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11 things to check when your cat’s not eating: Advice from a vet

Ginger cat in litter box
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If your cat's not eating their food, you might wonder when to worry, especially if they're turning their nose up at the best cat food you always offer them. After all, that’s usually a sign that something isn’t right. 

It might be tempting to wait a few days and see how they are, but 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. 

So we've put together a list of things to work through to help you gather some information before you call the vet. 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?

If your cat is showing signs of pain or symptoms of illness like vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, difficulty breathing, or problems urinating, you should seek veterinary advice. This is also the case if they show behavior changes like hiding away, altered drinking habits, or urinating more or less than they usually would. Showing signs of ill health alongside inappetence is a clear sign that something is wrong with your pet.

You should also worry if your overweight cat suddenly stops eating. 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’ or ‘fatty liver’. This condition occurs in cats who lose weight too rapidly, especially due to starvation and causes liver failure.

Cats need to eat more frequently than dogs because their feline body isn't designed to cope as well with periods of starvation. If your cat stops eating for more than 24 hours, this is a concern, even if they are acting normally. The following list is designed to help you look into things further if your cat has stopped eating. It may help you give your veterinarian more information at your appointment. However, it’s not a substitute for seeking advice from a veterinary professional. 

1. Have you changed your cat's food?

Cats are creatures of habit, and many develop preferences for certain types of food. Whether it’s food in gravy or jelly, pate-style wet cat food, or dry biscuits, cats who are used to eating the same thing will often go on strike if their food has suddenly changed.

If this sounds like your cat, try offering a bit of their old food. If your cat starts eating again, you know your cat’s a bit of a diva who disagrees 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 do so slowly, mixing it gradually into their old diet over a couple of weeks.

2. Has your cat been in the hospital or cattery recently?

Cats can easily develop ‘food aversions’ if they associate a particular food with a time when they felt unwell or had a scary experience. Suppose your cat has recently been in hospital or a cattery. In that case, they may be associating their food with this experience, and understandably they’ve lost their appetite. 

If you think it’s likely your cat is just being a bit fussy, try switching their cat food for something else and see how they react. Ideally, this transition would be done gradually by mixing it with their old diet, but cats with an aversion to their old food may need to swap to a new food right away. You could also try offering a small amount of something particularly tasty or strong smelling to try to encourage their appetite.

3. Has anything changed in the house recently? Building work? Guests?

Cats are very sensitive, and changes to their environment or routine can cause them to become stressed. This could be something obvious such as building work, visitors, a new baby, or a new pet. Other times we might struggle to pinpoint exactly what has caused the anxiety. If your cat is stressed and on ‘high alert’ to potential threats, they may go off their food.

If you can't avoid changing your cat's routine, you can take steps to help them cope better with the stress. Make them their own safe space and provide them with everything they need (food, water, bed, scratching post, and litter tray) as far away from any sources of stress as possible. You might want to use pheromone diffusers, like a Feliway diffuser, in this area to increase the sense of calm and help them relax.

You should consider seeking veterinary advice to rule out a health problem, especially if you can't identify an apparent reason for your cat to be stressed. A qualified pet behaviourist may be needed in some cases.

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 try to observe them when they go outside. 

If your cat has an upset stomach, 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 (opens in new tab), so your vet may recommend performing tests, including bloodwork or an abdominal ultrasound, to get to the bottom of the problem. They can then advise you on the best course of action to help your pet feel better.

Cat's not eating

(Image credit: Getty)

5. Check your cat's teeth and gums

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Most cats will carry on eating no matter how painful their mouth is. However, looking at the teeth and gums is an essential part of checking your cat over, especially if they’ve stopped eating, suddenly prefer a different food, or have changed how they chew. 

If your cat allows it, try opening their mouth to look for broken teeth, areas of gums that are red or sore-looking, and teeth that are coated in grey-brown tartar. The molars, the big teeth at the back of the mouth, are the most likely to cause eating and chewing problems, so it's logical to start here. You should also check for lumps on the tongue, a foul smell, and fleshy red spots on the teeth. These are signs of a painful tooth condition in cats called feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions (FORLs) (opens in new tab).

If your cat doesn’t want you touching their mouth and is trying to scratch or bite - 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 while they're awake, especially if they are trying to bite. If this is the case, your vet will recommend giving sedation or a general anaesthetic to look at their mouth properly. 

6. Is your cat lethargic or grumpier than usual?

If your cat’s behaviour has changed, something more serious might be going on. Cats who are ill will often hide away, and they may 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 more than usual, this is a worrying sign too.

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 if they are uncomfortable. 

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 like diabetes, kidney disease, or hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). You might also notice your cat urinating more than usual due to their increased thirst.

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 suspect that they're drinking more and they're not eating, getting them to the vet without delay is usually the best course of action. Your vet might suggest testing a blood sample and urine sample to check for some of the conditions mentioned.

Close up of cat eating wet food

(Image credit: Getty Images)

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 look like they're having a 'second wind' with a good appetite. However, these cats usually lose weight despite their increased appetite, and in some cases, they then lose their appetite entirely as the diseases progress. In diabetes particularly, this is a pretty bad sign.

If your cat is middle-aged or older and previously had an excellent appetite, it's worth considering whether diabetes or hyperthyroidism could be to blame. Your vet will be able to diagnose these issues through an examination and some tests before discussing the best management plan 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 like runny eyes, a runny nose, and sniffly, noisy breathing are often present. Cat flu is more common in cats with a compromised immune system (due to a recent stressful experience or other illness) or those who are unvaccinated.

It’s thought that these cats stop eating partly because they are congested and can’t smell their food properly – you can try warming wet food in the microwave or feeding them smelly fish like tuna or sardines 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, and they might require treatment!

10. Is your cat breathing faster than usual? Have you seen them panting?

Cats with problems further down the respiratory tract, 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 elbows out, making as much room as possible for their lungs to expand. You may also have noticed that your cat is less keen to exercise or stops part way through play to rest. 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. While 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, it might be worth considering whether they are eating elsewhere. This is most likely if your cat is maintaining their weight (or even gaining!) despite their apparent reduced diet. 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 essential to find and treat the underlying cause first. These tips and tricks for stimulating your cat's appetite do not replace professional veterinary advice. Still, they may be helpful 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, and others like it cold straight from the fridge, so see which yours prefers! However, take care to ensure that any microwaved 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 tend to 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 might offering small portions of a variety of foods to see which they fancy. 

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 breathing rate, it could be an emergency, in which case you should get them to the vet as soon as possible.

Conclusion

If your feline friend has stopped eating, it’s really important not to wait too long before seeking veterinary advice. Cats can go off their food for many reasons, and some are more serious than others. If your cat has any other symptoms, or if they haven't eaten anything at all for twenty-four hours, it's time to call your veterinary clinic. Whether the cause is pain, an infection, or just fussiness, your veterinarian can help you get to the bottom of the problem and help your furry family member find their appetite again! 

After graduating as a veterinarian from the University of Nottingham, Dr Joanna Woodnutt went on to practice companion animal medicine in the Midlands. She quickly developed a love of consulting and helping clients with medical problems such as dermatology, behaviour and nutrition - anything that involved helping clients understand their pets better. Jo started writing about pet health in 2017, realising that it meant she could help even more pet parents. Since then, she has written for countless online and print publications and is a regular contributor for Edition Dog Magazine. Jo now lives in the Channel Islands with her husband Ian and terrier Pixie, and they are expecting their first child very soon.