Help! My Cat Won’t Eat!

If your cat is fussy, a little sick, elderly or you need to change foods, you may have encountered how much your cat dislikes change.

Helping your cat to like a new food or transition onto a special diet, or perhaps even eat when he may be a little under the weather or unable to smell can be a challenge. Here we share some hints and tips to encourage your cat to eat.

Please note: if your cat is not eating, the most important thing is to visit your vet to work out why your cat is not eating. This article is not a substitute for your veterinarian’s advice.

Why change diet?

There are many reasons you may need to change your cat’s diet. For example you may have a cat with kidney problems, food intolerances or allergies, your cat may be overweight, or your cat may need a better diet for dental care. Whatever the reason, it can be a little traumatic for everyone involved. Cats do not like things to change. For the most part they are happy eating the same old thing every day and will be very stubborn about changes.

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 can cause an upset stomach, diarrhoea and sometimes vomiting. During the first 3 days 25% of the total food should be the new food. For days 4-5, 50% should be the new food, and for days 6-7, 75 % of the food should be the new food.

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 them cooked bones.

Changing from dry to wet food

If you have a cat with urinary issues or diabetes your cat may be best eating higher protein 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.

You can also just add some warm water to the biscuits and let them sit for 5 minutes to soften them a little to get him used to a new texture, but the same taste. Just don’t leave that food out for more than 4 hours and avoid doing this as a long-term solution. Dry foods are prone to forming moulds and adding moisture compounds the problem.

Dry foods are often sprayed with flavour enhancers that make them absolutely delicious, but this does not mean they are healthy. If you have a very stubborn cat, grind up the biscuits into a powder using a mortar and pestle, then sprinkle them onto the new food.

Introducing meat and bones

If your vet has recommended some whole raw rabbit, or raw chicken necks or wings for dental health, your cat may want nothing to do with this new and unfamiliar food. Sometimes some sneakiness is required. Invest in a mincer or a good pair of bone-cutting scissors (used for sectioning chicken carcasses).

Start out by chopping those bones up into very small pieces, then mix them in with your cat’s regular food. Gradually increase the size of the bone pieces over time until your cat is on board with the change.

Using broths, gravies and mixing food

Many cats love a little broth and flavour added to their food, but please check with your vet if this is appropriate for your cat’s situation. For example you can use onion-free, salt reduced stock and mix it in with the new food. To make your own tuna broth, add 3 cups of water to a small can of tuna and mash it up, then freeze it in ice cube trays.

This in particular works well for cats with kidney disease to encourage them to eat a renal diet. Even if your cat is eating a small amount of other food, at least if the majority is the renal food there is still some benefit. Cottage cheese, BBQ chicken, regular canned food or even a few biscuits may be just enough to encourage your pet to eat.

Use touch

Many cats will eat if they are patted or hand-fed. This might be just enough to get them started, so try it and see if a nice long, slow stroke from head to tail helps your pet eat. If your cat is leaning into your pat, chances are they are enjoying it, so continue.

Exercise

Encouraging your cat to play can increase his appetite, so get out that laser pointer or fishing-line toy and encourage your pet to pounce. If your cat walks on a harness, you could even head to the great outdoors for some fresh air. You may also find that if you withdraw food, then encourage some activity, your cat is more keen to experiment.

Syringe feeding

If all else fails, ask your vet about syringe feeding. There are specialised foods that are easy to liquefy, like Hills A/D, and in some cases your vet might recommend human, meat-based baby food for short-term use. Your vet can also place a feeding tube if your cat is not eating.

What if my cat really won’t eat?

Cats really do need to eat regularly. If they go on a hunger strike they are at risk of a condition called hepatic lipidosis, which will make them very sick. If your cat is regularly eating less than 50% of his normal ration or is going more than 24 hours without eating, see your vet.

So while many cats will take months to transition from dry to wet food, a gradual approach will eventually work for even the most reluctant cat. Just be persistent and try the tricks listed above. But if all else fails and you need to do a transition fast, ask your vet about appetite stimulants to encourage eating.