Is your cat not eating? There may be several reasons for this behavior, which can be especially concerning if it happens quite suddenly.
Food avoidance can have a serious implications for your cat’s health if it continues for 48 hours or more, which means it needs to be noticed and dealt with promptly.
Here, experts explain some reasons why your cat may not be eating and how to help reignite their appetite.
Why Is My Cat Not Eating?
“It is important to pay attention if your cat suddenly stops eating,” the president of The International Cat Association (TICA), Vicki Jo Harrison, told Newsweek. Loss of appetite, also known as anorexia, is one of the key indicators that something is wrong with your cat.
“If your cat has suddenly increased or decreased their eating habits, you should consult your veterinarian,” Harrison said.
Pam Johnson-Bennett, an author from Cat Behavior Associates who is the former vice president of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, told Newsweek: “It’s dangerous for cats to stop eating for more than a couple of days, so if a cat has stopped, a veterinarian visit is needed.”
Not eating can become a vicious cycle for a cat that’s dealing with illness, which may be one of the reasons for the loss of appetite. Nutrition is essential for recovery and the lack of food will only make the feline feel more sick and slow its recovery, explains International Cat Care, the UK-based cat charity.
If a cat does not eat, “its body will start to break down body tissue for energy in order to function, and this can slow healing…the immune system may not function properly, making the cat more susceptible to infection, and the way the cat’s body responds to the drugs intended to make it better may even be affected,” the charity said.
Cats that don’t eat can also develop hepatic lipidosis, a liver disease which can be fatal. This condition can occur even when a cat goes without food for a relatively short period of time (two to three days). Cats also have very specific nutrient requirements, a lack of which can also be dangerous.
“The problem is that cats are usually not so food-orientated as dogs and can be finicky eaters, so it can be difficult to encourage them to start eating sometimes,” the charity said.
1. Gastrointestinal Issues
A cat may stop eating after they’ve ingested something they should not have consumed, which can be indicated by vomiting or diarrhea, said Harrison.
“If your cat has eaten something that has not agreed with them, they may not want to eat for a while until they have recovered,” the TICA president noted.
Call your veterinarian if the vomiting persists and your feline’s appetite does not return to normal after a day or so. You should not wait more than two days before calling the doctor because cats can serious health issues if they go without food for longer than 72 hours, Harrison warned.
2. Dental Problems
Dental issues, such as a sore tooth or inflamed gums, can make eating painful for your cat, Johnson-Bennett said.
In addition to not eating, if your cat also only chews on one side of their mouth or won’t let you touch their head or mouth, they may need a dental check-up, advised TICA’s Harrison.
3. Underlying disease
A cat’s appetite dependent on their sense of smell. So if a cat is unwell—especially with a respiratory issue—they may not eat, said Johnson-Bennett.
A cat not eating can potentially be a sign of a serious underlying disease, such as kidney disease, cat flu, diabetes, fever, hyperthyroidism and pancreatitis, Harrison said.
“Potential causes for a change in a cat’s eating habits and their consistent refusal to eat can be long and diverse,” the TICA president explained. “If your cat is acting unusual and is vomiting, lethargic or has a fever, seek veterinary help immediately.”
4. Food Aversion
There are some foods that cats may avoid because they “associate it with feelings of nausea that they had with a particular illness,” which can contribute to a cat’s loss of appetite, according to International Cat Care.
Food aversion can happen when a cat is unwell and continuously offered a certain food or is even force-fed that food. The feline will then avoid that food due to a feeling of illness being associated with that particular food.
So when your cat appears to be lacking an appetite, do not leave the food out and force-feed your feline using a syringe.
Stress and other behavioral concerns (such as anxiety and depression, which can be triggered by environmental changes—more on this later below) can cause a cat to stop eating, said Harrison.
One source of stress can be meal times, said Johnson-Bennett. So if you’ve ruled out any potential medical causes, “then re-evaluate the meal time set-up.”
In a multi-cat home, give each cat their own food bowl. If there’s intimidation or competition, feed your cats farther apart from each other or feed them in separate rooms, the author advised.
In addition to stress, cats may also stop eating if their meal setting toilet feels unsafe or if their food is placed near something that frightens them or even too close to their site.
