By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 6 December 2011)
Why Won’t My Cat Eat?
Loss of appetite (anorexia) in cats can be caused by a variety of different problems, including diseases of the digestive tract, brain, kidneys, pancreas, liver, heart, eyes, nose, mouth, throat, skin, and blood. Pain in general from disease or injury may also cause a cat to lose his appetite, as can infestation by certain parasites. Severe dental disease (which makes chewing food painful) and foreign objects lodged in the intestines can cause anorexia as well. Even treatments for existing health problems (such as chemotherapy for cancer) may trigger nausea and appetite loss. Medical causes of anorexia range from the relatively mild, such as cat flu and food allergy, to the serious, including cancer.
There are also many non-medical causes of appetite loss, such as:
- Dislike of food: Some cats will go off a food they once liked, but this problem more often occurs when the diet is switched rapidly, so dietary changes should be made slowly by mixing increasing amounts of the new food in with the old.
- Bad food bowl location: Many cats won’t eat in a high-traffic area of the house or near litter boxes.
- Sneaking food elsewhere or filling up on table scraps: Some cats refuse food simply because they get too many treats or snacks; some even sate their appetites hunting and eating what they kill outdoors.
- Allergy to the food bowl: This is more likely with a plastic food bowl.
- Emotional stress due to major changes: Changes that can upset cats include moving house, new pet, new baby, new roommate, etc.
- Depression: Although depression can be caused by medical problems, it can also occur after the loss of a loved one, in response to major changes, or due to bullying by other pets or people.
To get a sense of whether or not the problem is medical, look for the following additional symptoms:
- Breathing difficulties/laboured breathing
- Bulging stomach
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and mucous membranes, visible in the gums and whites of the eyes, and possibly the ears where fur is thin)
- Sudden behavioural changes
- Visible pus or blood indicating infections or injuries
- Weight loss
If any of these additional symptoms are present, consult a veterinarian immediately.
Cats have higher daily protein requirements than dogs, so loss of appetite becomes life-threatening more quickly. Cats that stop eating can develop potentially fatal hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease). According to veterinarian Ron Hines, eating less than half as many calories as normal for two weeks can trigger liver disease, and this process is likely to be far faster if the cat is eating nothing at all. Anorexia is particularly dangerous for young kittens, becoming life-threatening in as few as 12 hours, according to Tom Ewing of the Cornell Feline Health Center.
Hines states that going for a day without food may be nothing to worry about, but if the problem persists for several days or is accompanied by weight loss or additional symptoms, veterinary care should be sought immediately. Personally, if one of my cats stopped eating for more than a day and I couldn’t tempt her with treats, even if there were no additional symptoms I would call a veterinarian to ask for advice, and I would seek veterinary care immediately if there were other symptoms.
Treatment for Appetite Loss in Cats
Treatment for anorexia may include addressing the cause of appetite loss via the provision of medication to treat the underlying illness, surgery, or other medical intervention. A dehydrated animal may also require fluids intravenously (injected into a vein) or subcutaneously (injected under the skin).
It’s also important to ensure that the cat receives nourishment through tube feeding (or intravenous feeding if the cat can’t tolerate food in his stomach); syringe feeding; or using less invasive means to encourage eating such as providing special treats, warming food to body temperature to make it more palatable, or administering appetite-stimulating drugs. Force feeding is not recommended, as it can create an aversion to food, making the problem worse. The use of veterinarian-prescribed antinauseants or pain medications can be beneficial in controlling symptoms that can trigger anorexia.
Home Care: How to Encourage a Sick Cat to Eat and Drink
There are a number of ways you can help stimulate the appetite of a sick cat that you are caring for at home:
- Provide special treats (i.e., cat treats, canned human tuna, boiled chicken, etc.).
- Feed meat-based baby food as a treat (don’t feed baby food exclusively, as it will not meet all of a cat’s nutritional needs, and make sure that it’s free of onions and other ingredients toxic to cats).
- Increase the fat and/or protein content of the diet to make it tastier (cats, as obligate carnivores, need fats and proteins to make up a higher proportion of their diet than do omnivorous dogs and humans).
- Warm food to body temperature (microwaves may warm the food unevenly, leaving dangerous hot spots – if using a microwave, be sure to check for these).
- In the case of a nauseated pet, provide bland foods
- Offer frequent small, fresh meals instead of leaving food out.
- Put a little food on the cat’s lips to stimulate a licking response.
- Place a bit of food on your finger and hold it near the cat’s mouth to encourage licking.
To get more fluids into a dehydrated cat:
- Feed wet food rather than dry.
- Add warm water; low-sodium meat broth (make sure it does not contain onion); or tuna juice to the cat’s food.
- Provide a fountain-type water dish (many cats prefer running water and will drink more if the water moves)
- Allow the cat to lick water from your fingers or the palm of your hand.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for veterinary consultation and care.
- Cote, E., Dr. (2011). “Anorexia (Loss of Appetite) in Cats.” PetPlace.com.
- Ewing, T. (10 December 2010). “Anorexia.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Vet.Cornell.edu.
- Hines, R., DVM, PhD. (2011). “What to Do When Your Dog or Cat Won’t Eat: Anorexia in Pets.” 2ndChance.info.
- Marks, S. (2001). “Diagnostic and Therapeutic Approach to the Anorectic Cat.” World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Vancouver 2001, Veterinary Information Network, VIN.com.
- Monroe Veterinary Associates. (n.d.). “The Anorexic Cat.” VetSpecialistsofRochester.com.
- PetMD. (2011). “Anorexia in Cats.” PetMD.com.
- PetPlace Staff. (2011). “Tips on Getting Sick Cats to Eat.” PetPlace.com.
- Plotnick, A., MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP. (2007). “Jaundice: When Your Furry Fellow Turns Bright Yellow.” ManhattanCats.com.
- Primovic, D., Dr. (2011). “Tips for Encouraging Your Cat to Drink.” PetPlace.com.