Help my cat won’t eat!

If your cat is fussy and you need to feed a different diet, you may have encountered how much your cat dislikes change.

Many of us find it incredibly distressing when our cats won’t eat. Whether that be because your cat is a little unwell or needs a diet change, trying to encourage eating can be difficult. Many cats who develop kidney problems, diabetes or have food allergies may also need to eat a new diet. Introducing this new diet can mean you need to be a little bit sneaky. This can be compounded if your cat is also feeling a little poorly, particularly if you have a cat with kidney troubles.

If your cat is not feeling well, please visit your vet and get some specific advice and medical treatment. Many cats who are feeling unwell will develop food aversions and are then even more difficult to temp to eat even with home made cat food recipes. This article is not a substitute for proper medical attention if your cat is feeling poorly. If your vet has done everything they can and you are now left with a recovering cat who does not exactly have a ravenous appetite, hopefully we can give you a few hints.

Why is my cat not eating?

Hopefully you have already visited your vet to get assistance with the medical reasons for not wanting to eat (mouth pain, nausea, viruses and gastrointestinal issues). Cats are creatures of habit and in an evolutionary sense they had no need to be experimental and adventurous with their foods, unlike our scavenging friends, the dogs. For cats, variety is not the spice of life. They would be perfectly happy eating that same old mouse every single day, they have no need for change. Some other basic principles to keep in mind when changing their food:

  • Cats who have a blocked nose will often refuse to eat because they can’t smell their food. Heating the food to body temperature can make it smell nicer.
  • Cats basically develop dietary preferences by 7 weeks of age, after their mum taught them what is food, and what is safe to eat. This is why changing foods in an adult cat is problematic.
  • Cats will develop a preference for texture and appearance, so trying to make the new food look and feel like the old food can help the transition. For example if you want to introduce raw chicken necks, first cut them up into biscuit-sized pieces and sprinkle them with some crushed biscuit ‘seasoning’, then gradually leave the pieces bigger and bigger over time.
  • Food aversions can also develop to something your cat has been eating if your cat was feeling a little sick last time the food was presented. Many ladies who have suffered morning sickness have experienced the same phenomenon, or perhaps this is the reason you can’t face Malibu and lemonade anymore!

Signs of nausea

A cat that is feeling nauseous will often lick his lips, salivate a lot or go over to the food bowl and walk away after having a sniff. Your vet may be able to help with medications for nausea and there are also appetite stimulants that can help while your pet is recovering. If a cat has developed a food aversion, trialling different foods can help. Usually it will take 2-4 weeks for your cat to be able to tolerate that food again. Ask your vet if there are different types of the food you can try, or what home-cooked diets are suitable.

Do the change gradually

Unless advised by your vet, all diet changes should be gradual, over at least 7 days. Your pet has enzymes and bacteria that have adapted to digest that old food, so a sudden diet change will cause diarrhoea and sometimes vomiting. During the first 3 days, add in 25% of the total volume, as the new food. The next two days, 50% should be the new food. On days 6-7, 75% of the total volume should be the new diet.

Utilise smell

Cats are very sensitive to smell. They will often refuse to eat a new food until it is warmed to body temperature, instinctively they like to eat things ‘freshly killed’ and warm. Try microwaving the food until it is slightly warm, just watch for that hot spot in the middle and never feed cooked bones.

Changing from dry to wet food

If you have a cat with urinary issues or diabetes your cat may be best eating a higher protein food or wet food. Many cats love dry biscuits, so transitioning them to wet food can result in a hunger strike. Follow the above advice with the gradual transition and start mixing your cat’s biscuits in with just a small amount of wet food. Adding some crushed up biscuits sprinkled on top can also help. You could start off with quite a lot of the extra ‘seasoning’, gradually reducing the amount over time.

The other option is to just wet down your cat’s biscuits, adding more and more water each day. Add some warm water to the biscuits and let them sit for around 20 minutes.

Encouraging your cat to eat raw meat or bones

If your vet has advised you to start feeding your cat raw meat and bones for dental health, there are a few clever tricks that can encourage trying something new. Cats are often reluctant to eat meat that is cold and straight out of the fridge, so allow it to reach room temperature first. You can also sear the meat in a very hot pan, making sure just to put it on the heat for a few seconds, so the bone is still raw.

For an extra-sneaky tip, try cutting up the meat and bones into tiny pieces, crush up some dry food or mix it with some wet food. Aim to make it look as similar to your cat’s previous food as possible and mix the old and new foods together, gradually reducing the amount of the previous food over time.

Additional sneaky tips for fussy eaters:

  • Some cats will eat if you pat them near their food bowl. Some nice long strokes from head to tail while near the food can in many cases stimulate their appetite.
  • Encourage your cat to play, then present some nice fresh food just afterwards. A bit of exercise can stimulate appetite.
  • Sometimes putting some food on your finger and allowing your cat to lick it off will get them started on the road to eating.
  • Ask your vet what your cat is allowed to eat, and if BBQ chicken is suitable, perhaps try some BBQ chicken without the skin. This has a lovely fragrance and will tempt many fussy cats.
  • Adding a probiotic to your cat’s food can improve palatability and also overall gut health and digestion. Ask your vet if this would be suitable for your cat.
  • Add some salt reduced (onion-free) stock to your cat’s food as a flavouring. Cats actually aren’t sensitive to salt like we are, but that meaty broth can really add some flavour. You can do a similar thing with a little watered-down vegemite.