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

Credit: shymar27, Shutterstock
Last Updated on November 16, 2023 by Emma Stenhouse

If your old cat is reaching their golden years, their appetite may start to decrease. This can happen for a few different reasons, but any cat will need intervention and care from their cat 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 as usual 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 that are causing your cat pain. Dental problems and gum disease can be common in older cats, and these are frequently accompanied by a lack of appetite. Infections, pancreatitis, cancer, and intestinal problems are all issues that your vet will want to rule out as they examine your cat.

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

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.

Sick cat medicines
Image Credit: one photo, Shutterstock

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 major changes in your cat’s environment recently, they may be feeling 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 tray
  • 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 may prescribe anti-anxiety medication or recommend the use of feline pheromones, which can help your cat feel more secure and calm.

4. Try warming your cat’s food

If your vet has checked over your cat and ruled out illnesses, pain, or anxiety, then you can move on to trying 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 this with lukewarm water or a simple chicken broth made without salt or condiments. If they prefer wet food, you can place this in a water bath to gently heat it through. We don’t recommend heating in a microwave, as this 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.

NomNom Grey Cat Bowl white cat eating

Feeding your cat a high-quality diet is important for keeping them healthy and happy. But it goes beyond the food you choose; the dishes they use also matter. The Hepper NomNom Cat Bowl is our favorite for its unique, five-star design that protects from whisker fatigue and promotes good posture which also aids in better digestion. As an added bonus, it’s beautifully crafted and offers a modern take on the traditional cat bowl that fits seamlessly with all home stylings. Learn more about the NomNom by clicking here.

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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 as well. The advantage of broths is that they help your cat stay hydrated, but it’s always a good idea to choose one with a high level of nutrition as well.

6. Offer a lickable cat treat

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

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

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Why Not Eating is Dangerous for Cats

As soon as your cat stops eating, they need to use their reserves of fat 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. But all the fat that is mobilized out of the body’s reserves and broken down rapidly to supply the energy needs of a cat ends up overwhelming the liver’s ability to process it. The excess fat is then stored inside the liver itself, 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 to suffer hepatic lipidosis due to the bigger amounts of body fat reserves stored in their body.

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There are a few different 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. Leaving it longer than this will increase the risk that your cat develops dehydration or medical complications.

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Featured Image Credit: shymar27, Shutterstock

About the Author

Emma Stenhouse
Emma Stenhouse
Emma is a freelance writer, specializing in writing about pets, outdoor pursuits, and the environment. Originally from the UK, she has lived in Costa Rica and New Zealand before moving to a smallholding in Spain with her husband, their 4-year-old daughter, and their dogs, cats, horses, and poultry. When she's not writing, Emma can be found taking her dogs for walks in the rolling fields around their home...and usually, at least some of the cats come along, too! Emma is passionate about rescuing animals and providing them with a new life after being abandoned or abused. As well as their own four rescue dogs, she also fosters dogs for re-homing, providing them with love and training while searching for their forever homes.

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