Our veterinary expert explains why cats might refuse food, and shares advice on what to do if they’re skipping meals, including what to feed a cat that won’t eat.
Our cats can be fussy about food, and the occasional unfinished meal needn’t be a cause for concern. But if a cat with a previously healthy appetite starts eating noticeably less of their food, refuses to eat for more than 48 hours (or 24 hours in the case of kittens or elderly cats), or otherwise changes their usual eating habits, you definitely shouldn’t ignore it.
Loss of appetite in cats isn’t just a sign of potential illness, it can also lead to dangerous complications in its own right. Hepatic lipidosis (or ‘fatty liver disease’), a condition triggered when a cat eats little or no food for even a relatively short period of two or three days, can quickly become life-threatening, particularly in overweight cats – which is why it’s important to seek medical advice without delay if your cat has stopped eating, or is losing weight.
Why has my cat stopped eating?
There are many reasons why your cat might go off their food, and while some of them are nothing much to worry about, others are more serious and require medical attention. To help your vet identify the reason for your cat not eating, it may be helpful to jot down what you’ve observed. For example:
- Has your cat stopped eating altogether, or are they just eating less than usual?
- Are they generally disinterested in food, or do they seem to be hungry but finding it physically difficult to eat?
- Have you noticed any weight loss?
- Are they experiencing any other health symptoms, or have there been any recent changes to their diet or routine?
Here, we look at some of the most common reasons for a cat not eating:
Our cats are very good at concealing pain and sickness, so a loss of appetite, particularly if this occurs suddenly, might be the only sign that all is not well with their health. Your vet will be able to help establish whether it’s a temporary stomach upset or a more serious condition, and treat your cat accordingly.
If your cat seems hungry but can’t bring themselves to eat, it’s possible they’re having difficulties with their teeth or gums. Gum disease and dental cavities (known as resorptive lesions) are a very common, but easily missed, problem in cats, so do get your vet to check this out, and make sure your cat has their routine dental check-ups. Similarly, teething pain in kittens may make feeding uncomfortable – you could try offering them wet cat food instead of harder dry food.
Emotional and environmental issues
Cats are very sensitive to what’s going on around them – even things we might not recognise as a problem. Household disruption and noise, unappealing scents or unwashed food bowls could all put your cat off their dinner. More broadly, any change of routine, such as a new home, new pet or new family member, may cause stress and result in a loss of appetite in cats. Be mindful of your cat’s needs, and get into the habit of feeding them in a peaceful part of your home, away from any smelly litter trays or bins, where they can eat undisturbed.
Cats are generally more solitary than dogs and humans, and therefore not always very good at sharing space – or food! If you’ve more than one cat in your home, be alert to signs that one cat is guarding food and deterring the other(s) from eating, even if there’s no obvious suggestion of conflict. Always provide each cat with their own food bowl, and if there are any signs of competition, feed them separately, in different areas of the home.
Food issues and changes of diet
If you’ve recently changed your cat’s diet, they may be reacting to that by refusing to eat. It’s best to introduce any dietary changes gradually, and in consultation with your vet. (Top tip: mixing increasing amounts of their new food into their old food may help it gradually become more palatable.) Cats often notice the difference if their favourite brand has been reformulated, or if their food is past its best or has been left sitting out for a while – and if you often let your cat snack on human food, they may develop a taste for that over their usual cat food.
Another health issue that might put your cat off their food is a respiratory problem, such as cat flu, that compromises their sense of smell. A cat’s appetite is strongly linked to this sense, so when they can’t smell their food as well as they normally can, they may not approach it with their usual relish.
Hot summer days
Research suggests pet cats eat 15% more during the winter than in summer, probably because they need the extra energy to keep warm. It’s normal for our appetites to drop off in hot weather, and cats are no different – if you notice your cat’s activity levels declining in summer, a corresponding decrease in their appetite isn’t surprising.
Why is my older cat not eating?
As cats get older, they tend to sleep more and move around less, so their appetite may naturally decline. Their kidney function often deteriorates, too, which can affect their ability to excrete waste products related to the metabolism of protein, and is why older cats benefit from specially formulated food. As with any behaviour change, if an older cat stops eating you should definitely book a vet visit – some health issues affecting appetite, such as gum and liver disease, become more common with age.
What to feed a cat that won’t eat
If your cat needs to be on a special diet for their health, it’s important to persevere with that. That said, you should never rely on hunger to force a reluctant cat into eating what you want them to – if your cat won’t eat their prescribed food, ask your vet for help, as alternatives may exist. Most cats that persistently refuse to eat do so for some underlying medical reason.
If your vet has ruled out a medical reason for your cat not eating, they may be able to recommend some feeding or dietary tweaks. These might include:
- Offering wet food over dry food for a cat with mild dental disease.
- Offering a more digestible formula for older cats.
- Tempting your cat with strong-smelling liver or tuna-based cat foods, by adding a few drops of fish oil to their food, or by gently warming their meal to release its aromas.
- Avoiding too many fatty or greasy foods, which may cause colic and lead to a loss of appetite.
- Feeding smaller portions of freshly opened food rather than leaving big meals to dry out or go stale. After all, in the wild cats naturally eat whenever they manage to catch prey – and it might just be that they’d prefer to graze little and often.
See our article on encouraging a fussy cat to eat for more tips on whetting your cat’s appetite.