Does it break your heart to see that feral kitty, all skin and bones, out there in the cold? If you have decided to take in a stray cat, she may be malnourished and will need you to bring her back to health. Caring for a malnourished cat requires providing her with a steady intake of food and water that is easy for her body to process. A consultation with your vet will also help you do the right things to get a needy cat back in tip-top shape.
Malnutrition is often coupled with dehydration, especially in foundling cats. Noticeable signs of dehydration include loose skin and thick, sticky saliva. To help her overcome dehydration, provide plenty of fluids to the cat. She most likely needs electrolytes as well as water, so alternate between giving her electrolyte solution and water. Electrolyte solutions designed for children, with minimal flavoring (such as unflavored liquid Pedialyte), will be all right for Kitty, and can be found at many drugstores.
If she won't drink on her own, force-feed liquids to her using a turkey baster, an ounce or two at a time, every 30 minutes. Gently place the turkey baster between the cat's front teeth and slowly squeeze the baster plunger. Let the liquid drip onto her tongue. Her instinctual reaction will be to lick it up and swallow it. Once the cat is no longer dehydrated you can begin feeding her.
Start Feeding Small
Cats who haven't eaten in a long time won't be able to digest much to begin with. Even if she wants to gulp down food, your feral kitty should be discouraged from eating too much at once. This can lead to vomiting, which is traumatic to her already fragile system. Feed the cat a few tablespoons of food at a time, at least an hour apart. This will give her time to digest between feedings, but will provide nutrients constantly so she can begin rebuilding her strength. If she won't eat willingly, you'll need to forcefully spoon-feed her until she builds up an appetite and agrees to eat on her own.
Feed Easily Digested Foods
Often, malnourished cats will not be able to keep down food if they've been underfed for a long time. The Hope Center for Advanced Veterinary Medicine recommends that an animal with an upset stomach eat a simple diet of plain cooked rice and poached chicken breast. Cut the chicken into very small pieces to make it easier for the cat to eat and digest. Mixing food with a bit of water also makes it easier to eat, and keeps her from eating too fast. If the cat is reluctant to eat, try sprinkling some dried liver treats over the food. Most cats can't resist the taste of liver, and it will help restore her levels of vitamin A. Keep the treat feeding to a minimum, because very rich foods can aggravate an upset tummy.
Provide Supplements as Needed
Your veterinarian can prescribe dietary supplements that will help get your ailing kitty get back on her feet. Vets like Dr. Larry McDaniel (former president of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition) recommend providing basic vitamin and mineral supplements, or essential fatty acids like fish oil, to malnourished ex-strays. Wait to begin a supplement regimen until after your foundling kitty has been keeping down food consistently for at least three days. Supplements should only be necessary until your cat is restored to good health. They should gradually be removed from her diet when she has established regular eating patterns and has reached a sustained healthy weight.
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