Tube Feeding in Cats

Having a feeding tube placed in your cat can sound scary and you may be concerned if it is a necessary procedure. Cats can stop eating for days when they are sick or lose their appetite when they have a problem breathing, feeling nauseous or have painful mouths. Not eating for a few days can have more serious complicationsin cats compared to a dog that is not eating, as they may develop liver problems, have low blood sugar and not enough nutrients to aid recovery and reduce inflammation.

Trying to force-feed cats orally is a frustrating and emotionally draining experience. You may feel helpless watching your cat starving day by day. Cats quickly develop a dislike for food (food aversion) the more they are force-fed. It then becomes more difficult to get them to start eating even when they feel better subsequently.

It is now recommended to intervene earlier rather than later when your cat stops eating for a few days with a feeding tube (and/or other treatment as deemed necessary by your vet).
Why we do it
  • To allow us to continue feeding a cat when who refuses to eat voluntarily and ensure the cat is getting adequate calories to prevent further weight loss. A sick patient requires more calories and energy than a healthy cat. 
  • To ensure the type of food given is suitable for a particular medical condition. 
  • Avoid food aversion to give the best chance for your cat to start eating again once the initial problem has been resolved. 
  • To minimise pain by avoiding the need to chew for cats with oral pain. 
  • To allow food to travel to the stomach and intestines to be absorbed when there is an inability to swallow, problems with vomiting/regurgitation, or absorption issues with the digestive system. 
Types of feeding tubes
  1. Naso-oesophageal feeding tube. This is a very narrow tube inserted to the oesophagus via the nostril. It does not require any anaesthesia (GA) to insert, hence it is suitable for cats who are too sick to undergo GA. As the tube is narrow, only a liquid diet can pass through the tube. It is only for a short-term use of a few days, usually in a hospital. An Elizabethan collar is needed to prevent the tube from being removed by the patient. 

  2. Oesophageal feeding tube. It is a tube inserted directly into the oesophagus under a short anaesthetic, through a small incision at the side of the neck. It is suitable for cats that need to be assisted feeding for a long period of time (months). Most cats tolerate it very well and can be discharged home with this tube in place, covered with a light bandage around the neck. As it is not around the face area, cats are still able to smell and eat food orally without obstruction. The diet used can be a bit thicker than complete liquid diets. Removal of the tube by a vet is simple without the need for GA. 

  3. Gastrostomy and jejunostomy feeding tubes. These feeding tubes are inserted into either the stomach or small intestine under GA and the procedures are more complex compared to the above two tubes. The maintenance required is much higher. They are usually used when a cat is unable to absorb and tolerate food in the mouth oesophagus. 

Your vet can discuss the suitability of feeding tubes and any concerns you may have. A vet or nurse can demonstrate and teach you how to manage the tube at home.