How long can cats go without food? It’s a question you may be asking if you have a feline friend who has suddenly started turning their nose up at the delicious and nutritious dishes you’re filling their bowl with.
Cats can be incredibly particular about what they eat, where they eat it, and how often they prefer to be served. But if your kitty has recently lost their appetite, it’s understandable you’re concerned about your cat not eating.
With the help of expert vet, Dr. Joanna Woodnutt, we delve into the most common reasons a cat stops eating, exactly how long they can go without food, and when it’s time to seek professional help.
Dr Joanna Woodnutt qualified as a veterinarian from the University of Nottingham where she then went on to practice companion animal medicine in the Midlands. She really took to the consulting side of things and helping clients with medical problems such as dermatology, behaviour and nutrition - anything that involved helping clients understand their pets better.
How long can cats go without food?
If you’re as much of a foodie as we are, the thought of missing a meal most likely leaves you feeling horrified. But your feline furkid has a different relationship to food and can survive for up to two weeks without their kibble as long as they have access to plenty of clean water. Without this, they would be unlikely to survive for more than 2-3 days.
That being said, just because your cat could technically survive for that long without eating, it doesn’t mean that they won’t become seriously unwell and malnourished. Just like us humans, food is where cats get all the necessary vitamins and minerals they need to thrive, so going without is far from ideal.
According to Dr. Woodnutt, there isn’t a definitive length of time cats can go without food. "A lot depends on other factors – how well hydrated they are, how well nourished they were before they went without, and if they have other diseases complicating matters," she explains.
"Our domestic cats are descended from wildcats and have evolved to eat several small meals a day. In an otherwise healthy cat, missing one meal should prompt close attention, but not necessarily a trip to the vets. Missing more than this would definitely be a cause for concern, and should warrant a vet visit for investigations."
Why has my cat stopped eating?
While some pet parents have the issue of their cat eating too fast and too much, others have the problem of their cat stopping eating altogether. It’s true that not eating can signal a health problem, but there are other more benign reasons why your kitty may have gone off their chow. The most common include:
- A recent vaccination or new medication
- Anxiety or stress brought on by a change in routine
- New food
- A slower metabolism - this is common in older cats
- Digestive issues
- Dental/tooth pain
- Kidney disease
- An obstruction/indigestion/constipation
Cat behavior is complex, so there could be any number of reasons why your moggy has stopped frequenting their food bowl and while some of them are indeed a cause for concern, others will likely settle down as quickly as they came. Which of course begs the question, when is your cat’s lack of appetite serious enough to warrant a trip to the vet?
How long should I wait to see my vet?
This is often a tricky one for pet parents. It’s the kitty equivalent of the human problem of how sick you feel you need to be before you call your doctor to request a check-up.
A lot of us worry about bothering our vet with something that could turn out to be nothing but trust us when we say that your vet would rather you pop in and have it turn out to be a minor issue than not go and have your kitty quickly go downhill.
"If a cat skips a meal, it’s important to look at their overall health," Dr. Woodnutt advises. "If they’re young and otherwise healthy, you can leave them a couple of hours and then offer something else. If they can still be tempted to eat, that’s a good thing.
If a healthy adult cat refuses more than one meal, I’d recommend a vet visit. Of course, if your cat is very young (under 6 months), elderly (over 10), or has another condition, they’ll need to visit the vet sooner."
Tricks to get your cat to eat
"If your vet has ruled out underlying problems, or you are aware of an underlying problem like kidney disease but still need to get your cat to eat from time to time, there are some things that can help," says Dr. Woodnutt.
Here are few of her top tips:
- Heat up their food. Cats hunt and eat very recently-dead prey, so warmer food is more natural and stimulates their sense of smell, which is important to how they approach and eat food. Don’t forget it shouldn’t be too hot – if you microwave it, stir and let it cool a little. Another option is to add a tiny amount of boiling water and then let it cool.
- Try wet food. If your cat is usually on dry food, wet food may be a good option to get them eating again as it’s smellier and more like their natural diet
- Try fish food. Unless your cat has medical issues preventing this, flaky fish food sprinkled over their meal can help inspire them to eat. It’s smelly stuff! You want one that’s made from fish.
- Don’t pressure them. Cats are contrary beings, and they don’t take stress well. Try not to stand over your cat when they’re eating, find them somewhere peaceful where they can’t be watched or bullied by other cats, too.
Hepatic Lipidosis in cats
"If an overweight cat stops eating, their body mobilises their fat reserves," explains Dr. Woodnutt. "Unfortunately, too much fat coming out of storage can overwhelm the liver, causing a severe disease called hepatic lipidosis, which can be life-threatening.
If your cat stops eating and is overweight, you should get them seen by a vet after just one or two skipped meals. If the underlying cause of the inappetence can’t be found, they may need tube feeding until they voluntarily eat again."
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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.