What to Do When Your Cat Won’t Eat

A fluffy black cat looking up from her food bowl.
It is important to figure out whether to use wet or dry cat food for your cat. Photography ©earth2015 | Thinkstock.

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?

This piece was originally published on March 1, 2018.

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 ardenmoore.com 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.

Read more about cat food and how to feed cats on Catster.com:

34 thoughts on “What to Do When Your Cat Won’t Eat”

  1. Hi plz reply me as soon as possible.
    My cat doesn’t take food and going to be ill.
    And she is 100 percent vegetarian and had never taken any non-veg or flesh in her mouth.Her mother was expired 1 month ago.She is of 4 months old now…
    Plz help me what to do now???????????????????????????????????????????????????????

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  7. Just four days ago my cat completely stopped eating and drinking. She also threw up multiple times. The best she has done is barely sort of try to eat a teeny bit of canned tuna, but it was like she couldn’t get it in her mouth and she quickly ran away. She also rolled around on cat nip and inhaled/ate a little bit of it. But then threw up 7-8 hours later. I brought her to the regular vet twice and they found nothing wrong with her on exam, Xrays or a blood and urine test. Last night she threw up again and is clearly not herself. I brought her to an animal hospital and they redid bloodwork and did a sonogram and rechecked her mouth and body and still came up with nothing. The only thing that the doctor said seems odd for a de-hydrated cat is that her urine is watery, which is a kidney issue indicator – but nothing on the blood test, xrays nor sonogram reveal kidney problems. She is staying overnight there so they can give her fluids, meds, and monitor her.
    While it seems good they haven’t found anything “wrong,” it is very scary and frustrating that she is clearly not well! p.s. she isn’t even 4 years old yet! I am at a panicked loss.

    1. Same here. About a week ago, our cat stopped eating. Before that, he was not peeing and pooping regularly. He actually went over 24 hours without a poop. We took him to the vet, of course. He was dehydrated and his urine was very concentrated. We thought we were losing him, but his tests and x-rays showed nothing that we were fearing. He was “fine”…..?

      After getting some fluids at the vet, and an appetite stimulant o=applied yo his ears, he seemed to rebound a little. But he is once again not eating. He seems to want to, but he walks away after sniffing it. He ate a little bit this evening—some broth that comes in packets. But that was it.

      Our cat has always had issues from day one. Ear, nose and throat issues mainly. We had his teeth removed about a year ago (save for his two lower K9’s), as he had severe stomatitis—which he still has. This is all we can come up with—that it’s become painful for him to eat. Either that, or he’s losing his sense of smell. We’re taking him back to the vet tomorrow morning. Not sure what else we can do.

      He’s only not-quite 8 years old. We’ve always known he was not a “healthy” cat, and that he’d most likely not have as long a life as cats typically do. But I am not ready for that (when are we ever?)—not over something that’s more symptomatic than an actual lethal disease.

  8. My kitty is 14 and is diabetic with early Kidney disease. She has decided she no longer likes Pate. Would rather bury it than eat it no matter what the brand. The only thing she will touch right now is Whiskas cuts in Gravy but she basically just eats the broth and few morsels. She is also on a bit of Purina D/M dry.
    Any suggestions on what to feed her to get her eating more protein? So many types minced, cubed, flaked and on it goes. thought about giving her some of the Pure bite food toppers along with a better quality broth/gravy type canned food.

  9. my cat has not been eating reguler he only eats little this has been going on for two weeks and the other day he went into a siezer. he is 13 years old what can i do to help my cat i cant afford to take him to a vet.

    1. Hi there Adam,

      Thanks for reaching out and we are sorry to hear this is happening to your cat. Here is another article that talks about what to do when your cat won’t eat:

      Cat Not Eating? 8 Things to Try When Your Cat Won’t Eat

      If this behavior continues, we suggest contacting a vet. Here are some articles that will help you find affordable vet care:

      9 Ways to Find Affordable Vet Care for Your Cat

      Need Help with Vet Bills? How to Get Help With Your Cats’ Vet Bills

  10. Please help. My two 10-yo kitties are healthy, eat Iams dry food very well and drink lots of water, as evidenced by a wet wet litter box. I started as a treat sharing a can of canned food occasionally, but now they cry and won’t eat the dry food. I tried adding the wet food on top of the dry, then they just gobbled so fast and threw it up unchewed. So I tried separate bowls which didn’t work. Now I’m feeding them 2 cans daily because they whine constantly when I enter the kitchen, and they never touch the dry food anymore.
    Any ideas? I’d rather Keep the mix of dry/wet.
    If I have to change… What are the quality wet options?

    1. Hi there Steve,

      Thanks for reaching out! Here is an additional article about what to do when your cat won’t eat:

      Cat Not Eating? 8 Things to Try When Your Cat Won’t Eat

      Here are some articles you might find helpful on wet and dry food:


      Ask a Vet: Would You Recommend Wet Food or Dry Food for Cats?

