If your cat’s not eating their food you might be wondering when to worry and if they’re turning their nose up at the best cat food that you always offer them, it’s usually a sign that something is wrong. Waiting too long before seeking help can be dangerous, so we’ve put together a list of things to work through to help you gather some information before you call the vet. If you are worried about your cat, it’s always safer to seek the opinion of a professional, who will be able to advise whether a visit is necessary.
When should I worry if my cat stops eating?
You should worry about your cat’s appetite if they’re showing other signs of a problem (such as vomiting, a cough, breathing problems, changes in drinking, or problems urinating), or if they’re showing signs of pain when eating. You should also be concerned if your cat stops eating for more than 24 hours. Cats need to eat more frequently than dogs, and the feline body isn’t as effective at going through periods of starvation.
You should also worry if your cat stops eating if they’re overweight. Although you might think they’ve got enough fat to see them through, cats can suffer from a serious and often fatal disease called ‘hepatic lipidosis’ — a condition where their liver is overwhelmed trying to turn their fat stores into energy. Here’s a list of things to look into if your cat has stopped eating.
1. Have you changed your cat's food?
Cats are creatures of habit, and they very quickly develop preferences to certain types of food. Whether it’s food in gravy, pate-style wet cat food, or dry biscuits, cats that are used to eating the same thing will often ‘go on strike’ if their food has been changed.
If this sounds like your cat, try a bit of their old food, or something as similar to it as you can find. If your cat starts eating again, you know you’ve got a diva on your hands who doesn’t agree with your opinion on what the best dry cat food might be! Transition the food very slowly to encourage your cat to eat the new diet.
2. Has your cat been in the hospital or cattery recently?
Cats are finicky creatures, and they can quickly get ‘food aversion’ if they associate a particular food with a time they felt ill, or with a scary experience. If your cat has recently been in the hospital or at a cattery, it’s possible that they are associating their food with this and are turning their nose up at it.
If you think it’s likely your cat is just being finicky, try switching out their cat food for something else, preferably something similar in texture, and see how they react.
3. Has anything changed in the house recently? Building work? Guests?
Changes to their environment or routine can cause cats to go off their food for a couple of days whilst they decide if there’s a threat. Even if you can’t pinpoint what’s upset your cat, stress and anxiety are still some of the most common reasons for a cat to stop eating.
If there’s been an unavoidable change to your cat’s routine, help them cope by providing a haven of calm and everything they need (food, water, toys, scratching post, and a litter tray) as far from the source of distress as possible. You might want to use pheromone diffusers, such as a Feliway diffuser, in this area to increase the sense of calm.
4. Does your cat have vomiting or diarrhoea?
As with most animals, an upset stomach is a common cause of inappetence in cats. Cats that are vomiting or have diarrhoea will often stop eating due to nausea. Check your cat’s litter tray for signs of diarrhoea or observe them when they go outside.
If your cat is vomiting or has diarrhoea, it’s a good idea to talk to your vet. They might ask you to monitor them for a couple of days, start probiotics at home, or bring them in for a check over.
5. Check your cat's teeth and gums
Most cats will carry on eating no matter how painful their mouth is. However, looking at the teeth and gums is an important part of checking your cat over if they’ve stopped eating, or have changed the food they prefer or the way that they chew.
Open your cat’s mouth and look for broken teeth, areas of gums that are red, and teeth that are caked in grey-green tartar. The molars, at the back of the mouth, are more likely to cause a problem with eating and chewing, so start here. You should also look for lumps on the tongue, a foul smell, and fleshy red spots on the teeth, as these are signs of a painful tooth condition in cats.
Take care, as cats may not like having their teeth checked, especially if they’re painful – you can ask your vet to do this for you if you’re struggling. If you spot anything you aren’t sure about, take your cat into the vet for a check-up.
6. Is your cat lethargic or grumpier than usual?
If your cat has changed behaviour, this suggests something more serious is going on. Cats that are ill will often hide away and become more aggressive, lashing out if they are moved or disturbed. This may also be a sign of pain, fever, or infection. If your cat has stopped eating and is sleeping a lot more than usual, this is also a worrying sign.
If this sounds like your cat, a vet visit is the best option. Be careful when moving your cat to their carrier, as they may lash out with their teeth or claws.
7. Is your cat drinking a normal amount?
Cats don’t tend to drink much, so decreases in drinking are hard to spot. However, an increase in drinking alongside eating less is a big concern in cats as it could suggest kidney failure, as well as less common conditions like cancer.
If you aren’t sure if your cat is drinking a normal amount, you can measure the amount they drink from their bowl. However, if you have suspicion that they’re drinking more and they aren’t eating, getting them to the vet without delay is usually the best course of action.
8. Was your cat ravenously hungry before they stopped eating?
Diabetes and hyperthyroidism both cause extreme hunger in most cats at first. Pet parents are often pleased as older cats are often seen to have a ‘second wind’ with a good appetite. However, in some cats this will then be followed by no appetite at all as the diseases progress and, in diabetes particularly, this is a bad sign.
If your cat is middle aged or older and previously had a good appetite, it’s worth considering whether diabetes or hyperthyroidism could be to blame. Your vet will be able to diagnose these issues and discuss management with you.
9. Does your cat have a snuffly nose, or discharge from the eye?
Cats suffering with ‘cat flu’ and other upper respiratory problems will sometimes stop eating. Symptoms such as runny eyes, a runny nose, and sniffly, noisy breathing are often present. Cat flu is more common in cats that have recently had a stressful experience, or who are unvaccinated.
It’s thought that these cats stop eating partly because they can’t smell their food properly – you can try warming wet food in the microwave to see if this helps them eat. If not, it’s time to call the vet, as cat flu is not just a bad cold!
10. Is your cat breathing faster than usual? Have you seen them panting?
Cats with problems further down the respiratory tract, such as with their lungs or heart, are generally too busy concentrating on breathing to want to eat. These cats may pant, or sit with their neck extended and their elbows out, making as much room as possible for their lungs to work. You may also have noticed that your cat is less keen to exercise, or stops part way through play. Breathing problems like these in cats are serious, and you should contact your vet without delay.
11. Could your cat be getting food from elsewhere?
Some cats are better at self-regulating their intake than others. Whilst some will continue to eat any and all food offered to them, others will stop when they are full.
If you have an outdoor cat that isn’t eating, and you and your vet can’t find any other cause, consider whether they might be eating elsewhere. You can try attaching a note to their collar asking people not to feed them, or shutting them in for a few days and seeing if they regain their appetite.
If your cat isn’t eating at all, you shouldn’t leave it more than 24 hours before going to the vet. However, if they have other symptoms such as vomiting, urinary problems, or an increased respiratory rate, it could be an emergency and you should get them to the vet as soon as possible.
Dr Joanna Woodnutt is an experienced vet with an interest in companion animals. She recently left full-time practice to work as a relief vet and write articles about pets.
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