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Your Cat Won’t Eat? Tips and Reasons Why.

Author: Dr. Beth Turner

Published: December 7, 2021

Updated: May 21, 2024

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cat not eating lost appetite

Food! Glorious food! So scrumptious and luscious! For people, food is the essence of life and can rekindle our souls.

Having meals with others is a huge social activity. It helps strengthen our relationships and allows us to become closer to others.

This same feeling translates when we are feeding our cats. We want them to eat and to enjoy eating. So when our cats don’t want to eat or seem picky about their food, we humans struggle with that.

So why is it cats cause us such heartache about eating? Are their palates so refined that we can’t suit them? If you’ve ever dealt with a cat that seemingly refuses to eat, you are certainly not alone in sometimes feeling a little crazed and helpless. As for the theory about cats just being picky, it’s somewhat true, but there are a lot of nuances. We're here to help!

How to Get Your Cat to Eat

There are several different options for trying to entice your cat to eat. You know your cat better than anyone, and based on their personality, you know the best option to start with. Additionally, you may need to combine different options. But don’t try combinations until you have tried several individually first.

Location, Environment, and Bowl Type

Determine if they are social eaters or if they prefer to dine alone.

There are some cats that like to have company when they eat, and there are those that prefer the peace and quiet of eating alone. If you have a very loving and generally sociable cat, sitting and petting them while they eat may be just what the doctor ordered to help them get back on track with eating regularly.

On the other hand, if your cat tends to prefer alone time, petting while they eat isn’t going to be helpful. For these cats, place their food in a location where they can eat undisturbed by people and other pets. For some cats, this may be a closet, and for others, it may be under a bed. Split their meal into a few bowls, place them in different spots, and see what location they gravitate to most.

Try placing the bowls in different locations.

Something may have scared or turned off your cat where the original feeding location was, and now they dislike that spot.

We are not always around when our cats are eating. There are times when a negative event occurs in your cat’s food bowl location. This can cause your cat not to feel comfortable eating in that location. You may have to try several places before you find one that suits your cat and where they want to enjoy a meal.

Additionally, try placing a Feliway Diffuser (calming pheromone) in the area where you place the bowl. This will naturally relax your cat. A relaxed cat is more likely to eat than a stressed cat. The Feliway pheromones mimic the pheromones their mother emitted during nursing, which has a calming effect.

Try different types of bowls.

A bowl is a bowl, is a bowl – NOPE! There are a ton of options available when you’re deciding how to feed your cat. If you’re concerned about whisker fatigue (explained in the section below), find a plate or a wide bowl with shallow sides so there’s less chance your cat will have to squish their whiskers against the bowl.

Preferably, opt for stainless steel when it’s available. It’s not only durable but also easy to clean and disinfect. Similarly, ceramic and glass bowls can work, though they’re easier to break. Avoid plastic bowls or containers as they can harbor bacteria when chipped or scratched, which can lead to problems like cat acne.

Additionally, plastic bowls, especially when put in a microwave or warmed, can give off a smell. These smells can be a turn-off for cats.product Doc and Phoebe Indoor Hunting Cat Feeder

Don't use a bowl.

If you’d like to go a step further and create intrigue regarding their food, something like this "no bowl" feeding system (featured in the photo), developed by a veterinarian, is one way to tap into that natural hunting behavior.

This particular device looks like a mouse and allows you to place a few kibbles inside. You then hide the “mouse” and let your cat do what they do best – hunt. If you feed a combination of wet and dry food, you can feed their wet food in a traditional bowl and let them hunt for the kibble.

Consider other ways to feed your cat that will engage their natural instincts.

Cats are not naturally prone to scarfing down a big meal for the day. As hunters, cats are more accustomed to hunting their food and eating little bits throughout the day. Periodic, small feedings — especially feedings that require your cat to move around and “hunt” their food, like from a food puzzle — can help keep your cat from becoming overweight and give an indoor cat an outlet for their pent-up energy.

Cat interactive feederPreventive Vet team review from Chris: There was a period in which Rajah and his sister Zsa Zsa weren't getting along. What we found was that they had very few mentally stimulating activities, which led to boredom and aggression towards each other. My first purchase was the Trixie Mad Scientist Activity for its simplicity.

