[BLOG]Nutrition in animal shelters: Refeeding syndrome? 11 facts you should know


I am sure you are familiar with the body score condition scales that are used in veterinary medicine.  They exist for dogs (see here), for cats (see here), and they are used more and more since overweight condition seems to become more and more important in our pet population. However, in shelters, the situation can sometimes be quite different.

We mentioned it in previous posts: one of the challenges we have is that very often we have no idea what the animal went through before it enters the shelter. It is not uncommon that some animals did not have access to proper nutrition… That’s why you also see from time to time very underweighted or even emaciated dogs and cats. First reflex we will have, nearly instinctive: give them access to food asap. But that is not as simple as it seems unfortunately, because of something that is called the “refeeding syndrome”, a metabolic disorder that can quickly have severe consequences. Not that common fortunately, but in shelters , it is always important to be prepared and to know a bit about it. Here are 11 facts that you need to have in mind before feeding this severely underweight individual.

#1: Very underweighted or emaciated dogs and cats usually had to deal with “chronic negative energy balance” (=understand that they did not have access to proper nutrition for a long time and they develop deficiencies).

#2: Because of that, their organism underwent metabolic modifications: they start to utilize fat and muscular tissues to be able to maintain their organic functions. There are also modifications of their electrolytes (sodium, potassisum, etc.) concentration in the different body compartments.

#3: Because of these modifications (especially the ones concerning electrolytes), if food is reintroduced too fast, this can lead to serious and potentially fatal metabolic derangements.

#4: This is known as the “refeeding syndrome” . There are very little information in dogs and cats in the scientific literature, but it is described in horses and in humans.

#5: A wide range of symptoms can be observed: weakness, seizures, coma, irritability, aggression and even death.

#6: Refeeding syndrome in horses can be fatal withing days !

#7: Monitoring the reintroduction of food is mandatory particularly during the first week of feeding

#8: In horses, small feedings are recommended to begin (up to 6 times a day).

#9: Starved animals should be fed at a level that results in only minimal weight gain for the first 10-14 days.

#10: The amount fed can be gradually increased at each meal and the number of feedings gradually reduced over a period of about 10 days to 2 weeks.

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