      Myth Buster: Canned vs. Dry Food

      If your kittens continue to refuse food, we suggest contacting your vet for advice and make sure there is no underlying problem.

    2. My cat is refusing the Iams dry food too. I noticed that since they changed the shape she will not touch it at all. It was star shape and now is pebble.
      Maybe they changed the formula as well.

  11. I have dry food as well as wet he likes the gravy food but all he does is lick the gravy so today I’ve change his food to jelly he has had a few mouth fulls but thats it bought a tin of sardines in oil he had a mouthful and that’s it I saw one lady said she use to feed her cat on the work surface so do I only because I have a dog but will try what she did see if it works

  12. Mary-Lou Mayfield

    My 10-year-old cat often has dry, hard movement. I’ve increased his canned food, and he always has fresh water available, and my vet has not been concerned. When the cat stopped eating and started hiding under the sofa, I made an appointment. The day of the appointment, the cat “laid an egg” (had an extra-large, hard movement)! I took him to the vet, anyway, along with the stool. The vet suggested I give the cat very small quantities of a human stool softener. I tried giving him 1/4 tsp. Miralax once a day, and the problem cleared up. Now I only give it to him every other day.

  13. My 2 cats 8, 9 very good eaters, seemed to suddenly be barely eating or drinking much water. They eat wet food primarily, I tried different canned food & treats, with a lot coaxing & babying, slowly improved. That was last week totally back to normal.
    It came on suddenly & they recovered quickly.

  14. I entered this story before, but it doesn’t seen to have registered. If you find it twice, my apologies…

    Honeycat lost her appetite. Her vet thought it might be because she needed dental work, so I had that done. She continued eating less and less. Over the next SIX WEEKS, I called her vet every couple of days. First she said Honeycat’s mouth might be a little sore from the dental work, to give it another couple of days. Then she suggested trying alternative foods that might be more appetizing. This went on and on. Finally she said she’d take another look at Honeycat if I wanted to bring her in again. I did. The vet looked at her across the room and said it was cancer of the jaw. She offered to put in a feeding tube, which I agreed to to my regret. It was just to give her a little more time, but Honeycat hated it — she had never complained before, but she clearly was terribly uncomfortable being fed through the tube. I took her to another vet for a second opinion. He too diagnosed the cancer with a glance, but he was able to offer some hope that she could be saved with surgery. He said if the surgery was successful, she would always drool and would look a little odd, but she could still enjoy her life. We went for it. Unfortunately, the cancer turned out to have spread further than it looked like in the X-ray,and Honeycat died without ever coming out of the anesthesia. The second vet said it was a very fast-growing cancer and chances of successful treatment would have been good if a vet had taken a good look at Honeycat’s mouth when her appetite didn’t return to normal within a day or so after her dental work. Never again would I take the word of a vet who continued to dismiss the importance of anorexia without examination. A hard-learned lesson… The haiku below is my sad response:

    Was your vet asleep
    all those weeks your cancer grew?
    You could have been saved.

    1. Mary-Lou Mayfield

      Human dentists are trained to look for symptoms of cancer – I wonder whether vets who perform dentistry on pets are, too?

    2. So sorry for all your pain, Sara. I’ve had a multitude of pets, currently have adopted 6 strays that were abandoned. I have a very low opinion of vets because the majority are incompetent while gouging owners with inflated bills with guesswork prescriptions. I had one severe malpractice case presented to the state board of medical examiners who consistently side with their colleagues. The young cat that I had adopted was shot with a pellet gun in my neighborhood. ER vet prescribed antibiotics for a pellet infection created by fur being pulled into the abdomen by the pellet, which she said cleared all internal structures. Not true as a subsequent vet told me. The spleen/abdomen was loaded with pus and I had to have her put down. Bill for this came to over $2300. I’ve had another incident with another adopted cat that ran about $1500 that I’m currently paying off with CareCredit. I have miniscule trust in vets. Their training is lacking. And they rarely acknowledge they may have made an error.

