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What to Do When Your Cat Won’t Eat

If your cat won't eat, there could be a few different issues at play. Let’s look at what causes anorexia in cats and how to handle feline anorexia.

Arden Moore  |  Mar 1st 2018

Many dogs deserve the chowhound moniker, while some cats are accurately branded as picky eaters. But if a cat won’t eat altogether, he may be experiencing anorexia or what’s known as pseudo anorexia.

Both can be life-threatening, especially if your cat goes without food for a few days. That’s why veterinarians urge you to pay close attention to your cat’s eating habits, especially if your cat won’t eat. Anorexia in cats is not to be confused with the human condition called anorexia nervosa. In cats, the condition is almost always due to an organic, physiologic trigger.

What is anorexia in cats?

A black cat eating dry food from a bowl.

If your cat won’t eat, there might be a few issues at hand. Photography by aleg baranau / Shutterstock.

“Anorexia in cats is a decreased or loss of appetite,” says Robin Downing, D.V.M., hospital director at the Windsor Veterinary Clinic and the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado. “Pseudo anorexia occurs in a cat who wants to eat but is physically incapable for any number of reasons, including mouth pain, inability to put food into the mouth and inability to chew or to swallow. Anorexia nervosa is a complex mental illness in people that is quite challenging to treat and manage and is often linked to an inaccurate body image.”

A poor appetite, refusal or inability to eat definitely merits a visit to your veterinarian pronto, as affected cats can develop a severe liver condition called hepatic lipidosis. In essence, fat infiltrates the liver and can cause total liver failure and death.

“I want to reinforce just how dangerous it is for any cat to abruptly stop eating, no matter the cause,” Dr. Downing says. Hepatic lipidosis can occur after just a few days of not eating, and overweight/obese cats are at the greatest risk. An abrupt decrease in appetite or a complete cessation of eating should always be considered an emergency in cats.”

What causes pseudo anorexia in cats, Dr. Downing identifies the following:

  1. Stomatitis, gingivitis and/or esophagitis — all related to inflammation and pain in the tissues of the mouth and throat
  2. Advanced periodontal disease
  3. Loose or fractured teeth, which makes eating painful —
  4. Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain —
  5. Salivary gland disease —
  6. Nervous system disorder affecting chewing and/or swallowing —
  7. Cancer or tumors of the mouth and throat —
  8. Injuries to the head or mouth

“Cats are so good at hiding their problems that cat owners must maintain vigilance about even the simplest of issues,” says Dr. Downing, who is board-certified in pain management, veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation. “Really terrible diseases can lurk just below the surface, and cat owners can be completely in the dark. ‘Subtle’ is the watchword when it comes to cats. Any change in behavior is worth noting, but a change in appetite can signal a critical issue.”

How to help if your cat won’t eat

Treatment for cats with feline anorexia or pseudo anorexia varies. The specific treatment is based on the underlying diagnosis as well as the impact of related symptoms. For example, it is imperative to control or eliminate nausea in a cat. Same goes for providing intravenous fluids for a dehydrated cat. Even a low level of potassium can cause diminished appetite in a cat.

Veterinarians typically turn to such medications as cyproheptadine and mirtazapine as appetite stimulants. Other non-medical ways to boost a cat’s appetite include: —

  1. Adding canned food to the cat’s dry food diet —
  2. Warming up the food to emit beckoning aromas —
  3. Adding low-sodium broth to the food for flavor enhancement —
  4. Preparing healthy homemade meals (recommended by your veterinarian)

If your cat’s appetite remains lackluster after a few days, she might be fitted with an esophagostomy tube. This e-tube is a feeding tube that enters the skin at the side of the neck near the chin and extends down into the esophagus. It is secured in place using sutures and then a protective bandage is placed around the neck.

“The e-tube allows us to provide food and medications without stressing the cat, and it allows a cat to be treated at home who otherwise might have to be treated in the hospital,” Dr. Downing explains. “Feeding via an e-tube is an exceptionally effective way to avoid hepatic lipidosis.”

Dr. Downing’s take-home message is to always pay attention to your cat’s eating habits and immediately contact your veterinarian if she shows any signs of decrease or no appetite. She experienced this firsthand in her former cat, Piffany, a blue-point Himalayan she adopted after the cat was abandoned by her owners. “She was 5 when it happened,” Dr. Downing recalls. “Her family moved and just left her outside on the front porch in the winter. She was not overweight or obese when it happened, which helps dispel the myth that it can only happen in fat cats. She ended up being a fairly reclusive cat who lived to be 12.”

If your cat won’t eat, what could be causing it?

There are many causes of feline anorexia including:

  1. Reaction to medication. Some antibiotics, for example, can cause nausea in some cats.
  2. Pain anywhere in the body (not just limited to mouth pain)
  3. Changes in the environment that cause stress in the cat, including home remodeling, new furniture or changes in the family dynamic
  4. Aversion to food when a cat feels sick and attempts are made to try to force-feed the cat.
  5. Exposure to toxins
  6. Imbalances in the immune system
  7. Development of ulcers in the stomach or intestines
  8. Inability to smell. Remember, the sense of smell influences a cat’s appetite.
  9. Development of inflammatory bowel disease
  10. Fever
  11. Cancers
  12. Kidney disease
  13. Pancreatitis
  14. Diabetes

Thumbnail: Photography ©earth2015 | Thinkstock.

Tell us: Have you ever had a cat who wouldn’t eat? How did you solve the issue?

Arden Moore is a pet behavior consultant, author and master pet first-aid instructor who often teaches hands-on classes with her cool cat, Casey, and very tolerant dog, Kona. Each week, she hosts the Oh Behave Show on Pet Life Radio. Learn more at and follow Arden on Facebook and on Twitter at @ArdenKnowsPets.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Catster magazine. Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

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