It has become a favorite of Rajah's (who's food motivated). He's constantly found pawing away at the activity several times a day, hoping to find some kibble. And although Zsa Zsa isn't as food motivated, she enjoys watching her brother figure out how to get the treats!

Pro Tip: Make sure you choose the appropriate dispensing top that will either allow larger kibble or treats to fall out without too much effort or to keep smaller kibble from pouring out too quickly.

Read about more suggestions on types of cat food bowls. 

See more of our recommendations for interactive food bowls for cats.

Hand feed.

Desperate times call for desperate measures! If other options fail, hand feeding can be helpful.

Put canned food on your finger and then gently place the food on your cat’s gums. Never force-feed your cat because this can create further food aversions. Another option is to use your hands like a bowl and place dry food in them. These methods work best with cats that are social eaters.

It is true desperate times call for desperate measures. I had a patient who wasn’t eating but was a very social cat. So I warmed up the smelliest canned cat food I could get. I began loving on my patient by petting and scratching their head. Then I pretended, while trying not to gag from the smell, to eat the food. My little friend decides to join me for a few bites. This doesn’t often work, but it never hurts to try!

But if this is the only way you're able to feed your cat long-term, you'll want to have them seen by a veterinarian, as there may be medical or behavioral issues at play.

Questions? To chat with a veterinarian about stimulating your cat's appetite, Click here


Feeding Schedulecat waiting to be fed by a clock

Let them get a little bit hungry.

While we often tend to leave food out all the time and let our cats graze, that can make it so they are never hungry. Picking up their food for about 12 hours will likely make them hungry enough to eat almost anything. It is best to feed them 2 to 3 meals per day for a period of time so that you know when they are fed and they will likely be hungry and want to eat.

At the bare minimum, don’t give your cat one big meal in the morning. Chances will be greater that they “scarf and barf.”

Always keep their food fresh.

Cats decide what they are going to eat based on smell and taste. Just like many people don’t like leftovers or stale food, neither does your cat. When food sits out, especially canned food, it loses its smell and flavor and gets all dried out. Canned food left out too long –— between 20–45 minutes, depending on the food and how warm it is — can result in it getting dry and hard, and bugs and bacteria can start setting in, as well as other critters trying to eat it. Fresh is best!

If your cat doesn't eat within 30 minutes, lift their food up (put it in the fridge if it's canned) and put it down again at the next scheduled mealtime.

Natural Cat-Safe Enticements and Flavors

We all know cats are very discerning when it comes to their food. It must smell and taste a certain way, the texture must feel right, and some will only eat their food either wet or dry. In addition to all this, the temperature of their food sometimes matters.

To start, never suddenly switch your cat’s food. This is especially important to avoid if they have been sick. Always gradually introduce new foods, especially if they smell very different.

If you know your cat prefers certain flavors and textures, try to always use those same ones. New isn’t always better.

Take note of your cat's likes and dislikes while trying some of these food enhancements.

  • Try some canned/wet food. The stinkier, the better — try seafood varieties. These two brands have good ingredients and are smelly.
Aloha Friends Grain-Free Wet Cat Food for All Life Stages – Seafood with Pumpkin
cat food seafood and pumpkin

This Stella & Chewy's dry cat food is an option if you want to try a softer kibble. 

Freeze-Dried Morsels for Cats – Chicken, Salmon & Chicken, Turkey
cat food morsels to stimulate eating

  • Add a little bit of warmed, low-sodium chicken broth to their food. Avoid broths containing onions, onion powder, chives, or garlic — as these can be toxic to cats. Try mixing Native Pet's Bone Broth powder with water as a pet-safe way to add broth to their food, or sprinkle on this broth-flavored powder food topper. Note: The label for this food topper product says it is for dogs, but it is safe for cats as well. As with anything new, especially if your cat has existing health issues, consult with your veterinarian prior to use.

  • Add some meat baby food as a topper. Be sure that it contains no onions or garlic. These two baby food flavors are safe for cats: Chicken flavor or Turkey flavor.