  15. My beloved cat lost her appetite and her vet thought it might be due to her needing dental work. I had that done and her eating continued to get worse. Her vet said her mouth might be a bit sore from the dental work and to give it a little more time. Then she said to try other foods that might be more appetizing. This kept on and on — I was calling the vet every couple of days and she just kept pooh-poohing the idea that this might indicate a real problem. It was literally six weeks before she finally said I could bring Honeycat in again if I wanted her to take a look at her. Then she looked at her from across the room and said it was cancer of the jaw. She offered to put in a feeding tube just to give her a little more time. I had that done,to my regret –it was just about giving her a little more time, but she really hated being fed through the tube. I took her to another vet who made the same diagnosis just as quickly, but said there was a chance that she could be saved with surgery. He said she’d drool a bit and look odd but if the surgery was successful she could still enjoy her life. We went for it, but it turned out that the cancer had spread further than had been apparent on the X-ray. Honeycat made it through the surgery but never came out of the anesthesia. The moral to this sad story is never to let anorexia go that long without getting a vet to take a serious look. The second vet said it was a very fast-growing cancer and the chance was good that if she had been examined when her appetite didn’t return to normal within a couple of days after the dental work, surgery could have saved her life. This haiku preserves the experience:
    Was your vet asleep
    all those weeks your cancer grew?
    You could have been saved.

  16. To picture a cat in front of a bowl of dry kibble is disturbing. Dry food is a cat parent’s easy way out. Keeping dry food in a container or bag for days destroys any nutrients that dry food might have. Add that cats, as a rule, drink very little water and dry food does nothing to fight potential dehydration. Wet food contains necessary moisture. Feral or wild cats get hydrated from their prey or variable drinking sources together. Dehydration kills. Urinary tract infections, kidney stones, feline idiopathic cystitis, and lower urinary tract disease can all be a result of chronic dehydration in your cat. Add that as carnivores, canned cat food in general contains more meat than kibble diets and cats are obligate carnivores, requiring few, if any, carbohydrates. I’m not saying that canned food is the end all. Mixing dry as a treat is a good option. Leaving around bags of dry food or bowls of dry food is a sure way to lack of necessary nutrients necessary for your cat’s health. I’m sure some will disagree, but it is truth no matter how commercial pet food companies lie to their customers. Also, you can’t see what matter is in dry food making it easy to use anything in its ingredients and commercial pet food companies are not without greed and the need to pump sales.

  17. When I moved I noticed my male cat suddenly stopped eating. His sister ate her food, so I knew it wasn’t bad food. I tried several things (he was living on freeze dried treats and his sister was helping herself to his food) and did some research, got both of them vet checked. The vet said it was probably stress from the move. Finally after two weeks I discovered his problem. All I had to do was move his bowl. He didn’t feel comfortable eating in a high traffic area in the kitchen, even if no one was in there. At our old place his bowl was very private and high up, on top of my desk shelves. His sister’s new eating area is in a quieter place so she adjusted quickly. Once I moved his bowl to a quiet corner in the dining room he started eating just like before.

  18. I had a cat who loved to eat.I noticed she went under the bed and was not coming out.She was black so when I shined a flashlight under the bed I could clearly see her skin was yellow.Diagnosed with fatty liver.I was told of the tube in the neck thing as well as weeks in the hospital which I could not afford.If food would cure her I told the vet I would make it happen.I bought prescription canned food,added a touch of water,drew it into a large people type syringe and would shoot it in her mouth several times a day.I did this for a number of weeks.She recovered and lived on.The vet said she didn’t think it would work and she had never heard of home treatment.It was my only choice for her survival.So happy it worked.

    1. Better than a people syringe is a ‘small animal feeding syringe’ – these are readily available at any feed store/pet supply store.

    2. Amazing! I am so glad that your cat lived. Veterinary care is so important, but extremely expensive. Often, love and care does much.

    3. I am going through the same thing now, so thank you so much for sharing. My almost 18 yr old kitty stopped eating and drinking and is hiding in the closet. Been to the vet who prescribed something for her tummy (previously throwing up and diarrhea). I am trying to prepare myself for the worse, and at the same time, trying to think of everything I can do to help her. I bought a syringe today, and will start feeding her. Thanks again.

    4. How long did it take for your cat to start eating again? My cat has had lip hepdosis for a while but I continue feeding her through a syringe. Threee weeks now with the syringe. The vet is recommending a feeding tube but she’s not lethargic she is walking around and sometimes plays so I didn’t see that as an option right now. What should I do?

  19. The medication, methimazole, used to treat hyperthyroidism in cats, if given in too high of a dose, can cause severe nausea and loss of appetite, depressing the entire system and compromise kidney function. Be very careful if you ever have to give this medication to your cat. Most vets prescribe way too high of a dose. I learned too late and my cat died from the overdose. This medication should never be administered at a dose higher than 1.25 mg twice a day as the beginning dose, until you see how your cat reacts to it.

    1. Janet, that’s why my Vet starts out with blood work, and 1.25 mg 2x day, 2 weeks later more blood work then adjust the dose. My kitty’s dose settled at 2.5 mg 2xday. Now after 4 mos., blood work every 2 weeks have shown his thyroid is normal, bun/crea normal. Now I’m opting for radioactive iodine therapy, because he’s got 4-5 more years to live. Most of my cats live to at least 20.

      Blood work is key to monitor thyroid levels and Bun/Crea levels.

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