Layne is an animal lover who grew up in a household full of rescued critters. She is a registered veterinary technician.
Is a Cat Refusing to Eat Considered an Emergency?
Cats are notorious for being picky eaters—some are social eaters (they won't eat unless you are standing alongside them petting them), and some turn their nose up at even the best of wet foods, dry foods, or treats. While it's not uncommon for pets to turn down food, there are instances upon which a cat not eating is considered an emergency. Find out how to determine when your cat is in need of veterinary treatment. Keep in mind that when it comes to your companion animal's health, only a veterinarian can diagnose, prognose, treat, and prescribe.
Reasons Why Your Cat Is Not Eating
There are numerous reasons why your cat may have lost its appetite and is refusing to eat:
- Stress and Change: A cat that is stressed out either from moving, introduction of a new animal or person into the household, or major changes around them, may lose its appetite and exhibit symptoms of anorexia. The reasons why your cat is stressed out could be numerous, so do some deep thinking. It helps to start by identifying any recent changes. Cats do experience anxiety and depression, so your veterinarian or a behavioral specialist can help you to identify symptoms of these conditions.
- Vaccinations: If your cat recently went to the vet to receive a vaccination or booster, especially rabies, it may not be feeling great. While vaccinating your cat is especially important, it is not uncommon for your feline friend to feel "under the weather" following a vaccination. You should report these symptoms to a veterinarian especially if your cat is showing signs of lethargy, nausea or vomitting, fever, or diarrhea, as this may indicate a vaccine reaction and could require medical treatment.
- Illness: An obvious reason why your cat may not be eating is illness. Illness can include a variety of issues, such as pancreatitis (acute pancreatitis can result from overeating foods that are too rich for cats), digestive issues such as IBS, kidney failure (often with old age or hyperthyroidism, coupled with weight loss), and many types of cancers. Oral issues can cause cats to loose their appetite as well, especially if their teeth hurt. This may require soft food feeding or a dental cleaning and tooth extraction per your veterinarian's directive.
- Pain: Pain and injury can cause a cat to stop eating; this is not uncommon in other companion animal species as well. When a cat is hurt, it may exhibit signs of anorexia and disinterest in food. As mentioned above, dental pain (due to fractured teeth or gum disease) may cause appetite loss, in which case, you will need to see your veterinarian and likely do an oral exam or x-rays to determine how severe the issue is. Cats that have dental issues might benefit from wet food instead.
- Respiratory Issues (Like Feline Herpes): Cats are all about smell and taste, so if your cat has recurring bouts of feline herpes outbreaks or ears, eyes, nose, and throat issues, it's possible that they cannot smell their food and, therefore, they cannot taste it. If they cannot smell their food to stimulate their appetite, they simply will not eat.
- Change in Food: Unlike dogs, cat's won't gobble what's put down in front of them if you change the quality or consistency or taste of their food; they might simply refuse to eat. You are better off sticking to the food types that have worked well for them, especially if they are picky. If they are picky eaters, go for flavorful, healthy wet food with intense smells. Sometimes with cats, the stinkier the food, the better. Try out a couple of different food types to see what they enjoy. Your cat might also be a social eater and require that you sit next to them and pet them as they eat; it's important that you learn how to break this requirement, but it might help to stand with them and pet them to encourage their appetite in the meantime.
- Excessive Food Access (or Lack Thereof): It's possible that if you're free-feeding your cat, they are either eating small increments (and you are missing that they are actually eating little by little), or you have food down too often (it is too accessible), making the food undesirable. Think of basic supply and demand: If the food is out too often and the bowl is too full, they might not be interested in it like they should be. Also, make sure you are replacing the food and keeping it fresh (if you offer dry food). Feeding stale food to your cat and/or keeping a bowl out 24/7 and not refreshing it will likely decrease their appetite.
The Risk of Fatty Liver Syndrome
When a cat loses its appetite, this is generally an indication of acute or chronic illness. When an animal does not have enough food to burn, its body turns to its fat stores for fuel. In order for the liver to process fat, the body must have adequate supplies of protein. If a cat rapidly loses weight due to anorexia, then this puts them at risk of a dangerous condition called hepatic lipidosis, which can lead to liver failure. Hepatic lipidosis is also known as "fatty liver syndrome." Fatty liver syndrome is unique to cats and is very common, especially if the cat is overweight or obese.
Diagnosis of Fatty Liver Syndrome
Blood tests can usually point towards fatty liver syndrome, and in addition, an FNA or fine needle aspirate and biopsy may be performed. A pathologist will be able to review the liver sample and confirm the diagnosis if a large amount of fat is in the liver cells. Sometimes, a veterinary professional may work off of a presumed diagnosis if pursuing a biopsy would be too distressful for a cat that is in an unstable condition.
Treatment of Appetite Loss in Cats
If your cat has been diagnosed with fatty liver disease, your cat will need veterinary care and aggressive nutritional support. Treatment generally lasts for 6 to 7 weeks and involves high nutrition levels and various methods of feeding. In addition to feeding, your cat may be prescribed medications that support liver function by your veterinarian (this can include treatment that helps to balance electrolytes and anti-nausea medication). In addition, IV fluid therapy might help to stabilize your cat as dehydration is likely.
Will My Cat Need to Be Tube Fed?
It's likely that your cat will need to be tube-fed. Feeding tubes are either placed in the esophagus or via a procedure called a gastrostomy. Both nasogastric feeding tubes and gastric feeding tubes allow for cats to be fed a special diet with a syringe roughly 3-5 times a day or as your veterinarian advises, according to VCAhospitals.com. You will likely follow a similar routine as detailed below:
- First, follow your veterinarian's instructions and mix the correct ratio of prescription food with water. See notes about heating and storing food below.
