- Your cat should see a veterinarian if they have not eaten for longer than about 36 hours.
- There are many conditions with subtle symptoms that may cause a cat to act normal despite not eating much.
- Changing food, spoon-feeding and appetite stimulants may help a reluctant cat eat better.
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Cats instinctively hide their illness to avoid being attacked or excluded by other cats. While this is a useful survival tactic in the wild, it makes it difficult for pet owners to figure out why their cat is not eating when they’re acting normal.
The four most common reasons why your cat’s not eating much but acting normal are pain, medication side effects, anxiety and undiagnosed diseases.
In this article, We will discuss these common causes of decreased appetite in cats. You’ll also learn how veterinarians treat cats who are not eating and some tips to get your cat eating again.
Is My Cat Eating Enough?
It can be tough to tell if a cat is eating enough when they share a food bowl with other cats or free-feed. To monitor your cat’s food intake, try counting the kibbles or weighing the food on a gram scale. Compare this to their previous healthy intake or check the label on the food container. If you’re unsure, ask your vet for help in calculating the number of calories your cat needs.
If you have multiple cats, try offering a separate meal to the sick cat while they’re separated from the others. Measure the food to see how much they eat. To monitor your cat’s weight long-term, consider using a baby scale once a week. This is especially important for cats with chronic illnesses or weight issues.
Baby scales are relatively inexpensive. You can pick one up at a baby supply store or order one online from Amazon.com as I did.
Most of the time when I question people who have come to the clinic with a cat who is not eating much but is still 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
- Clumpy, dull-looking fur
- Changes in thirst & urination
- Straining to have bowel movements with hard stools
- Smelly breath, thick saliva
- Pale or yellowish gums
- Trouble jumping or stiff gait
- Change in overall mood (grouchy, clingy, etc.)
- Sunken eyes, frowning eyebrows
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.
A healthy cat who is not overweight might be able to go for 2-3 weeks and experience up to 25% weight loss before they develop fatty liver disease.(2)
Common Causes of Poor Appetite in Cats
Some of the common causes of appetite problems in cats include pain, anxiety, medication side effects, and underlying disease. Your veterinarian is your ally in figuring out which of these may be affecting your fuzzy friend.
Pain is a major reason cats lose their appetite (also called hyporexia or anorexia). A few of the most common causes of pain in cats include dental disease, osteoarthritis, and traumatic injury.
Signs of pain in cats include decreased appetite, hiding, limping, reacting painfully when touched and having a grouchy attitude. It can be tricky to find the source of pain so be sure to consult your veterinarian for help.
Medication Side Effects
Drugs and supplements are meant to help sick cats feel better but most come with one or more possible side effects. Talk to your veterinarian before discontinuing prescription meds.
|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|
Anxiety can be a problem for cats, but many owners mistake it for shyness. Signs of anxiety include hiding, aggressive behavior, or crying to go outside. Anxious cats often don’t eat normally.
Your veterinarian can discuss your cat’s behavior and recommend environmental changes to help the situation. There are many non-prescription anti-anxiety remedies for cats but talk to your vet before experimenting with these.
Feliway is a calming pheromone often recommended by vets and has a high safety margin.
If you don’t see improvement with environmental changes, talk to your vet about trying prescription anxiolytic medication instead.
Check out this video from Jackson Galaxy about cat anxiety…
Chronic Kidney Disease
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is common in senior cats and occurs when kidney cells no longer filter the blood efficiently. The disease is slowly progressive over time. Symptoms include weight loss, decreased appetite, increased thirst and urination.
The pancreas is a gland in the abdomen that aids in digestion and produces hormones, including insulin. Pancreatitis is a common condition in cats caused by inflammation of the organ. Symptoms may include vomiting, loose stool and abdominal pain. In some cats, the only symptom may be a decreased appetite.
The two most common types of liver disease in cats are hepatic lipidosis and cholangiohepatitis.
Hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease) occurs when a starving cat’s liver becomes congested from metabolizing body fat. Cholangiohepatitis is an inflammatory condition often caused by bacteria from the intestinal tract.
Symptoms of liver disease include vomiting, decreased appetite, yellowing of skin/gums/whites of eyes, and dark yellow urine.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
The most common type of diabetes mellitus in cats occurs when their body stops responding to insulin. Symptoms of this disease include weight loss, increased thirst, appetite, and urination. In advanced stages, diabetic cats may stop eating.
Several infectious agents, including viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, can make cats sick enough to stop eating.
Examples of infectious diseases include feline leukemia virus (FeLV), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), E. coli, Pasteurella, Cryptococcus, hookworms, roundworms, heartworms, and Giardia.
As cats live longer with less exposure to trauma and infectious disease, their cancer rates go up. Some of the more common types of cancer in cats include intestinal lymphoma, squamous cell carcinoma of the skin and mammary gland adenocarcinoma.
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 help your furry friend is a thorough history. Make sure to tell your vet about any subtle changes in behavior or appearance you’ve noticed 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, you should expect to spend $50-$100 for a vet consult, around $300-$400 for lab testing and another $200-$400 for radiographs.
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
Prescription cat food is often helpful for cats with conditions such as IBD, kidney disease and pancreatitis. Your vet may recommend low-residue, hypoallergenic, or high-calorie cat food depending on the diagnosis.
Ask your vet to give you a few flavor and texture options to try. Cats can be stubborn about trying new things, but we’re fortunate to have plenty of flavor choices in prescription diets.
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™ .
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 than 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.
Tips to Get Your Cat to Eat
In addition to continuing prescribed medications, I’d like to pass on a few tricks I’ve learned to get your cat to eat.
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 mealtime 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 offering meals in there?
Some cats prefer to eat when their humans are eating, so try enjoying meals together.
Food toppers can tempt your cat to eat when they’re a bit off their food. The probiotic supplement Fortiflora® is a great food topper because it tastes great plus has the added benefit of stabilizing 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 the 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.
FreshPet® is a cooked, fresh-style cat food that can be found in many grocery stores. Some cats really love it. Try serving it slightly warmed with a little chicken broth mixed in.
Human Food for Cats
Human food can kick-start a cat’s appetite but exercise caution by offering only lean meats, meat-based soups, or even Gerber chicken baby food.
I’ve had many clients tell me that rotisserie chicken is a favorite among pets. Some cats adore deli-style sliced meat but be sure to avoid food that contains garlic or onion.
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.
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 not to 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 2023-09-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API