“Make sure where the cat eats is peaceful and safe,” said Johnson-Bennett. If your household has several cats and intimidation takes place during feeding times, one cat may be too afraid to approach the food bowl.
The positioning of the food bowl can also impact a cat’s perceived level of safety at meal times. Johnson-Bennett warned you should not put the bowl up against a wall where a cat has to have their back to the room while eating. This can cause fear in some felines.
Instead, place food bowls away from the wall or corner so your cat can eat facing the room to see if anyone is approaching, she explained.
Some cats don’t like to have their water so close to their food. So don’t use double feeder bowls. where there’s water on one side and food on the other, she added.
7. Environmental Changes
A change in their environment can also cause a cat to stop eating, Harrison said.
Cats can become anxious or depressed due to a range of changes in their worlds, however big or small, which can lead to a loss of appetite.
These changes can be anything from moving their litter box or wearing a new collar to the arrival of new pets or a newborn baby in the house, explained Dr. Wendy Hauser at the website of the Crum & Forster Pet Insurance Group, a pet health insurance company partnered with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
Sudden dietary changes can also trigger our feline friends to withdraw from eating, according to Johnson-Bennett.
“Cats are creatures of habit so one possible reason for not eating could be an abrupt change in food. Any food transitions should be done gradually to prevent gastrointestinal upset and food rejection,” she explained.
8. Food Temperature
A study published in January 2022 in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior showed that warmed wet food can help promote eating in aging cats. It can be especially effective for aging cats that have lost interest in eating or do not consume enough food to maintain a healthy body weight, according to the study.
Johnson-Bennett explained: “Cats aren’t scavengers and prefer food at body temperature. If wet food is served right from the refrigerator or is left out until it has dried up, a cat may reject it.” So don’t leave wet cat food out to harden and dry, she said.
It’s entirely possible for your cat to be a fussy eater (especially when there is a variety of options available) or to be simply bored and not have the urge to eat at any given moment.
“Cats can become fussy or bored with their food,” Harrison said. “It is also normal for a cat to refuse a meal or two occasionally simply because they don’t feel like it.”
How to Help Your Cat Eat Normally Again
Give Them Some TLC
Be sure you do everything to make your cat feel safe and secure. This could entail giving them some space away from other pets (which may be causing the cat to feel like it must compete for attention) as well as good sleeping areas, according to International Cat Care.
Cats respond well to tender love and care, so sitting with them, giving them attention and reassurance is also helpful. For example, putting small pieces of food on your finger to be licked off could potentially encourage your cat to eat more.
Offer Their Favorite Foods
Zazie Todd, the author of the upcoming book PURR: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy, told Newsweek: “When cats aren’t eating much, there are a few things you can do to try to make their food more palatable to them,” such as some of their favorite foods.
You can add the water from a can of tuna or some low-salt unseasoned chicken broth (make sure there’s no onion in the broth, since onions are toxic for cats) to their food.
Todd said even simply adding just a little plain water to the food can make it more mushy and potentially more appetizing since cats tend to prefer wet foods like canned tuna.
But every cat is a unique individual, so it’s worth trying different types of food. For example, kibble instead of canned food or canned food instead of kibble, chunks in gravy instead of pate, Todd said.
…And Strong Flavors
Give your cat foods that have strong, aromatic flavors, such as fish, chicken or prawns, may also help entice them to eat.
Some owners resort to offering baby food (given it’s soft, easy to consume and nourishing) to their cats to get them to eat. However, many baby foods include powdered onions (which, as mentioned, is toxic for cats) to enhance their flavor. So you must carefully read the ingredient label of any baby foods before feeding it to your cat, ICC warns.
Heat the Food
The aforementioned January 2022 study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior showed “warming may increase the attractiveness by changing and/or enhancing the flavor profile for aging cats.”
When the food is warm, it gives off more of an aroma and may be more enticing, Todd said. So try heating your cat’s food in a microwave before serving it. “Make sure it doesn’t get too hot—you don’t want to scald them,” the author warned.
Given Them Small Meals
Cats tend to prefer having several small meals throughout the day, so you can try that with your cat to encourage them to eat, Todd said.
Splitting their daily food consumption into five meals (feeding them at breakfast, lunch, in the afternoon, dinner and right before bed) is a great option.