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Cats have an instinct to hide any illness so they’re less susceptible to attack and social ostracizing by other cats. It’s a great tactic for survival in the wild, but not very helpful to humans who are trying to help them.
As a whole, there are 4 big reasons why your cat’s not eating much but acting normal:
It’s not at all unusual for a cat owner to show up at the vet clinic because of their cat not eating much but acting normal. Sometimes as I question them further, we identify some other symptoms that may have been overlooked initially.
How to Tell if Your Cat Isn’t Eating
Since many pet owners free-feed their cats and also have multiple cats eating from the same food bowl, sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether or not a cat is eating.
If you only have one cat, the easiest way to monitor their food intake is to count out the number of kibbles you put in the food bowl at the beginning and end of the day. Alternatively, you can weigh wet food or dry cat food on a gram scale.
Compare the amount to their previous healthy food intake or if you’re not sure what it was, check the label on the cat food container to see how much they should be eating. But remember, the recommended amounts are often more than a sedentary house cat would eat.
Get your vet to help you calculate how many calories your pet should be eating if you’re really confused.
If there are multiple cats in the home, try offering an extra delicious meal to the sick cat in question while she is cordoned off from the other cats. Measure the amount of cat food you put in the food bowl and check it again after she is finished eating.
A longer-term solution is to use a baby scale to monitor your cat’s weight weekly. For cats who have trouble keeping weight on or have a chronic disease, this is a critical aspect of being a good pet parent.
Baby scales are relatively inexpensive. You can pick one up at a baby supply store or order one online like this one that I’ve used:
Other Symptoms to Look For
Most of the time when I question people who have come to the clinic with a cat not eating much but acting normal, we can find at least a couple of other symptoms. When you see your cat every day, you might not think about small changes that are actually significant. Check this list and think about whether any apply to your kitty:
- Crying for food but not eating it
- Only eating treats
- Weight loss (use your baby scale)
- Poor coat (clumpy, dandruff, not shiny)
- Increase or decrease in thirst & urination
- Decreased poop in the litter box
- Straining to have bowel movements
- Hard stool sometimes with blood streaks
- Smelly breath, thick saliva
- Pale or yellowish gums
- Sleeping more
- Playing less
- Trouble jumping or stiff gait
- Change in overall mood (grouchy, clingy, etc.)
- Eyes look different (sunken, frowning eyebrows)
1. Undiagnosed Disease
Of course, any disease, toxin or trauma can adversely affect a cat’s appetite eventually. But there are a handful of super common things your vet will want to check for, depending on your cat’s age, breed, sex, lifestyle and symptoms.
Urinary Tract Disease
The urinary tract includes kidneys, ureters, urinary bladder and urethra. Kidney disease is prevalent in domestic cats.
The two most common forms we see in felines are chronic and acute disease. Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is the most common and is more likely to occur in an older cat over the age 7.
A senior cat often has some degree of CKD by the time they’re 12 or so. Symptoms of CKD include weight loss, decreased appetite, increased thirst and urination.
Urinary tract infection can be centered in the bladder, kidney(s) or can affect both. Cats with only a bladder infection are less likely to have a poor appetite than those with infected kidneys.
The pancreas is a gland that is adjacent to a cat’s stomach and intestines that secretes enzymes to break down fat. The pancreas becomes inflamed when the enzymes leak into the glandular tissue and start to digest it.
Chronic feline pancreatitis is pretty common. Affected animals may have vomiting, loose stool, or decreased appetite. Or they may not show any symptoms at all.
Pancreatitis is diagnosed with blood tests and imaging including ultrasound.
The most common cause of liver disease in cats is hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver (1). This can happen when a kitty starves for any reason and too many of the cat’s body fat stores are metabolized in the liver. The fat essentially “clogs” the liver, interfering with its normal function.
This disease is usually secondary, meaning it is caused by another disease rather than just happening out of the blue.
Cholangitis/cholangiohepatitis is the term used to describe inflammation of the liver and biliary system. This is the second most common cause of feline liver disease. The cause is usually a bacterial infection, parasites, or auto-immune disease.
Symptoms of liver disease include vomiting, poor appetite, soft feces, weight loss, yellowing of skin/gums/whites of eyes, and dark yellow urine.
These diseases are diagnosed with blood tests, imaging and biopsies.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is not uncommon in cats and can happen concurrently with pancreatitis and cholangitis, in which case it’s called “triaditis.”
