It’s mealtime, and you present your cat with their regular food — something they’ve eaten and loved for months or maybe years. But this time, they turn up their nose and walk away from it. What happened? You have no idea.
At some point in their lives, every cat goes off their food, at least temporarily. Even I’ve shunned food that was a longtime favorite. People with finicky cats have spent countless dollars and hours trying to figure out what to do to encourage them to eat.
There are a lot of different reasons your cat won’t eat their food, and there are almost as many ways to solve this. I’ll try to address as many of these as I can so you don’t have to go jumping all over the internet to find a solution.
First, Rule Out Medical Issues
One of the first clues that a cat is feeling unwell is loss of appetite. So if your cat stops eating, it’s important to assess any possible health problems.
Clues your cat isn’t eating because of illness
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, which could indicate gastrointestinal problems.
- Other kinds of unusual litter box output could indicate any number of diseases that might cause a cat to lose their appetite.
- Avoiding dry food, or only licking the gravy of chunky food, which could mean dental pain. This is a very common problem, although it often takes the cat’s human by surprise.
- A runny nose, sneezing, or other indications of nasal congestion or respiratory illness. A cat’s appetite relies heavily on their sense of smell, and when their nose isn’t functioning well, it has a big impact on their eating.
- Your cat is behaving differently than normal in general. They seem depressed, are sleeping more, or spend a lot of time huddled up. Or you just sense something is going on with them.
If you even suspect your cat might be ill, take them to the veterinarian right away. Cats will hide it when they’re unwell. It’s bad enough if they are sick, but not eating and being sick could be very serious.
It’s dangerous for a cat not to eat
Because of a cat’s physiological makeup, not eating for even a few days could cause problems. It could even lead to a potentially fatal illness called hepatic lipidosis. So if your cat stops eating any thing for more than a day or two, or if they are eating so little that they are losing weight, bring them into the vet as soon as you possibly can.
If your cat is already sick, and stops eating
When your cat is suffering from a chronic illness like kidney disease, pancreatitis, arthritis, or cancer (just to name a few), it’s very common for them to lose their appetite. So it’s important to discuss this with your vet, and have a treatment plan set in motion. If your cat stops eating, your vet will have ways to help that might involve appetite stimulants, prescription changes, or medical intervention. Keep close tabs with your vet to keep your cat comfortable and eating enough.
What if Your Perfectly Healthy Cat Doesn’t Like Their Food?
Even if you don’t think your cat is sick, remember — cats do an amazing job of hiding illnesses until they’re really sick. So do keep an eye on them, just in case. But if you suspect your cat is just being finicky, here are some reasons they may not want what you’re giving them.
They are suffering from a temporarily upset tummy
If your cat doesn’t eat their dinner, and a while later, throws up a hairball, you likely have your answer right there. But don’t clean up the mess and leave it at that. Consider this a reminder to be more mindful about brushing your cat more often. Even shorthaired cats need regular grooming. If they throw up hairballs on a regular basis, that’s not normal, and should be discussed with your vet.
If they throw up and it’s not a hairball, it’s possible they’ve eaten something that didn’t agree with them. Try to figure out what’s around the house that they might have gotten into, to make sure it wasn’t something dangerous. Do keep an eye on your cat to make sure they are okay, and whisk them off to the vet if they seem even a little ill.
Cats get into a lot of different things. One of my human’s parents’ cats got into the sewing, and that was a pretty scary situation! But he got through it and lived for many years afterwards.
Their food doesn’t taste the same
Even if your cat normally loves their regular food, things change. Maybe the brand “improved” the recipe. It could be a bad batch of this food. If it’s frozen food that you’ve defrost at home, maybe you got it from a store that let the bag get freezer burn. (Incidentally, that has happened to me.)
Hey, it happens to humans too. Haven’t you ever brought home your favorite ice cream, only to open it and discover it melted and was refrozen and now it tastes kind of icky? The difference between humans and cats is that while you know it was just a bad carton, your cat may be put off this brand of food for a long time, or even permanently. If that’s the case, you will just have to find something different for your cat’s dinner.
Their food does taste the same, and they’re bored
Cats love routine. I say that a lot! But some cats can get fed up with eating the same food every day without end. Finally, they rebel, and you have to figure out something else. Don’t worry, I’ll have suggestions below!