  • Add some water from a can of tuna or anchovies. Pour in on top of their regular food. Note: Anchovies can be high in sodium. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian before using if your cat is on a sodium-restricted diet.

  • Add some fish oil to their food. Fish oil provides other benefits for their skin and joints as well. Nordic Naturals and Grizzly make fish oils appropriate for cats.

  • Sprinkle some nutritional yeast powder onto their food. It's got a nutty, cheesy flavor that many cats go absolutely crazy for. An added bonus is that it's rich in B vitamins! (Don't confuse brewer's yeast with nutritional yeast — they're very nearly the same thing, but not exactly. Brewer's yeast often has a bitter taste, which many cats may not like.)

  • Sprinkle some grated parmesan cheese on their food. The salty, cheesy flavor is often enough to pique a cat's interest and appetite.

    product Purina Fortiflora Cat Probiotic Powder Supplement
  • Sprinkle some Purina FortiFlora probiotic on their food. Mix a little bit in, and then sprinkle a bit on top. Not only does FortiFlora often work great as an appetite enhancer for cats, but you're also getting the additional benefit of a proven probiotic!

  • Make it smell better. Gently warm the food in the microwave or with warm water (don’t make it too hot!).

    Typically, warming food enhances its smell. As mentioned, smell is the first factor that cats use to determine if they will even try a food. Adding canned food, low-sodium chicken broth, or tuna to dry food and then warming it makes everything smell 10 times better and is more likely to entice your cat to eat.

    This is particularly helpful for cats who may be stuffy from upper respiratory infections. There are some cats, though it is only a small number, that actually prefer cold food. This is why it takes some patience and experimenting when it comes to finding your cat’s preferences.

    Besides warming the food, sprinkling a little goodness on top helps stimulate their appetite as well. They may only lick at the topper (grated parmesan cheese, nutritional yeast, Fortiflora, etc.), but typically within a short period of time, they will be diving into their food with excitement.

  • Sprinkle some VetriScience Perio Support on their food. For some cats, it acts as an appetite enhancer, but for every cat, it helps support clean teeth and fresh breath.

  • Try catnip. Some cat owners have said that catnip has stimulated their cat's appetite. It's worth a try, as it can't harm them, and it can be a form of enrichment. Our article on catnip has a few brands that we like for cats.

If these suggestions fail, or if your cat refuses more than two meals, it’s time to go to the vet for evaluation and care.

Questions? To chat with a veterinarian about why your cat isn't eating, Click here


The suggestions above are truly a short-term fix.

If your cat starts eating after using one (or a combination) of these tricks, then you can possibly chalk it up to an upset stomach that will pass, a change in the weather, or something non-threatening. However, if your cat isn’t eating their normal amount for a significant period of time, anything over one day (even less if they have certain pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes or obesity), then it’s imperative that you take your cat to the veterinarian.

Something very serious could be causing your cat’s hunger strike, and any delay can make matters significantly worse. A cat that doesn't eat could be at risk of fatty liver disease (hepatic lipidosis).

Prescribed Appetite Stimulants for Cats

Last but not least is prescribed appetite stimulants. These are provided by and need to be used under the guidance of your veterinarian when your cat has refused all other options, they are not well, and/or it has been more than 12 to 24 hours since they have eaten.

Based on the reason your cat isn't eating, your veterinarian may prescribe one of these commonly used appetite stimulants:

  1. Mirtazapine – This is an antidepressant that has several benefits for cats. This includes stimulating them to eat, gaining weight, and in some cases, has helped to control nausea. It is usually a tablet (given once every 72 hours), but it is possible that it can be compounded into a transdermal gel for use on their skin.

  2. Cyproheptadine – This medication is an antihistamine. It stimulates a cat’s appetite and can control nausea. It is often used with cats getting chemotherapy.

  3. Diazepam – This medication is a much less often used option since some cats can have liver issues as a result of its use. But single treatments have been found to be effective.

  4. Steroids – They have been found to stimulate a cat’s appetite. This benefit is usually noted when other issues are being treated using them.

  5. B12 injections – In some cases, except for chronic gastrointestinal, these injections have been found to stimulate a cat’s appetite.

