Understanding Feeding Tube Basics

Owners can learn to feed their cats through feeding tubes

Feeding tubes are used to get nutrition, fluids, and medications into a cat who is too ill to take in these necessities himself. Some pets need a feeding tube for a short time to get over an illness. Others may require them for longer periods due to a chronic illness or injury. Dr. Johanna Heseltine, a clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, offers some advice for cat owners facing the use of a feeding tube.

There are three basic types of feeding tubes. The smallest is the nasopharyngeal, or N tube. This tube gets threaded into your pet’s nose and into the esophagus. This is for short-term use and is generally only used when your pet is hospitalized. Esophageal (E) tubes are placed directly into the esophagus via an incision in the neck, and gastrostomy (G) tubes are placed directly into the stomach through an incision in the abdominal wall. G tubes usually have the largest diameter, can take thicker fluids and more treatments into your pet, and can be left in long term.

Your pet may need to wear a cone or a body shirt to prevent him from pulling the tube out. Most pets tolerate feeding tubes very well.

Food, fluids, and medications are mixed together into slurries that pass through the tube into the cat’s stomach. You connect a syringe with the mixture to one end of the tube and provide gentle pressure to pass the slurry into and through the tube. Flushing with some clear liquid at the end is important to keep it clean. This may sound challenging but, compared to trying to pill your cat multiple times a day, it’s usually easy.   

Anything that goes into the tube must be at room temperature or slightly warmer. If it’s too cold, it can shock your pet’s system, and if too hot, it might burn the GI tract. Once your pet is back to taking in normal nutrition for a week or so, the tube can usually be removed. Some pets start to eat on their own with the tube is in place, which is fine.