What Is Refeeding Syndrome?

Aug 2, 2022 | Pet Health, Pets

Happy Wednesday everyone!  I’m a big fan of Instagram but sometimes the images are quite graphic as they were this week.  Seeing the many starved animals due to abuse is heartbreaking but it’s also made me aware of what Refeeding Syndrome means.  I have never heard the term before and although I had some idea, I quickly did some research to find out more about it.  I follow many amazing rescues and fosters who have taken these poor, sweet animals in and are doing amazing work to get them back to good health.  But it doesn’t happen overnight.  These starved animals can only be fed in small increments.  Read more to find out why!

Jake, my little chocolate chunk as I lovingly call him, barely eating his broccoli. Not a big fan of broccoli 🙂

Jake Broccoli | www.twoadorablelabs.com
What is Refeeding Syndrome?
Refeeding syndrome is an uncommon problem seen in general practice, but becomes much more of a reality in the shelter environment. It occurs when a starving animal becomes fed too generously, often out of sympathy for the animal’s condition (abuse, neglect, or abandonment).
The most serious effect associated with reintroducing food to starving animals goes by the name “refeeding syndrome.” It is well-recognized in people, but less research has been done in dogs. In an attempt to survive starvation, the body’s metabolic pathways undergo some pretty profound shifts. When the body is suddenly “inundated” with food, these new pathways cannot handle the situation, which results in fluid, electrolyte, and vitamin imbalances that have adverse effects on many different organs, including the heart and brain. In extreme cases, organ dysfunction can become severe enough that the dog or animals dies.

A less extreme form of refeeding syndrome results in gastrointestinal problems. The GI tract of a dog who has not been eating much (if anything) for a prolonged period of time simply can’t handle the sudden onslaught of a large amount of food. These dogs develop diarrhea, loss of appetite, and/or vomiting, none of which are helpful when weight gain is the goal.
Jake broccoli
Developing a Refeeding Plan:

A refeeding diet should be high-fat and low carbohydrate, with adequate potassium, phosphate, and magnesium. For horses, alfalfa hay is recommended.  Initially feed only ¼ of resting energy requirement (RER) divided into six small meals per day. This can be calculated by the formula RER = (30 x BWkgs) + 70, or simply go by the feeding recommendations for the chosen food. Amount should be increased by 1/8 to ¼ of the total requirement over several days.  As noted, parenteral thiamine should be provided. Other supplementation is not generally indicated. Refeeding syndrome usually occurs within the first 3-7 days.  The number of feedings can be decreased and the amount at each meal increased gradually over the first ten days, until the animal is free fed (for non-gluttonous individuals) or placed on a plan to allow steady weight gain.

Starved animals have impaired immune systems, so shelter patients should ideally be placed in foster care or housed in an area separate from ill animals and new intakes.
Jake Broccoli
Refeeding Syndrome can happen to all animals and humans too.  The desire to generously feed a starving animal is human nature, but can have disastrous consequences if done in an unconscious way.  Refeeding syndrome was first recognized in prison camp survivors of WWII – tragically, some survived terrible ordeals only to succumb to the too-sudden reintroduction of food.  In shelter medicine, starvation and refeeding is most often a concern in animals subjected to cruelty and neglect, or animals which have been trapped in areas without access to food and water. It may also be a concern in patients that have undergone a prolonged period of fasting or anorexia.  
When we see a starved animal, our instincts are too immediately want to feed them but we have to remember those frail and fragile bodies cannot handle large amounts of food all at once.  It takes patience, recommended doses of medications, supplements, water, and food on a specific schedule in order to get them to the proper weight they need to be to be happy and healthy again!  
Jake broccoli

I’m Bobbi Jo, a lab-lover who took my passion for animals and dogs and turned it into something bigger.  When I adopted Jake and Maggie, my love for them became the driving force behind Two Adorable Labs, and my blog was born.  My hope is to not only share them with the world, but to help educate others on the importance of animal health and well-being.

I love hearing from all of you and do my best to respond to each and every one of you.  I always enjoy your comments, feedback, and suggestions so keep them coming!  If I’ve posted a recipe (for our human and our furry friends) and you try it, don’t forget to tag me on Instagram @twoadorablelabs and use #twoadorablelabs​.

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