Veterinary Evaluation

Cat-loss-appetite-shutterProper nutrition from a well-balanced diet is important. Each nutrient in your cat’s diet has an essential purpose. Being sure that your cat eats properly helps ensure a healthy life, as well as a good quality of life. If your cat’s appetite cannot be stimulated with the above suggestions, it is important to seek veterinary care. The sooner the issues that are causing your cat not to eat are addressed, the sooner your cat can get back to a happy life.

Truth is, typically, there will be a medical reason for a cat not eating. As you can see from the list below, some of those medical reasons can be quite serious.

Reasons Why Your Cat Won't Eat

Let’s start with an important question. Is your cat ACTUALLY hungry? First, we must remember cats are not very big! Additionally, the type of food you are feeding them may be very energy-dense, and depending on their activity level, it could more than satisfy their energy requirements.

We have a preconceived notion of how much we think our cats should eat based on how much we eat. Oftentimes, I would have owners come to me saying their cat isn’t eating enough. Based on their cat’s body condition and the numbers on the scale, I knew that wasn’t the case.

A Good Rule of Thumb
If you notice your cat is:
1) Eating each day (many prefer to eat when no one is around)
2) They are not losing weight
3) They appear to be happy and acting normally

Then your cat is most likely just fine! Usually cats will let you know if they're hungry, as our fun "Feed You Now" video demonstrates.

It's important to know why your cat is not eating. Is it simply because they are full, or are they being difficult or truly picky? A cat might stop eating for any number of reasons, varying from medical to non-medical.

Medical Reasons for Cats Not Eating

  • Dental/tooth pain: broken or fractured tooth, abscessed tooth root, oral tumor, tooth resorption
  • Pancreatitis (inflamed pancreas)
  • Urinary obstruction
  • Digestive obstruction
  • Constipation
  • Upper respiratory infection – also known as a "kitty cold" – if they can't smell, they likely won't eat
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
  • Inflammation of the esophagus (esophagitis). This can occur due to acid reflux, ingestion of a chemical irritant, continuous vomiting, hiatal hernia, etc.
  • Parasites
  • Cancer
  • Stress or a change within your home

Catching these medical issues early often results in a better outcome, as well as easier, less expensive treatment. This is especially the case in cats that are a bit more “plump” than they should be, as fat cats that stop getting enough calories are at higher risk of developing a serious form of liver dysfunction (hepatic lipidosis) as a result of their decreased calorie intake.

For $5, you can connect to a veterinarian to discuss your cat’s appetite issue. Connect now

Rates may differ for those residing outside the U.S. You'll have access to a vet for 7 days.


What Is Whisker Fatigue, and Is it Real?cat whiskers close up

You may have heard — either from your veterinarian, news reports, or pet product manufacturers — about something called “whisker fatigue.”

There’s actually a lot we still don’t fully understand about cat’s whiskers (see the video below or read more if you feel like getting nerdy about “vibrissae”).

While the thought of ‘tired whiskers’ sounds kinda silly, it is something that maybe you should put a little thought into if you have a feline that tends to be very sensitive. Why? Because it is a problem that can potentially make your cat act completely different.

Some of the issues it can cause are poor appetite, mood changes, and changes in behavior. All of these things cause additional stress to your cat.

Generally, people think of whiskers as a physical trait of cats. We often relate to it as we do facial hair or beards. But they are so much more complex than a beard!

Whiskers, or “vibrissae,” are specialized touch organs that help mammals in a number of ways. Cats, for example, have 100–200 nerve cells per whisker. As the whisker comes into contact with an object, the cat translates that sensory information to help build a description of their environment, like whether a space is too narrow for them to safely pass through.

Simply put, whisker fatigue occurs when these highly sensitive vibrissae are repeatedly over-stimulated. This can happen with repeated hits to the sides of a food or water bowl, causing discomfort, desensitization, and stress.

Over enough time, this can cause the following:

  • Refusal to use their regular water and food bowls
  • They may pace and meow in front of their feeding station
  • They may attempt to spill or dig out their food from their bowls
  • Aggressive behavior has been noted with some cats when they have been given food or treats outside of their feeding bowls

The process of combating whisker fatigue is simple. Don’t use deep and narrow bowls. Rather, use wide and shallow ones so that the sides do not contact your cat’s whiskers. If you can’t find one of these bowls, you can use a plate or saucer.

