Is your cat a fussy eater?

Q: What’s the cause of fussiness?

A: In order to understand that, it’s important to first consider how cats have evolved to eat. Cats normally eat several small meals a day, and in the wild would have 10 to 12 little meals during that time – although this is a feeding schedule that obviously doesn’t suit most owners.

So, if your cat only eats a small amount, don’t assume it’s because she doesn’t like her food; just offer more fresh food later. But don’t fall into the trap of offering a more palatable food instead. Your cat might eat this whether she’s hungry or not, simply because she finds it tasty (after all, we sometimes eat dessert even when we know we’re full!). If your cat has always been a fussy eater, it may be because she’s learned that waiting, or even asking, for a more appetising food can be rewarding.

On the other hand, if your cat suddenly becomes fussy, when she never has been before, this could point to an underlying medical problem. Dental disease is common in older cats, and is often the cause of a decreased appetite, but there are many other disorders that could also be to blame. Take note of any other unusual signs or behaviours, and speak to your vet as soon as possible.

Q: Could a new diet be to blame?

A: Many owners find that their cat’s choosiness coincides with the introduction of a different food – for example, a medical diet prescribed for conditions such as kidney disease. Cats can take a long time to adjust to new types of food, so if you do have to change your cat’s diet, do so slowly. Some cats will adjust in days, but it can take several weeks, so don’t give up too quickly. Add small amounts of the new food to her existing feed or offer it in a separate bowl next to her current food and gradually increase the amount of ‘new’ while slowly decreasing the ‘old’ by the same amount.

Never withhold food in the hope that your cat will eventually eat the new diet out of hunger. This is especially important for cats with any medical conditions.

Q: What could be at the root of scrounging behaviour?

A: Again, this could be a learned trait. If your cat has always looked for extra food and is overweight, she may have realised that tasty treats come her way when she’s persistent enough. Alternatively, she could just have a genetic predisposition to feeling hungry more often than most other cats. If you think this is the case or your cat is overweight, speak to your vet or a veterinary nutritionist about special foods that could help her to feel fuller for longer.

If your cat is lean and has recently started to look for extras, have her checked by the vet straight away. She could have hyperthyroidism or other disorders.

Q: Is eating too quickly a problem?

A: Yes. Cats that eat food, especially the dry kind, too quickly may regurgitate their meals (meaning the food only reaches the oesophagus, not the stomach, before coming back up). If you’ve noticed this in your own cat, it could be worth examining her environment. For example, if you have other pets, your cat may be eating quickly to avoid competing for her food. Creating separate feeding areas can be an easy way to prevent the problem altogether.

It’s also possible that your cat isn’t having as many small meals during the day as she’d like, and is therefore scoffing down her food when it is available. If you’re not able to feed her several times yourself, it might be worth investing in a timed feeder to spread out her meals.

Q: Is an upset stomach cause for concern?

A: It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason for stomach upsets, as it could be due to eating too fast (see above), an illness such as a gastrointestinal disorder, food allergies or an intolerance to a specific ingredient. If you suspect that your cat might be reacting to something in her food, speak to your vet about finding the cause rather than trying out different foods in a bid to find the ‘right’ one. As cats take a long time to adjust to new diets, varying her feed too much could cause a problem in itself.

If your cat’s vomiting or diarrhoea lasts longer than a day or two, contact your vet straight away; they’ll need to check for any possible underlying conditions.

Q: How can a fussy cat be encouraged to eat?

A: One way is to slowly introduce your cat to canned foods. Heating this wetter sort of food to just below body temperature can help release appealing aromas, which in turn will stimulate your cat’s appetite and pique her interest enough to try it. Another trick could be to add flavourings to her food, such as the water from canned tuna or a low-sodium chicken broth. However, if your cat has a condition of any kind, always check with your vet first to see if there are any ingredients you should avoid.

Finally, aim to make mealtimes as stress-free as possible for your cat. Provide a quiet place to eat, away from noisy appliances like the TV or the washing machine, and keep her food and water in separate areas, and a good distance away from her litter box.