mouth. Rabbit and rodent teeth erupt continuously, which means that they continue to grow throughout life and depend on continuous wear to counteract this process and prevent them from growing too long. If this wear does not occur normally, which is most often a result of anatomy or improper diet, then the teeth become progressively longer, which interferes with the normal action of the jaw and will eventually prevent the pet from eating normally. This overgrowth can affect not only the incisors – which can be seen in the front of the mouth – but also the molars and premolars known collectively as the ‘cheek teeth’.
It is unfortunately essentially impossible to fully examine rabbits’ and rodents’ mouths while they are awake, and often an anaesthetic and sometimes x-rays will be required to allow for a full assessment to take place so that appropriate treatment can be given. Dental problems will often tend to recur following treatment and repeated dental treatment is often required once problems are established, so careful attention to appropriate diet from early in life is particularly important - talk to your vet for advice if you're at all unsure.
I often encounter pet owners who assume that their pet must be in excellent health because they have a very good appetite - but did you know that increased hunger can also be an early sign of certain problems? A dog or cat who has always been a bit of a 'grazer' starting to clean their bowl and beg for more could indicate metabolic or hormonal disturbances such as thyroid disease or diabetes and definitely merits a check-up with the vet!
Tommorow we will talk about activity and tiredness in pets.