How to Get a Sick Cat to Eat

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Dec. 26, 2014

When cats feel poorly, they stop eating. When they stop eating, they feel worse and are even less likely to eat. This is a vicious cycle that needs to be stopped as soon as possible if a cat is to heal.

How to Get a Sick Cat to Eat

The first step in the process is determining why a cat is no longer eating. Sometimes you can figure this out by remembering that most cats hate change. Anything different in the home could be responsible. Visitors, new pets, different foods, a new cat bowls, an altered schedule, a different feeding location — you name it and it might be to blame. As much as is possible, return your cat’s diet and environment back to what is “normal” for him or her and see what happens.

If this doesn’t work or you are noticing other worrisome symptoms, it is time for a check-up with your veterinarian. Virtually every disease that cats can get has the potential to turn them off their food.

The fix may be straightforward. For example, a cat with dental disease will usually start eating again once doing so isn’t painful anymore. Sometimes, however, we need to encourage a cat to eat while we figure out what is wrong or wait for treatment to take effect.

While I have just said that cats hate change, it is possible to get them to eat by tempting them into trying something new so long as that something is darn near irresistible (from a cat’s point of view). Try buying a few types of canned food (pate-style, flaked, etc.) in different flavors. Place some on a small plate and warm it slightly. If your cat shows no interest, try adding a little fish oil, chicken broth, tuna juice, or cooked egg.

Check out this video for another idea. Those wiggling things are bonito flakes — thin shavings of tuna — that move when placed on top of warm, soft cat food. I think a cat would have to feel really awful not to be intrigued by that!

Make feeding time a social and pleasant experience. Take your cat to a quiet part of your home, ideally with a diffuser emitting feline facial hormone, a natural signal to cats that everything is “okay.” Try hand feeding him or put a small amount of pate-style food on your finger and touch it to his lips. Pet your cat and praise him. If your cat is willing, try dribbling a thin slurry of cat food into his mouth using a syringe. Do not force the issue, however. Force-feeding is stressful for cats and potentially dangerous for you.

If none of these tricks are successful and you still can't get your cat to eat, your veterinarian may prescribe an appetite stimulant (e.g., mirtazapine or cyproheptadine) or even recommend placement of a feeding tube. While owners sometimes balk at the thought of a feeding tube, most who have agreed to the procedure are thrilled with the results. Feeding tubes make giving cats all the food, water, and medications they need incredibly simple.

One of the biggest mistakes owners make is waiting too long to make a veterinary appointment for a cat that has stopped eating. The adverse effects of poor nutrition start within just a few days, and the longer you wait the harder it will be to get your cat eating again.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: v777999 / Shutterstock

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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