Why My Cat Won't Eat and What To Do About It: Interview with Veterinarian Dr Jessica Vogelsang
Anyone who’s owned a cat knows felines have a special way about them. They do things their way and on their terms.
It’s something that can be seen in their eating habits—or not eating, as the case may be. Most cat owners have most likely experienced a cat not wanting to eat at one time or another.
Though the reasons can stem from just a cat being a cat to a medical problem, it’s an issue that should be addressed.
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, an author, speaker, and practicing veterinarian at Paws into Grace, a pet hospice program in San Diego, California, has some helpful advice:
The Honest Kitchen: What are the various reasons why a cat wouldn’t want to eat?
Jessica Vogelsang: There are many reasons a cat might refuse her food. Sometimes it's a matter of the food itself—she doesn't care for what you put out, or it's got a different texture than what she is used to, the temperature is off, or maybe there is a dog standing between her and her bowl and she doesn't want to go over there. Other times it has nothing to do with the food but reflects a medical condition—something is decreasing her appetite and causing her nausea.
THK: Why are cats so finicky when it comes to food—as opposed to dogs? Is it tied to some kind of feline behavior in the wild?
JV: Dogs are evolved as opportunistic scavengers: They started to become domesticated back in the prehistoric days eating whatever they could beg off the humans sitting around the campfire. They take what they can get, when they can get it. Cats, on the other hand, are a bit more predatory in their preferences. They aren't big into scavenging, so they prefer to go after what they want, when they want it.
THK: What are specific illnesses that would cause a cat to refuse food and why?
JV: Some of the most common diseases we see in felines that affect their appetite are kidney disease, certain types of cancer, and diseases that affect the GI tract like pancreatitis or liver disease. There are a lot of different reasons these affect appetite, ranging from nausea to pain to increased toxins in the bloodstream, so it's important for the vet to isolate the problem when a cat loses her appetite.
Recommended Reading: Pica in Cats: What It Is, Common Causes, Tips for Treating It
THK: How can colds affect appetite?
JV: The sense of smell and taste are very intertwined. When the sinuses are congested due to infection or masses, it makes food have no taste. If a cat can't taste her food, she's probably going to be a lot less interested in it.
THK: Would food allergies ever cause a cat not to eat?
JV: In cats, food allergies usually manifest in the skin, so it's not likely they would decrease her appetite. A food intolerance, which is different than a true allergy, might cause GI signs, but generally speaking, allergies are not often seen as a big cause of inappetence.
THK: Are there behavioral issues that would cause a cat not to eat?
JV: Sometimes if a cat starts to associate a certain food with a noxious experience, she may develop an aversion to that particular food and not want to eat. Other times if she stressed because another animal in the house is guarding the food area, she might not eat.
THK: I understand that a cat not eating is more of an emergency than if a dog doesn’t eat right away. Please elaborate.
JV: If a cat stops eating suddenly, particularly if the cat is overweight to begin with, owners should be concerned because that cat is at risk for developing a condition called hepatic lipidosis.
THK: What should a pet owner do if dealing with a finicky cat, a sick cat or a cat with behavioral issues that doesn’t want to eat?
JV: The answer to all of is to call the veterinarian. Because cats are not often forthcoming with their symptoms, owners may often miss some of the more subtle cues of medical conditions, which are still the most common cause of a cat who doesn't want to eat. The earlier these medical issues are addressed, the better the outcome. Once a cat has been given the medical all-clear, then you can start to evaluate the environment and the foods. With finicky cats, sometimes they are objecting to dry food that has become rancid: Buy smaller portions at a time. Wet food, which many vets are now recommending for all cats, doesn't have that problem of going stale over time but it can take a long time to get a cat to adjust to the different texture, temperature, and moisture content.
THK: What are some tips for pet owners to help encourage a cat to eat?
JV: Warming the food can help amplify the smell. Some owners sprinkle food with small amounts of tuna juice or meat-based baby food. Keep food as fresh as possible. Make sure dishes are cleaned daily. Try different foods and vary texture and temperature. Be very gradual when changing foods.
THK:If a cat doesn’t eat or drink because of illness, do you suggest IV or subcutaneous fluids? The subcutaneous fluids can be done at home, correct?
JV: Owners should only consider administering fluids under the guidance of their veterinarian. Many owners successfully administer subcutaneous fluids at home for their cats, but it requires the right equipment and training to make sure you do it safely.
THK: Why do cats scratch at the area around their food bowl while not eating it or when done eating?
JV: It could be a variety of things, from a happy kneading to an attempt to mark their space using the scent glands in their paws.
THK: Why do cats present such a challenge when it comes to food?
JV: Cats are delightfully enigmatic in all things. Some will scarf down anything and others are much, much, much more particular. It's one of the reasons we love them.
There are many reasons why a cat may not want to eat. Because they can be a little more sensitive than dogs, it’s important to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible.
Jessica Peralta has been a journalist for more than 15 years and an animal lover all her life. She has had dogs, cats, birds, turtles, fish, frogs, and rabbits. Her current children are a German shepherd named Guinness and a black kitten named Riot (and he lives up to that name). It’s because of her love for animals that she focused her journalistic career to the world of holistic animal care and pet nutrition. In between keeping Riot and Guinness out of mischief, she’s constantly learning about all the ways she can make them healthier and happier.