 

Whiskers are extremely important to our feline companions. But is whisker fatigue a new fact, or is it far-reaching fiction? Many feel, as more research is done on cat behavior, that we are creating stress for our cats by making them participate in the lifestyle we have created for them. Typically, a cat’s nature is to be outdoors and solitary. We have brought them into a pack-based environment indoors. Therefore, as responsible pet owners, we need to lessen environmental stresses on our cats as well as provide them with enrichment.

The science is still out on whisker fatigue. More to the point, there currently is no science on whisker fatigue, as there are currently no studies to say definitively whether whisker fatigue is real. But that hasn’t stopped a significant group from arguing that it’s something to watch out for.

One person told the New York Times about whisker fatigue, “I think it’s just one of those things where people say, ‘Oh, cats are just finicky eaters,’ and everyone thinks it’s a joke. After reading some articles about this, I was like; maybe this isn’t a joke after all.”

There are even a number of feeding products aimed at reducing whisker fatigue in cats, such as shallower bowls with edges that don’t touch a cat’s whiskers and with a rounded interior so food doesn’t become trapped in the corners.

Of course, there are also plenty of skeptics. Chris Sweeney wrote in Boston Magazine that there is little evidence from veterinary associations or veterinary medical schools to support whisker fatigue as a “thing.” Furthermore, the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) told Preventive Vet in 2017 that it “has no information specific to this condition, whether through our scientific working groups or as part of our continuing education offerings.”

But here’s the rub on whisker fatigue: The lack of current evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t — or couldn’t — exist. Whisker fatigue makes sense in theory, as whiskers are very highly sensitive structures/organs that could become desensitized or “fatigued” from repeated stimulation (such desensitization is a known phenomenon in other nerve fibers).

Further study will likely verify some of the theory, eventually. In other words, whisker fatigue is a solid hypothesis based on interesting observations that would benefit from scientific study.

Does that mean you need to go out and buy a $60 specialized whisker fatigue bowl? Absolutely not. In fact, a low-sided bowl — or even a plate — will work just fine.

kitten with blue eyes sitting on a stack of books

Frequently Asked Questions:

Why won't my cat eat its usual food anymore?

There are a multitude of reasons why your cat may not eat their usual food anymore. The reasons can include underlying medical issues such as kidney disease or GI issues, dental issues, pain, stress, or even behavior issues.

If your cat refuses to eat for more than 24 hours, have them evaluated by a veterinarian. 

How can I tell if my cat's lack of appetite is due to illness?

In some cases, you can tell that your cat’s lack of appetite is due to illness. But since they are masters at hiding illness and pain, it can be difficult.

What are some common appetite stimulants recommended for cats?

You can try warming your cat’s food or applying a food topper such as chicken baby food (no onions or garlic), low sodium chicken broth (no onions or garlic), cottage cheese, plain scrambled eggs, or chopped-up chicken.

Some over-the-counter appetite stimulates that you can try include Purina FortiFlora, VeteriScience Perio Powder, Virbac Rebound, and Vetoquinol Nutrical.

There are appetite stimulants your veterinarian can prescribe.

Can stress or anxiety cause my cat to stop eating?

Both stress and anxiety can cause your cat to stop eating. Recognizing the cause or trigger for either is critical.

How long can a cat safely go without eating?

Any cat that goes more than 24 hours without eating should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Technically, a cat can go about one to two weeks without food as long as they have adequate water – but it may be extremely detrimental to their overall health.

What should I do if my cat refuses to eat wet food?

Try offering the wet food at different temperatures, such as cool/cold, room temperature, and warmed up. Try adding in dry food or a few treats to make it more appealing.

If your cat is on a specialty diet that only comes in canned, you could try baking it into treats.

Are there any home remedies to encourage my cat to eat?

Enhancing the smell and flavor of the food can entice cats to eat. This can be done by warming the food, adding water or low-sodium chicken broth (no onions or garlic), tuna juice (water), etc.