- Remove the feeding tube cap and push the directed amount of CCs (in some instances, a CC is considered interchangeable with mL) through the syringe (x times a day within 24 hours). You will want to elevate your cat's front region to help with the delivery of food and you will also want to push slowly (count out 1 CC per second, according to VCA).
- Follow up by flushing the feeding tube with the recommended amount of water (avoid tap and go for something purified–generally 5-10 CCs as directed); replace the cap thereafter.
- Refrigerate all leftover food and consider warming all prepared food to room temperature. If you microwave the food, use a thermometer and thoroughly stir the heated food to make sure you will not burn your cat.
This method of feeding will generally last for 6-7 weeks. You can continue to offer your cat its favorite regular food a few weeks in, perhaps every other day, every third day, or once a week, to gauge their interest. Eventually, your cat's interest in food should return and you can ween them off the gastric feeding per your veterinarian's directive. Once your cat returns to eating regularly for four days or more consecutively, you will return to your veterinarian for anesthesia-free tube removal. Tube removals cannot be done by pet owners and can only be done safely by a veterinarian or as supervised by a veterinarian.
How to Get Your Cat to Eat
First, you'll want to let your veterinarian know that your cat is exhibiting signs of anorexia and refusing to eat. Next, you'll want to start by offering your cat some palatable food. Wet food usually works best with picky eaters.
What can I feed a sick cat that won't eat?
- Try Stinky Wet Food: If you can find a flavorful and stinky seafood-based wet food, this is a good place to start (as the saying goes, the stinkier the better!).
- Try Baby Food: You can attempt to offer your cat meat-based baby foods such as turkey and chicken, just make sure it is unseasoned (no garlic powder or onion powder!).
- Add Tuna Water: You can dress your cat's food with some stinky flavoring (e.g. tuna water), just make sure to get the unsalted variety. You might also see if they will take to unsalted tuna as a taste (don't overfeed).
- Warm Their Food: Cold food is unpalatable, so either make sure the food is at room temperature or heat it just slightly in the microwave (be sure to stir completely if you heat the food in this manner). Test the temperature of the food on the back of your hand, or better yet, use a thermometer and make sure it's below body temperature (under 98 degrees Fahrenheit to be safe).
- Try Hand-Feeding: You can try to hand-feed your cat. Some senior cats and finicky cats take well to this when they are not feeling great.
- Try an Appetite Stimulant: Appetite stimulants come as gels or in the form of medication (check with your vet), and are discussed further below.
Read More From Pethelpful
What is the best appetite stimulate for cats?
Talk to your vet about offering your cat an appetite stimulant. Common appetite stimulants that can be purchased online or at a store are often in gel form. One common gel appetite stimulant is Tomlyn Nutri-Cal for Cats. It is nutrient-dense and offers omegas 3, 6, and 9. It will help your cat reach its nutritional caloric intake requirement.
Talk to your vet about medications like mirtazapine or Remeron; mirtazapine is used to treat nausea, appetite loss, and vomiting in cats and is prescribed by a veterinarian. Although mirtazapine is commonly used to stimulate appetite in anorectic cats, it should only be given with veterinary approval and supervision.
How long can a cat go without eating?
If your cat has not eaten for 24-36 hours, take them to your vet. A cat cannot survive without water or food beyond 3 to 4 days. In the worst of cases, a cat might be able to survive one to two weeks without eating if water is available, but this is unlikely. If your cat has refused to eat beyond 24 hours, you will want to call your veterinarian; this could indicate an acute illness such as an impaction or ingestion of a foreign object.
When is a cat not eating an emergency?
If your cat has not eaten within 1-1.5 days, take them to your vet, especially if it is overweight or obese, a senior, or a juvenile (or kitten); lack of nutrition can lead to all sorts of issues including dehydration or fatty liver syndrome (in prolonged environments). Kittens and senior cats are especially at risk of major health issues when exhibiting symptoms of anorexia.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Laynie H
Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on December 01, 2020:
Hi Dora, I'm glad you liked the cat facts on eating. They are particular!
Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on December 01, 2020:
Hi Peggy, thanks for reading and understanding how important it is to watch our cats. They are known to hide illness until they are on the brink!
Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on December 01, 2020:
Hi Sangre, I agree. Usually it's the first indication something is wrong. I think fatty liver disease is the extreme, but many early things such as URIs or nausea or vaccine reactions or depression and stress may be indicated by inappetence.
Sp Greaney from Ireland on November 29, 2020:
I think cat owners really need to stay on top of these things. I know most cases won't always lead to fatty liver syndrome but even the thought that it could occur should be enough of a deterrent to get your cat to a veterinarian to investigate the cause.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 29, 2020:
It is always good to be alert when it comes to our pet's habits. Thanks for writing this about cats and possible problems when it comes to their eating or not eating food.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on November 29, 2020:
Thanks for this very helpful article on cats and their eating habits: why and why not, what and what not they may eat. I appreciate the cat photos.
Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on November 29, 2020:
Thanks for reading. Cats definitely exhibit lack of appetite when something is immediately wrong. I'm glad you agree with the points mentioned here. I hope it helps some pet owners.
Liz Westwood from UK on November 29, 2020:
This is an excellent article for cat owners. Lack of appetite was the first sign of serious illness in the cat that we had when I was a child.