IBD results when a cat’s immune system sends too many inflammatory cells into the tissues of the intestinal tract. The tissue becomes thickened and has poor absorption of nutrients. The underlying cause of IBD is often unknown but could include parasites, cat food allergies, and microbiome imbalances.
Symptoms of IBD include vomiting, poor appetite, diarrhea or constipation and weight loss. However, some cats with IBD don’t have many symptoms.
IBD is diagnosed with blood tests, imaging and biopsies.
Diabetes mellitus in cats occurs when there is not enough insulin or the body has stopped responding to insulin. Without insulin, “blood sugar” or glucose from ingested food cannot get inside cells. Too much glucose stays in the bloodstream and causes problems like dehydration. Since they’re starved for fuel, the tissues of the body start to waste away.
Symptoms of this disease include weight loss and increased thirst, appetite and urination.
Usually, we see increased appetite and weight loss, but some animals can also have a diminished appetite, especially in advanced disease states.
The thyroid gland is part of the endocrine system and is situated on the front part of a cat’s neck. This gland makes hormones that help control the body’s metabolic rate.
In hyperthyroidism, one or more cancerous nodules form in the gland and cause it to secrete a lot more thyroid hormone than the body needs. This leads to a high metabolic rate and weight loss. Other symptoms include a voracious appetite, constipation and change in behavior (often more grouchy). Although we usually see increased appetite, some instead have a low appetite.
An elderly cat over the age of 10 years is more likely to have an overactive thyroid gland. Your vet will diagnose the disease based on one or more blood tests.
There are all sorts of organisms that infect felines, making them sick enough to stop eating. The major categories of infectious disease with a few examples of each follows:
|Infectious Agent||Common Examples|
|Virus||Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)|
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP)
Feline Herpes Virus (FHV)
Feline Calici Virus (FCV)
The Big C is a topic most of us would like to just forget about. But as cats live longer with less exposure to trauma and infectious disease, their cancer rates go up.
Domestic felines get all sorts of cancer, but a few of the more common types area:
- Lymphoma (usually affects the intestinal tract)
- Carcinoma (basal cell tumors of the skin is a common type)
- Mast Cell Tumors (affects the skin, spleen or GI tract)
Pain is a major reason cats lose their appetite (also called hyporexia or anorexia). Pain can be secondary to most diseases but here are a few big ones we look for when diagnosing feline hyporexia/anorexia:
Mouth and dental problems are very common, especially in elderly cats. Even if your cat’s teeth and gums don’t look super diseased, there may be problems under the gumline.
The photo below shows a small resorptive lesion on a cat’s tooth. It doesn’t look too serious but it’s very painful!
Orthopedic disease might be from a congenital problem or a degenerative problem like arthritis. Arthritis is common in cats over age 10. It doesn’t usually disturb their appetite, but in advanced cases the pain can become overwhelming.
Decreased mobility can also interfere with a cat getting to its normal feeding location and make it harder to compete with other cats for access to food.
Trauma is more common in outdoor cats. They get abscesses from fighting with other cats, injuries from dog attacks and sometimes even tangle with automobiles.
Indoor cats are less likely to experience traumatic injuries, but they are not immune to it. I’ve seen cats with broken legs after falling from their favorite perch atop a tall book case.
Drugs and supplements are meant to help sick cats feel better but most come with one or more possible side effects. This list only represents a few of the many types of meds that affect feline eating habits:
|Antibiotics||Clavamox, amoxicillin, Orbax|
|Pain medicine||buprenorphine, gabapentin, robenacoxib|
|Blood pressure||amlodipine, propranolol|
|Anti-parasitics||dewormers, flea/tick control|
|Vaccines||rabies, fvrcp, FeLV|
|Over the Counter Supplements||vitamins, herbal medications, nutritional supplements|
If you’re giving your cat any prescription medications or even non-prescription supplements, they could affect her appetite. Talk to your vet before discontinuing prescription meds, but over the counter supplements should be stopped right away if your cat is not eating much but acting normal.
Anxiety is underappreciated in most house cats. Sometimes owners just think their kitty is shy. But hiding, resorting to defensive or aggressive behavior, crying to go outside, etc. are some of the behaviors associated with anxiety.