There are pet-specific food toppers that work well too. If your cat likes catnip, you can try sprinkling some on their food.

Feed your cat in a quiet location using a shallow ceramic bowl. Some cats eat better when they are pet during feeding or are hand-fed.

How does whisker fatigue affect my cat's eating habits?

When your cat’s whiskers become overstimulated, which can happen when they eat from a high-sided, narrow, and deep bowl, it creates an unpleasant sensation for cats and deters them from eating. Therefore, it's best to use a wide shallow bowl for their food and water.

When should I take my cat to the vet for not eating?

Anytime your cat stops eating for more than 24 hours, especially if they aren’t consuming water, seek veterinary care.

Can changes in the home environment affect my cat's appetite?

Your cat’s appetite can be dramatically affected by any changes in their environment. While it can happen when the change first occurs, it can also happen weeks after the change. Changes can be visitors, new sounds, new pets, new smells, or even things occurring outdoors.

Just because something doesn’t seem stressful to us, it may be to your cat.

What are the signs of dehydration in cats, and how does it relate to not eating?

By the time most cat owners recognize their cat is dehydrated, they are already at least 5% dehydrated.

Signs of dehydration include:

  • lethargy
  • loss of energy
  • loss of appetite
  • constipation
  • dry or sticky gums
  • loss of skin elasticity
  • elevated heart rate

As mentioned, dehydration can cause a loss of appetite. Many of the diseases(kidney disease, heart disease, diabetes, etc.) that can cause dehydration will also cause cats to not eat.

How can I make my home more comfortable for a cat with eating difficulties?

Place food bowls in quiet and easily accessible locations. Avoid having your cat move far in order to get food, and have bowls in multiple locations.

Use bowls that are wide, shallow, and ceramic so your cat has an easier time eating.

For cats that have difficulty eating due to dental issues or pain, consider softening their food and consulting with your veterinarian about pain management options.

What role does dental health play in a cat's willingness to eat, and what are the signs of dental issues?

Cats with dental issues are often painful, which causes them to not want to eat. They associate eating with pain.

Signs of dental issues include:

  • excessive drooling
  • bad breath
  • blood-tinged saliva
  • shaking head
  • avoidance of touch near the head or mouth
  • jaw or teeth chattering
  • food falling from mouth when chewing
  • rubbing or pawing face
  • decreased or loss of appetite
  • refusal of dry food or hard treats
  • weight loss

Are there any specific dietary needs for older cats who won't eat?

The energy requirements for senior cats increase starting around 11 years of age because it is more difficult for them to digest proteins and fats. Therefore, they often require more protein than an adult cat.

Senior cats also need more fiber than adult cats. When your senior cat won’t eat, feed them smaller more frequent meals that have adequate protein as well as fats and lower carbohydrates.

What are some tips for transitioning my cat to a new type of food if they won't eat their current diet?

Always transition your cat from one diet to another when they are feeling well. Never transition their diets when they are sick because they will associate the new food with not feeling well.

Slowly switch from the old diet to the new diet over a week or two. Gradually add the new diet to the old diet.

A typical schedule is:

Days 1 to 2: 75% old + 25% new

Days 3 to 4: 50% old + 50% new

Days 5 to 6: 75% new + 25% old

Day 7 100% new diet.

For more finicky cats or those with sensitive systems, the transition can be made much slower.

Be sure to feed in a quiet place when transitioning diets and avoid as much stress or anxiety as possible. Using a calming pheromone in the area you are feeding may also help when transitioning diets.

Have any stories about your cat’s finicky eating habits? Any questions we haven’t answered? Let us know in the comments!


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About the author

Profile picture for Dr. Beth Turner

Dr. Beth Turner

Beth Turner is a veterinarian with over 20 years of experience. She graduated from North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine and following graduation, she began her career as an associate veterinarian and worked closely with the local shelter.

In 2007 she accomplished her dream of practice ownership, designing and building her own clinic. Another meaningful role, while running her clinic, was serving as her county's shelter veterinarian. This gave her the opportunity to help improve the lives of many animals in her community as well as work with the rescue she loved. She sold her practice in 2019 to move across the country.