By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 16 July 2011)
The reasons why cats stop eating can be divided into four categories: problems with the food, problems with the food bowl or its location, obtaining food from other sources, and medical or dental problems.
Cat Food Problems
- The food is stale: Dry food can become stale, particularly in warm weather when it’s more likely to be exposed to moisture. A bag or box of dry food may need to be replaced if the cat has suddenly gone off it.
- The food is too cold: Cats like their food warm, or at least at room temperature. If wet food has been in the refrigerator, it may be unappealing to the cat. In this case, food should be heated in a pan on the stove top until warm to the touch.
- The food doesn’t provide sufficient protein: Many cat foods are made primarily of filler such as cornmeal or rice. Check the ingredients list on your cat’s food to ensure that the first ingredient is meat, ideally high-quality meat rather than a by-product. Only feed your cat good quality commercial foods or natural diets recommended by your veterinarian.
- The cat dislikes or has become bored with the brand or flavour of food: If you have tried replacing stale dry food and heating wet food and still your cat refuses to eat, providing something new may rekindle his interest in food.
Food Bowl/Location Problems
- There is an audience: Most cats want privacy while they eat, so it’s a good idea to keep the cat’s bowls away from high-traffic areas of the house.
- The cat is bothered by the presence of other pets: If your cat seems anxious eating with other household cats or dogs, you should try feeding the pets in separate areas, if possible.
- The food bowl is dirty: Cats will usually refuse fresh food from a bowl that has bits of old stale food clinging to it, as this can cause bacterial contamination.
- The cat is allergic to the food bowl: Some cats develop an allergy to plastic food bowls, which can cause tiny sores on their lips.
- The bowl gives off electric shocks: Some metal bowls give off small static electric shocks, particularly in cold, dry weather.
Obtaining Food Elsewhere
- The cat has already eaten: Outdoor cats may snack over the course of their travels, either catching small prey or eating food that neighbours put out for their own pets. Cats that receive table scraps regularly are also more likely to turn up their noses at regular cat food.
- The cat is manipulating you: If you give your cat treats every time he refuses his regular cat food, he’ll quickly learn that he can easily trick you by pretending to lose his appetite.
Medical or Dental Problems
Even a cat suffering from stress or not fond of his brand of food will eventually succumb to hunger as long as he’s healthy. If it has been 24 hours and your cat is still refusing food, you should get him to the veterinarian as soon as possible to check for medical or dental problems. Symptoms of internal medical problems include:
- Persistent vomiting
- Weight loss
- Dull coat/failure to groom
- Urinating or defecating outside the litter box
- Change in vocalization (i.e., the cat starts howling regularly)
Symptoms of dental problems such as severe gingivitis or mouth abscess include:
- Very bad breath
- Swollen or red gums
- Allowing food to fall from the mouth
Consult a veterinarian if any of these additional symptoms are present.
For answers to other frequently asked questions about cat behaviour, visit the Cat Psychology, Communication, and Behaviour page. For tips on choosing the best cat foods, see the Cat Feeding page. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- High Peaks Cat Shelter. (n.d.). “Refusing to Eat.” HPCatShelter.org.
- Purina. (n.d.). “Fussy Eaters.” Purina.co.uk.
- King County Animal Care and Control. (2007). “Finicky Eater.” KingCounty.gov.