What to Do When a Cat Won’t Eat

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Published: May 01, 2015

Cats cannot go long periods of time without food. They are built to eat multiple small meals throughout the day, and when those meals stop for any reason (e.g., poor appetite secondary to illness) their physiology goes haywire.

Fat is sent from its stores throughout the body to the liver, where it is metabolized to produce energy. After just a few days, the amount of fat arriving in the liver can overwhelm the organ’s ability to break it down. Fatty deposits infiltrate the liver, resulting in a condition called hepatic lipidosis, which can be fatal if the cat’s energy balance isn’t quickly corrected.

Therefore, owners need to keep a close eye on their cat’s food intake. If you notice a significant drop, you need to act… now.

The first thing to do is to rule out a problem with the food itself. If you recently switched foods or anything associated with feeding (a new location, type of bowl, etc.), go back to what worked in the past. If your bag of dry food has been open for more than a month, it may be starting to go bad; it’s time to replace it. Conversely, if you just opened a new bag or bought a new case of canned food, there may be something wrong with that batch; try offering something different. Finally, tempt your cat with something irresistible. Many cats prefer highly aromatic (smelly) canned food that has been warmed to around body temperature (100 °F or so). You can also try a little bit of canned tuna or chicken baby food. Hand feeding or petting cats when they show interest in food encourages some individuals to eat.

If none of these ideas gets your cat eating again, it’s time to make an appointment with your veterinarian. Make sure to mention the length of time that has passed since your cat has last eaten. You should be seen within 24 hours if more than 2-3 days has passed since their last good meal.

Sometimes a physical examination will point to the cause of a cat’s poor appetite. For example, your veterinarian may be able to identify painful dental disease or an abdominal tumor and recommend appropriate treatment at that point. Often, however, a more complete medical work-up that includes some combination of blood testing, urinalysis, fecal examination, diagnostic imaging (e.g., x-rays or ultrasound), and tissue biopsies is necessary before a diagnosis can be made.

In a perfect world, quick diagnosis and treatment would always result in the rapid return of a cat’s appetite, but that does not always happen. If I suspect that a cat will start eating again soon, I’ll recommend an appetite stimulant (mirtazapine or cyproheptadine), try syringe feeding (for compliant cats only!), or place a nasogastric tube through the nose and into the stomach through which a thin slurry of food can be pushed.

Esophagostomy tubes are a better choice when there’s a good chance that a cat won’t start voluntarily eating within a week or so. The surgery needed to place an esophagostomy tube is incredibly quick and allows owners to easily give all the food, water, and medications their cats might need for as long as necessary. If your cat has to be sedated for any reason during diagnosis and treatment, ask your veterinarian whether he or she should place a feeding tube at the same time. Why not kill two birds with one stone (so to speak) and start getting your cat the nutrition he or she needs to recover.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Nikolay Bassov / Shutterstock