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Why Won’t My Senior Cat Eat? 6 Vet-Reviewed Ways to Help

Written by: Emma Stenhouse

Last Updated on June 20, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team


Why Won’t My Senior Cat Eat? 6 Vet-Reviewed Ways to Help


Dr. Paola Cuevas Photo


Dr. Paola Cuevas

MVZ (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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If your cat reaches their golden years, their appetite can decrease. This can happen for a few reasons, but cats will need intervention and care from their owners to feel well again. If your old cat is not eating their food, here are our recommendations to get them eating again.

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The 6 Ways to Help Your Senior Cat Who Won’t Eat

1. Take your old cat to the vet as a matter of urgency

The first thing that you should do if your elderly cat isn’t eating as much is to book them for a check-up with your vet as soon as possible. Pain can cause your cat’s appetite to drop, so it’s important to rule out any possible issues causing your cat’s pain.

Dental problems and gum disease can be common in older cats, and they are frequently accompanied by a lack of appetite. Infections, pancreatitis, cancer, and intestinal problems are all issues that your vet will rule out as they examine your cat.

Call your vet as soon as you notice that your old cat is not eating their food. Don’t wait longer than 12 hours before seeking medical advice. The longer you wait, the higher the chances that your cat will develop serious dehydration or medical issues.

sick cat lying on blanket
Image credit: one photo, Shutterstock

2. Rule out feline upper respiratory infection

Feline upper respiratory infections (URI) are usually caused by the feline herpesvirus type-1 or the bacteria Chlamydophila felis (C. felis) and Bordetella bronchiseptica (B. bronchiseptica). Feline URI can affect your cat’s sense of smell, which can, in turn, lead to a decreased appetite.

Signs include:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Sneezing
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Lethargy
  • Fever
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Squinting of the eyes
  • Enlarged lymph nodes

Once diagnosed, cats with feline URI can usually be treated at home, but your vet will advise which medications you need to administer. If your cat is severely dehydrated, they may need to stay at a vet hospital for IV fluid replacements.

3. Consider changes to your cat’s environment

Stress and anxiety can cause your elderly cat to stop eating as much as normal. If there have been any recent changes in your cat’s environment, they may feel anxious. Moving to a new house, bringing a new baby or pet home, or more house visitors than normal can all trigger anxiety. Your cat may show the following signs:

  • Hiding
  • Trembling
  • Increased respiration
  • Destructive behaviors
  • Increased vocalization
  • Aggression
  • Lethargy
  • Following you
  • Not using the litter box
  • Changes in their mood
  • Decreased appetite

Speak to your vet if you’re concerned that your cat’s lack of appetite is linked to anxiety or stress. They can prescribe anti-anxiety medication or recommend feline pheromones, which can help your cat feel more secure and calm.

senior calico cat on kitchen towels
Image Credit: Kristi Blokhin, Shutterstock

4. Try warming your cat’s food

If your vet has checked over your cat and ruled out illnesses, pain, or anxiety, you can move on to encourage your cat to eat by adjusting a few things about their food. Sometimes, warming your cat’s food to around body temperature can tempt them to eat.

If your cat eats dry food, try dampening it with lukewarm water or a simple chicken broth without salt or seasonings. If they prefer wet food, you can place it in a water bath to gently heat it through. We don’t recommend heating in a microwave since it can leave hot spots that could be dangerous for your cat.

As cats age, their sense of smell and taste begins to decrease. Warming your cat’s food can make it smell stronger and potentially encourage your cat to try it.

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5. Offer your cat a tempting wet food or broth

If your elderly cat is turning up their nose at their dry food, you may be able to tempt them to eat a palatable wet food or broth. Choosing a wet food that combines chunks of meat and gravy is a good idea, as your cat may lick the gravy and then be tempted to eat the chunks of meat.

The advantage of broths is that they help your cat stay hydrated, but choosing a nutritious one is always a good idea.

tabby cat licking a man's hand
Image Credit: congerdesign, Pixabay

6. Offer a lickable cat treat

Lickable cat treats can encourage a fussy elderly cat to eat something. You can squeeze them out of the tube for your cat to lick or place the contents in a bowl. Bear in mind that the treats are not designed to provide long-term nutrition for your cat, so this should only be a short-term solution while you’re waiting for a vet appointment.

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Why Not Eating is Dangerous for Cats

As soon as your cat stops eating, they need to use their fat reserves to create the energy needed for everyday activities. For the fat to be used by their bodies, it has to be processed by the liver. However, all the fat that is mobilized out of the body’s reserves and broken down rapidly to supply a cat’s energy needs ends up overwhelming the liver’s ability to process it.

The excess fat is then stored inside the liver, compromising the natural tissue structures and functionality. This life-threatening condition is called hepatic lipidosis, which, if left untreated, can cause liver failure. Obese cats that stop eating are at a greater risk of hepatic lipidosis due to the larger amounts of body fat reserves stored in them.

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There are a few issues that could cause your old cat to stop eating, and they all need investigating as soon as possible. If your elderly cat hasn’t eaten for 12–24 hours, it’s vital to call your vet and ask for advice. Waiting longer will increase the risk that your cat develops dehydration or medical complications.

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Featured Image Credit: shymar27, Shutterstock

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