Meals at the same time every day, served in the same way, maybe with a fun ritual — good. Same food every day — not good. Cats should have a variety of proteins served to them, in a variety of different textures. It’s better for their health, better for their palate, and keeps them from latching onto one type of food and ignoring everything else…until they don’t want it anymore.
The weather’s too hot!
Sometimes cats (and people) don’t have as much of an appetite during hot weather and they eat less. In that case, consider serving smaller, more frequent meals until things cool down.
Did you refrigerate the food? Or has it been sitting out too long?
Food temperature is important to cats. And refrigerating food can make it less palatable, even after warming it up a bit. It doesn’t taste the same (and admit it, the same goes for human foods!). And that’s enough to make a cat turn up their nose at it.
Conversely, if food has been left out for too long, a cat may also shun it. Since I eat frozen food that has been defrosted for one of my meals, my human has to be careful about how much she defrosts it. If it’s too defrosted, sometimes I won’t want it.
Your cat is getting older
As cats become seniors — around 11 to 14 years of age — their sense of taste and smell may decline. Their stomachs may become more sensitive. (All this goes for humans too – you older humans may notice you can’t handle spicy food or alcohol the same way you used to.) This may turn them into picky eaters.
Your cat is stressed out
Yes, cats can lose their appetite because of stress. If there has been a change in your household – someone moving in or leaving, a new home altogether, new pets, renovations, etc. — your cat may stop eating. If it really seems to be causing them distress, talk to your veterinarian for some solutions.
So What Can You Do to Get Your Cat to Eat?
Here are some ways to encourage your fussy cat to eat:
Put them on a strict feeding schedule
Don’t free feed. Set specific times for meals, put the food down, and remove it a half hour later. This may seem counterintuitive because you are giving them fewer opportunities to eat, but regulating their mealtimes actually helps a lot. It also keeps the food from spoiling and becoming unappetizing (the smell of food gone bad may be putting off your cat’s appetite).
Warm up their food
Sometimes a cat needs their food to be a little more fragrant. Smell is a big part of taste, and it’s even more important for cats than people. Zapping the food for a few seconds in the microwave can help. Just make sure it’s only a few seconds and the food hasn’t become hot enough to risk burning their mouth.
Add some tasty toppers
Cat food manufacturers make lots of different toppers these days, and sprinkling or squeezing some onto your cat’s food may encourage them to eat. You can also use all-meat baby food for this too.
Check your cat’s food dish
It’s possible that your cat’s food dish is making it hard for them to enjoy their meals. Cats can have whisker fatigue, when the sides of the dish are too high and they have to pull in their whiskers to eat. Food dishes that are flat on the floor may also be uncomfortable, especially for older cats. Or they may not like something else about the dish. In any case, the ideal cat food dish would be a flattened round dish shape on an elevated surface. An elevated dish like this cute bowl (it’s an Amazon affiliate link) is ideal for most cats.
Be mindful of when and where you are feeding your cat
Are your cat’s mealtimes in an area of the house that’s totally chaotic? Is their litter box or water dish very close by? Do they have to deal with other hungry feline (or canine) family members horning in on their food? Any and all of these could make mealtimes less than pleasant for your cat. Give them the space to be able to enjoy their food without disruption, and away from their toilet.
Have you been putting meds in their food?
Yes, it’s hard to get meds down your cat, but please don’t put it in their food. They’ll most likely know it’s there, and it might turn them off their food completely. If giving your cats meds in food is the most effective way to dose them, use something like squeezable treats, or whatever else appeals to them. Just not what you feed them regularly.
Cut down on the treats
Are you giving your cat treats all throughout the day? Then no wonder they aren’t hungry at dinner! Set limits on the times of day you give them treats, and the amount of treats you give them.
Rotate the types of food you give your cat
If you’ve been feeding your cat the same thing day in and day out, and they’ve become bored, gradually start introducing new and different foods into the mix. Just don’t latch onto something permanently, thinking it’s the solution. In reality, the solution may be different foods, given in rotation.
I hope these have helped! Have you had a finicky eater? And if so, how did you solve it? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Here are more posts about cat behavior you may want to check out:
- Signs of Stress in a Cat (and What to Do About It)
- Are Cats Low Maintenance? The Truth
- How Much Does Your Cat Like Their Food, Really? Here Are the Signs