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What to Do When Your Cat Won't Eat

Updated on September 3, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

With 30 years in the pet supply industry, Bob's newspaper column deals with animal health, nutrition, behavior, regulation, and advocacy.


Declining Their Food Can Have Lethal Consequences

In humans, anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by unhealthy, intentional weight loss and often by an abnormal fear of weight gain. Anorexics don’t eat enough food to maintain good health.

In cats, it’s a totally different situation. First of all, feline anorexia is not an eating disorder or even a disease unto itself. It’s a symptom. Something is making the cat avoid food and it takes a lot of detective work by a vet to get to the bottom of it.

The problem is there isn’t a lot of time. An adult cat can suffer serious consequences if they go without food for more than 24 hours. For a kitten that’s less than six weeks old, 12 hours without food can be fatal.

When a cat goes without food, an army of fat cells is sent to the liver to be turned into energy. The problem is, a cat’s liver isn’t very efficient at processing fat, which results in a life threatening fat build-up called feline hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease, which can cause liver failure and death.


The causes of feline anorexia can be either psychological or physical, and while the vet tries to sort things out, given that the cat can’t offer any verbal clues, life saving measures need to be taken.

Options include force-feeding, syringe-feeding, tube-feeding, and/or the use of drugs that stimulate the appetite. Force feeding usually ends up in a wrestling match. The result is a cat that doesn’t trust you or that resists food even more. You’ll probably agree that one of the other options is better.


Where does one begin? The psychological causes can be as obvious as a new food that the cat doesn’t like, or as subtle as new furnishings that look and smell like she’s someplace else. There are many emotional events that could cause a cat to go off diet.

And it’s the same situation with physical causes. It could be one of a number of things. Does she have infected gums that cause pain when she eats? Does an upper respiratory infection impact her ability to smell her food and therefore cause her to refuse it? Is she suffering a digestive problem that claims her appetite, or is there some other viral or bacterial infection going on? Obese cats, for reasons not yet understood, seem to be prone to the condition.

At the first sign of your cat refusing food and the reason isn’t obvious, check in with your vet. They’ll offer suggestions to get your cat to eat. If the cat resists, you’ll probably have to bring her in.

The veterinarian will complete a detailed history and conduct a thorough physical exam, usually including lab and X-Ray, to seek out the cause. Until the cause is found and the condition is corrected, you’ll have to do whatever it takes to get nourishment into the cat.

The prognosis is inconsistent simply because there are too many variables involved. The simple lesson from this article should be: if your cat refuses food and you can’t determine the reason, call your vet and make them aware of the situation. They’ll take it from there.


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    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi annstaub, sorry for the delay in replying to your comment. I think this is the third time. I was reviewing my hubs and saw that at the bottom of your comment, the tabs said "Not Spam" and "Delete forever." I clicked on the "Not Spam" tab and it changed to "Approved" but I think it did that twice before.

      You're right...cats, in fact all animals, are good at hiding their illnesses. Even domesticated animals do it. In the animal world, if you're sick or injured, you're subject to predation or domination, so it behooves them to act as normal as possible. Sometimes when the animals finally display symptoms it's either too late to help or it has become very complicated. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Kathy, nice to see you again. I think there are a lot of people who aren't aware of the dangers involved if a cat goes off its diet for some reason. Dogs can do it without consequences so many probably assume it's the same for cats. Thanks for stopping by. Regards, Bob

    • KathyH profile image

      KathyH 5 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      Excellent information, I didn't even know this existed, our two cats eat plenty, but I never really thought about what if they suddenly stop eating! Thanks for sharing, I learned a lot! :)

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Patty, thanks for reminding me that obese cats are more susceptible to the condition. I'll edit the hub to reflect that fact. Wouldn't it be so much easier if we could just ask our cats why they're not eating!? Thanks for commenting. Regards, Bob

      Hi Christine, that is a common refrain, isn't it? In the case of dogs, it's not such a big deal, but with cats it is, and a lot of owners probably don't realize it. Thanks for stopping by, commenting and voting. Regards, Bob

    • Christine Miranda profile image

      Christine Miranda 5 years ago from My office.

      Great hub Bob. Most people think "When it's hungry it'll eat!" But that is just not the case with cats. Thank you for taking the time to make more people aware of this danger. Voted up & more.

    • Pages-By-Patty profile image

      Pages-By-Patty 5 years ago from Midwest

      Yay! Thanks so much for highlighting this disease. It's such a mystery. In Elliott's case, there was NOTHING that prompted this behavior---medically or environmentally. And my vet told me that obese orange tabbies are more prone to it...for whatever reason.

      I force fed him with a syringe. I rearranged my work schedule so that he had feedings every 3 hours. After 9 weeks, he finally took his first bite...yep, there's no time limit on it! One day they just decide to eat again. So, hang in there if you have a cat with anorexia and fatty can be overcome and Elliott is living proof!