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Getting an Underweight Cat to Eat

Updated on June 19, 2014

What to do when your cat needs to gain weight--but won't eat

I've owned cats for 18 years, and for most of those years weight and diet were not big concerns. My first cat weighed about 11 lbs., the second about 10, and that barely changed from year to year at their vet checkups.

Then they got older. With the first cat, around age 14 he started looking thinner, but his spirits and energy were fine, so we didn't worry much. We stuck to the same food plan he'd been on his whole life: a bowl of decent-quality dry food to graze on whenever he wanted. Then came his checkup. Shockingly, he'd lost 1/3 of his body weight since the previous year's vet visit. "Cats are stoic," said the vet. "They don't complain when they're not feeling well. They'll act like everything is fine." Sure fooled us.

We were much more vigilant with the second cat and took him to the vet right away when, again around 14, he began to thin out. The old dry-on-demand food setup just wasn't working. And in this cat's case, he'd developed a thyroid problem in old age that was sucking weight off him and needed to be addressed.

Below are some tips, based on our 2 experiences with underweight cats, on cat nutrition and getting a skinny cat to eat.

(photo: our gentle little cat Sam at age 17 -- we lost him on New Year's Eve, 2012, at nearly 18 and miss him terribly ... but are grateful for the dietary & other interventions that gave us his last 2 years)

cat vet visit
cat vet visit

1. Take your underweight cat to the vet.

A blood test can rule out underlying health problems, such as the hyperthyroidism our cat Sam is dealing with in his senior years, that can cause weight loss. A simple blood test checks for hyperthyroidism, and if your cat is affected, medication can relieve the problem and is available in oral or topical forms. Hyperthyroidism is a common condition in older cats, but certainly not the only one that can produce weight loss. It's worth checking with the vet, and (learn from my mistake, with our first cat) sooner rather than later.

(photo: quinn.anya via photopin cc)

2. Switch from dry food to wet.

High-quality wet food is one of the best investments you can make in your cat's health, regardless of his/her age and whether there are weight issues. I wish I'd known when they were youngsters what I was forced to learn in the senior cat years: Wet food is better for cats because it contains more meat protein and moisture, both essential for cat health.

Of course, quality is important. Wet or dry, there's a ton of junk on the market that is cheaper in the short-term but, down the road, can contribute to costly health problems.

We've tried numerous wet foods. Here are the two kinds our picky cat will eat.

~~~Weruva Cat Food~~~

A pet store in our area began carrying Weruva at a customer's request. There are several varieties, but our cat's favorite is the "Paw Lickin' Chicken". It is super simple (I shy away from the fancy mixes with kale, blueberries ... cats don't need what we humans do; they're all about meat!) and smells like chicken soup, not cat food. The "gravy" moistens it and makes it irresistible to our picky eater.

Weruva Classic Cat Food, Paw Lickin’ Chicken with Chicken Breast in Gravy, 3oz Can (Pack of 24)
Weruva Classic Cat Food, Paw Lickin’ Chicken with Chicken Breast in Gravy, 3oz Can (Pack of 24)

Because our cat will only eat a small amount per feeding, the 3-oz cans are perfect. If only all cat foods came in smaller sizes like this, to accommodate picky eaters.

 

~~~Newman's Own Cat Food~~~

Like Weruva, Newman's Own comes in 3-oz cans, helpful for smaller feedings. (Sure, you can save a larger can in the fridge, but the food becomes less enticing with each successive feeding from the same can. I think it's a smell thing: Cats need to smell their food to want it, and just-opened food is smellier than food that's been sitting in the fridge.) Newman's is a good-quality food that we used to give as an occasional treat. As nutrition became a priority, we started using it every day.

Newman's Own Premium, Turkey Formula for Cats, 3-Ounce Cans (Pack of 24)
Newman's Own Premium, Turkey Formula for Cats, 3-Ounce Cans (Pack of 24)

Our cat "recommends" the turkey, chicken, and chicken and salmon varieties!

