If your cat’s not eating their food you might be wondering when to worry, especially if they’re turning their nose up at the best cat food that you always offer them, which is usually a sign that something isn’t right. This is a problem that shouldn’t be left too long without seeking help, as it can have dangerous consequences for your cat’s health.
That’s why we’ve put together a list of things to work through to help you gather some information before you call the vet. Always remember though that if you have any concerns about your pet’s health, speaking to a veterinary professional is the safest option!
When should I worry if my cat stops eating?
You should be worried about your cat’s appetite if they are showing other signs of illness such as vomiting, coughing, difficulty breathing, changes to their drinking habits, problems urinating, or if they seem painful when eating.
You should also worry if your cat stops eating if they’re overweight. Although you might think they’ve got enough fat stored 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.
You should also be concerned if your cat stops eating for more than 24 hours, even if they are acting normally. Cats need to eat more frequently than dogs, as the feline body isn’t designed to cope as well with periods of starvation. The following list is designed to help you look into things further if your cat has stopped eating, before seeking advice from a veterinary professional.
1. Have you changed your cat's food?
Cats are creatures of habit and they very quickly develop preferences for 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 offering 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!
Always remember, when changing your cat over to a new diet, it’s best to slowly transition them onto the new food over a couple of weeks.
2. Has your cat been in the hospital or cattery recently?
Cats are finicky creatures, and they can easily develop a ‘food aversion’ if they associate a particular food with a time they felt unwell, 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 experience 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 diarrhea?
As with most animals, an upset stomach is a common cause of inappetence in cats. Cats that are vomiting or have diarrhea will often stop eating due to nausea. Check your cat’s litter tray for signs of diarrhea or observe them when they go outside.
If your cat is vomiting or has diarrhea, 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.
Vomiting and diarrhea can also be signs of an underlying disease such as feline pancreatitis, so your vet may also recommend performing diagnostic testing such as bloodwork or an abdominal ultrasound to get to the bottom of the problem.
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.
If your cat will allow it, try opening their mouth to 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.
If your cat doesn’t want you touching their mouth and is trying to scratch or bite - just stop! You don’t want to end up injuring them or yourself, so leave it to your vet who will be able to help you. In some cases, it isn’t safe to examine a cat’s mouth awake, especially if they are trying to bite, and your vet will recommend performing a sedation or general anaesthetic to look at their mouth properly.
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 a reduction in drinking can be hard to spot. However, an increase in drinking is a common sign of an underlying health problem such as diabetes, kidney disease, and hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid).
If you aren’t sure if your cat is drinking a normal amount of water, you can measure the amount they drink from their bowl. However, if you have a 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 from ‘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.
How to stimulate your cat’s appetite
If your cat isn’t eating, we need to get them back on track as soon as possible. But because there are so many reasons why your cat may have lost their appetite, it’s important to find and treat the underlying cause first. These tips and tricks for stimulating your cat’s appetite do not replace professional veterinary advice but may be useful when caring for your cat at home after a trip to the vet.
First up, you can try gently warming wet or tinned food to increase the aroma. Some cats prefer warm food, others prefer it cold straight from the fridge! Just make sure the food is lukewarm and the heat evenly distributed to avoid burns. Cats with suspected mouth pain or those recovering from a dental procedure will also prefer wet or tinned food as it’s much softer and easier to chew. Adding a little tuna in spring water to their regular diet may also tempt cats to eat, as may offering small portions of a variety of foods (different textures and flavours) to see which they prefer.
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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