Dear Dr. Barchas,
For the past two days, my cat has decided to eat very little, even of her favorite foods. She is female and 15 years old. She doesn’t appear sick as she is still purring, playing a bit, and isn’t lying around. Any suggestions?
The essence of Linda’s question has been put to me a number of ways over the years, but it generally boils down to this: A cat is not eating but seems fine in every other way. She’s still playful, she’s not vomiting or suffering from diarrhea, and there’s no coughing or sneezing. The only thing that’s wrong is that she’s not eating. Is the cat sick?
The answer is yes. It is not normal for an animal, whether cat, dog, or human, to go two days without eating when you’re serving up palatable food. Cats don’t lose their appetites unless something is wrong.
In these situations I recommend that you put yourself in your cat’s shoes (so to speak). Unless you were on a crazy diet, I’ll bet the last time you went two days without eating (or with dramatically reduced food consumption) you were sick. Since cats don’t go on crazy diets, it should be assumed that any cat in the same situation has a problem.
The nature of the problem can vary. Many conditions cause appetite loss. They range from minor issues (food poisoning, intestinal bugs, stress) through bigger ones (early kidney disease, liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease, gastrointestinal foreign bodies) up to the biggest problems imaginable (cancer, life-threatening complications of diabetes, and end-stage kidney disease).
In many instances, diseases that suppress appetite also cause other symptoms. Food poisoning — more frequently referred to as “dietary indiscretion” — and intestinal bugs usually cause diarrhea or vomiting. Kidney disease may cause increased thirst and lethargy. Liver disease may cause lethargy, vomiting, or jaundice. Inflammatory bowel disease and foreign bodies may cause vomiting or diarrhea.
However, every one of these problems, as well as several others, may manifest with poor appetite as the only symptom. I am sorry to say that cancer is especially notorious for this — and unfortunately cancer is not uncommon in 15-year-old cats.
Any cat who goes off her food should see a vet. A thorough physical exam may reveal subtle weight loss that was not noticeable at home. The exam, combined with blood and urine tests and diagnostic imaging (X-rays or ultrasound) can usually get to the bottom of the problem.
Finally, be aware that cats with poor appetites often also do not consume sufficient water. The risk of dehydration is yet another reason to get to the vet quickly when a cat stops eating.
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