The smallest thing can cause a cat’s anxiety level to skyrocket. The most common anxiety-provoking events include:
|Source of Anxiety||Common Examples|
|Changes in the Home Environment||new house or furniture, people, animals, noise, daily schedule, etc.|
|Other Pets||another cat, a dog, or exotic pet|
|Diet Changes||brand, flavor, formula change, dry to wet or vice versa,|
If you believe your cat is suffering from anxiety, try Feliway diffusers and spray in the room he stays in most of the day.
I recommend you wait on trying over-the-counter anxiety remedies until your cat’s general health has been cleared by a vet. Once he’s been checked over, Composure calming chewable treats for cats are easy to give and well-tolerated. The ingredients gently soothe your cat’s nerves.
If you don’t see a good response, ask your vet if you should try a prescription anxiolytic medication instead.
Don’t allow him to hide all the time! Block off areas where cats can hide so deeply you can’t get them out (under couches, beds, etc.) Work on building his confidence. Keep bully animals away until you can make changes that help the intimidated cat feel more confident.
Fear and anxious behavior is a whole topic for another article. If you want some good tips now, check out Jackson Galaxy’s website.
Diagnosing the Cause of Decreased Food Intake
As much as we’d all love to make a diagnosis based solely on a symptom or two, that’s rarely possible. Your vet has to play detective and try to put the pieces together for a non-verbal creature.
The first thing we need to figure out how to best help your furry friend is a thorough history. Make sure to tell your vet about any subtle changes in behavior or appearance you’ve notice in the last few weeks to months. Note and new foods, treats, supplements and medications. Tell your vet if your cat has been exposed to any new cats in the recent past.
Next comes what vets call a “minimum database” compiled from the results of basic testing. Basic tests usually include:
- Complete blood count (CBC)
- Blood chemistry panel
- Thyroid testing
- Radiographs and/or ultrasound imaging
Based on history, symptoms and the results of the basic tests, your vet might need more information to rule out or confirm suspected diseases.
The cost of building a minimum database will vary a lot depending on your location. To give you a ballpark idea of cost, I would say expect to spend $50-$100 for a vet consult, around $300-$400 for lab testing and another $200-$400 for radiographs.
If your cat needs referral to a specialist or 24 hour care facility for hospitalization, the bill can go up precipitously. Make sure to let your care providers know your budget parameters so they can prioritize testing and care to get the best outcome possible.
What if Your Vet Can’t Make a Diagnosis?
The feline physiology is complex and ever-changing. There are some cases that go without a specific diagnosis even after extensive testing.
Sometimes more testing or referral to a specialist will help make a diagnosis (for more money). But there will always be cases where nobody really knows what’s making your cat not want to eat.
The good news is that even if there is no specific diagnosis, there are many things that can help your cat feel better in most cases.
How Long Can a Cat Go Without Eating
When cats don’t eat, their body mobilizes fat from their body, processing it in the liver to produce energy. When too much fat is mobilized in a short time, the liver becomes overloaded and toxic.
Overweight cats are at higher risk for developing a fatty liver. In some cases, this sort of liver disease can start after 48 hours without food.
An otherwise healthy cat who is not overweight might be able to go for 2-3 weeks and experience up to 25% weight loss before the liver is adversely affected (2).
How to Get Your Cat to Eat Again
The most important thing to do is get your veterinarian involved. Getting more information will hopefully allow for a specific diagnosis and targeted treatment.
Depending on how sick your kitty is, he may need hospitalization for more aggressive treatments and monitoring. Some of the most common supportive care hospitalized cats receive include:
- IV fluids, electrolytes and vitamins
- Anti-nausea medication
- Pain medication
- Medication specific to a disease
- Nutrition either by IV route or feeding tube
- Appetite stimulants
Let’s assume your cat has a relatively minor health condition like chronic, low-grade pancreatitis that flares up once a year or so.
In addition to continuing prescribed medications, I’d like to pass on a few tricks I’ve learned to get your cat to eat.
An easy thing to try for a cat who is a bit off their food are food toppings or additives. One surprising thing that works well due to it’s delicious flavor is the probiotic supplement Fortiflora. Using this has the added benefit of stabilizing the good gut bacteria.
There are a few pantry and refrigerator staple foods that are safe for cats and might help them feel hungrier. The first is parmesan cheese–you can use pre-grated cheese or grate it yourself over your kitty’s meal.
Some cats like a small amount of oregano added to wet food.
Adding slightly warm liquid to dry or canned food increases palatability of food. Try chicken broth or tuna water.
