Veterinary Handbook Disease Finder

Shy Feeders


Cattle are the main species of interest.



See also Inappetance/Inanition for sheep. 

Shy feeders are animals reluctant to eat pelleted rations. Shy feeders will often continue to eat roughage such as chaff or hay. Up to 15 % of cattle, especially if older, may become shy feeders at sea on pellet rations. 

The cause is unknown but may be due to a rapid change in diet and the way it is offered. The change from pasture, to eating rolls of hay in assembly points, and then pellets in troughs on a ship can occur in a few days. A variety of other factors may be involved, including concurrent disease and stressors associated with the export process. 

Reducing competition by separating affected animals to a hospital pen and feeding roughage in the form of hay or chaff is almost always successful in getting the animals to eat and maintain body condition.

Clinical Signs and Diagnosis

Affected animals are detected during pen inspection. Loss of condition from reduced feed intake results in the left flank being more hollowed and the short ribs more prominent than those of pen mates.

Differential diagnoses include chronic diseases and conditions affecting appetite such as liver abscess, low grade pneumonia, ruminal acidosis, displaced abomasum and ketosis.


Shy feeders require special attention and management. The primary treatment is to separate affected animals to pens with fewer but similar age, size and sex animals, and feed roughage. From there, pellets can slowly be reintroduced to the ration and the number of animals in the pen eventually increased, if necessary, to relieve crowding elsewhere. 

Additional treatments may be warranted depending on the results of examination of affected animals. 

If ketosis is suspected, consider intravenous administration of dextrose and oral administration of propylene glycol. Transfer of rumen fluid from a healthy donor may be beneficial for animals where rumen microflora have been disrupted by inappetence, acidosis or oral antibiotics. 

Antibiotics (procaine penicillin, erythromycin, or ceftiofur) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (flunixin meglumine, ketoprofen, meloxicam, or tolfenamic acid) may be beneficial if infectious, septic, or painful disease is suspected or other efforts are ineffective. However, relapse at the end of a course of seemingly successful treatment may occur. 

If apparent weight loss or reluctance to eat is becoming widespread, check the quality of water and feed, looking for any evidence of contamination or other changes that may affect intake. 

A variety of injectable products are promoted as appetite stimulants (various combinations of vitamins often with other products), but efficacy is questionable. Glucocorticosteroids should be used with caution as they are immunosuppressive. 

Although recommended in ketosis associated with lactation, they may be detrimental in other types of ketosis associated with pregnancy or over fatness.


Measures available to reduce the number of shy feeders include:

  • Group according to size, age, sex and horn length to reduce competition.
  • Provide adequate trough space so most animals can feed at one time.
  • Ensure good quality feed and water.
  • Provide enough feed at each feeding so some is left for shy feeders after aggressive feeders have finished eating.
  • Adapt cattle to pellet diets in assembly points in preparation for full feeding of pellets at sea. This may be facilitated by feeding hay as a means of introducing cattle to trough feeding. Then begin feeding pellets on top of hay and increase pellets as a proportion of diet over time. Mixing rough cut chaff with pellets rather than feeding separately may also facilitate adaptation to pellets and create a more evenly balanced diet.
  • Feed a mixture of chaff and pellets on the first few days of a voyage if the fodder uptake is slow. 
  • It may be necessary to put feed troughs on the inside of pen rails for some stock eg. some horned cattle may find it difficult to access feed troughs.