Wet Cat Food
This one is kind of hit or miss, depending on your cat’s preferences. Some cats HATE wet food and some think of it as a special treat.
I like to offer kitten food or prescription high-calorie food (like Hill’s a/d) to cats who are eating a little but not much. That way they don’t have to eat as much to get the nutrition they need.
Get several cans of food–different brands, flavors and textures. Put about a tablespoon of each on its own separate saucer and let your cat choose.
You might try a cooked, “fresh” style cat food like the ones from FreshPet. It’s found in many grocery stores and some cats really love it. I would try serving it slightly warmed with a little chicken broth mixed in.
Most cat owners have been brainwashed that they should never give their pets table food (a.k.a. people food). But here’s a shocker: cat food and people food are both just food.
You can choose carefully and offer lean meats, meat-based soups, or even Gerber chicken baby food.
I’ve had many clients tell me that rotisserie chicken is a favorite amongst pets. And Oscar Meyer bologna seems to be magical for some cats!
Make sure you avoid giving anything that contains garlic or onion as those ingredients are toxic to cats when fed in significant quantities.
I don’t know why, but some animals will eat better if you sit with them and feed them from a spoon. Try doing this with some warmed Gerber chicken baby food.
Be sure to let your cat lick it from the spoon and don’t force it on her. If she turns away several times in refusal, don’t keep pushing the issue.
Spoon feeding baby food is more of a short-term solution while you implement other treatments. It’s hard to get enough food into a cat to meet their nutritional needs feeding them this way.
For pets with certain medical conditions like kidney disease and inflammatory bowel disease, prescription cat food like low residue, hypoallergenic, or high calorie might be the best choice.
Ask your vet to give you a few flavor and texture options to try. Cats can be so stubborn about trying new things, but we’re fortunate these days to have plenty of choices.
Change the Feeding Routine
Try feeding meals in a quiet area away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the family. Try variations like sitting in the room at meal time and coaching them on vs. leaving the kitty alone.
Try putting the dish on a counter or bed. Try using a large flat dish instead of a bowl.
How about giving him a large box with doors and windows cut out to use as a “fort” and offer meals in there?
Some cats prefer to eat when their humans are eating, so try enjoying meals together.
There are several prescription medications used to stimulate appetite in cats. The most common these days is mirtazapine.
Mirtazapine comes as a pill, a compounded liquid or even as a gel you apply so it’s absorbed through the skin. The commercial transdermal product is called Mirataz™ (click to view on Chewy.com–prescription required to purchase).
This medicine works well for most cats and only has to be given every 2 or 3 days in most cases.
Sometimes it’s more a matter of controlling nausea that stimulating hunger. Your vet may recommend giving your cat injectable or oral famotidine, omeprazole, or maropitant.
These meds are well-tolerated without frequent side effects. It’s worth trying one or more of these with your vet’s help to see if your buddy will feel better enough to eat on her own.
A feeding tube is a flexible hollow tube placed either through the nose or side of the neck into the esophagus or stomach. Sometimes tubes are placed through the abdomen into the upper GI tract for longer term use.
Although feeding tubes seem extreme, they’re actually not that difficult to place and cats tolerate them well.
Don’t hesitate to ask your vet if your cat would benefit from having a feeding tube. It will allow you to feed him with liquified cat food through the tube. This avoids the stress of fighting to force feed your cat orally several times a day.
Some healthy cats occasionally skip a meal. If they go for more than 36 hours without eating, it’s time to get a vet involved.
Diagnostic testing is pretty good at identifying underlying reasons for poor eating habits in cats. Although it costs money, it will cost a lot of time and money if you and your vet have to guess at what the problem might be.
Try one of the tips mentioned in this article to persuade your cat to eat (food toppers, change feeding routine and food, table food, appetite stimulants).
If your cat continues to not eat much, let your vet know. A feeding tube can be a real lifesaver, allowing you to get nutrition into your cat with less stress while you address other health issues.
- Armstrong, P. Jane, DVM, MS, MBA, DACVIM (SAIM) (2011). Hepatic Lipidosis in Cats. Western Veterinary Conference, St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota.
- Armstrong, P. J., & Blanchard, G. (2009). Hepatic lipidosis in cats. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 39(3), 599-616.
- Scherk, M., DVM, DAVBP. (2011). Mellow & Yellow: Treating the Cat with Hepatic Lipidosis. Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference, Vancouver BC Canada: CatsINK.
Last update on 2021-10-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API