 

~~~Blue Buffalo Wilderness Kitten Food~~~

BLUE Wilderness Kitten Grain-Free Chicken Pate Wet Cat Food 3-oz (pack of 24)
BLUE Wilderness Kitten Grain-Free Chicken Pate Wet Cat Food 3-oz (pack of 24)

We adopted 2 kittens over the summer & have been feeding them this high-quality food as an investment in their long-term health. Discovered it is irresistible to our underweight senior cat. Probably his favorite thing about having new siblings!

 

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cat eating
cat eating

3. Give smaller meals, more frequently.

As I touched on in the food recommendations above, picky-eater or underweight cats will often only eat a bit at a time ... so they may need 3 meals a day or even more, depending on your vet's recommendation.

(photo: br1dotcom via photopin cc)

4. Heat and moisten your cat's food.

Room-temperature food is usually perfect. With food that's been in the fridge, you'll want to heat it up in the microwave to bring it to room temperature. The time this takes will vary, depending on quantity of food and your microwave, but for us it usually takes about 12 seconds.

Besides heating, another trick I learned is to add a little water (depending on the food consistency out of the can, this can take just a couple drops, or a bit more water) and smoosh the food into a sort of thick pudding, to make it super easy to eat and to release the food's smell. May not sound appetizing, but remember, cats love smelly food!

Because of its gravy, the Weruva food doesn't need water or smooshing, but for our cat, the Newman's does if it's been refrigerated.

An option I haven't tried yet but want to is making homemade gravy for cat food with scraps of fish or your cat's favorite meat. If you try this, remember that you're not making stock for humans to consume, so don't add onions, spices or anything else to the very basic recipe provided, as some add-ins can be harmful to cats.

cat drinking water
cat drinking water

5. Make sure your cat is well hydrated.

Hydration improves appetite, as well as overall health. While wet food helps a lot in providing adequate moisture for cats, they also need -- of course -- plenty of fresh water available at all times. If there are kidney problems, as in our cat's case, the vet may even recommend subcutaneous fluid treatments. We do this at home three times a week, but it can also be done in the vet's office.

(photo: seannaber via photopin cc)

~~~Drinkwell Pet Fountain~~~

A fellow cat "parent" at the vet's office told me about the Drinkwell cat fountain and how it improved her cat's health. Judging from the nearly 600 Amazon reviews, she's not alone. Apparently cats prefer running water (as in the photo, above!), and this fountain provides that while keeping them out of the sink. It filters the water, too. A nice option for owners worried their cats may not be drinking enough.

Have you struggled to get your cat to eat? What helped?

Your tips?

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    • Stephanie36 profile image

      Stephanie 3 years ago from Canada

      We had to force feed a couple of our cats when they were really sick. We either mixed wet food with water in a syringe or just forced wet food into them with our fingers. It wasn't pleasant, but it was the only option. Weight loss in cats can also be a sign of cancer, unfortunately, which is a big problem in older cats.

      Apparently strong smelling food, such as sardines, can be good for a cat who won't eat, but I haven't tried that and I don't know what a vet would say about it.

    • verymary profile image
      Author

      Mary 3 years ago from Chicago area

      @xyzzymagic: Thanks for all this good info! I actually moisten our young cats' dry food (they eat wet in the a.m., dry for the p.m.) with very hot water, cover with foil, then in 3 mins. it's ready for them. They don't have an appetite problem, but I figure it's better for their kidneys this way. Hadn't thought of the fish flakes -- good tip. Pepcid and the appetite stim drugs didn't work for our senior cat, but I know they must for some. Totally understand about the Fancy Feast as last resort -- when it gets to the point of possible starvation, one will pretty much feed anything... thanks again!

    • profile image

      xyzzymagic 3 years ago

      You covered most of what I've done in the past with picky or sick cats, but there's a couple of other things vets (or other owners) have told me:

      -- Vets have led me to a few OTC supplements that help by treating problems that might be underdiagnosed but leave the cat uninterested in food:

      * Lysine - boosts immune system (great for chronic coronavirus/upper respiratory issues, which can impair sense of smell) [I use Solgar, 1-3 pills/day]

      * Cosequin For Cats - pain in connective tissue (arthritis, old injuries, etc.) [check instructions, "Cosequin" is the brand itself]

      * Slippery Elm - diarrhea, constipation, GI irritation, irritated bladder from UTI [I use Nature's Garden, 1 cap/day for small cats or prevention, 2 caps/day for a heavier or seriously constipated cat]

      -- Some cats uninterested in any canned/dry food will eat fresh catnip, the paper-thin dried fish flakes, or the dried fish chunks, so I sprinkled whichever they'd touch liberally onto the food.

      -- With some canned food, microwaving didn't work, but carefully mixing the food with hot water did.

      -- Smelliest high-calorie dry food of decent quality I've found is Royal Canin Special 33. I pour some water in with it (amount of water determines how moist or swampy the results), then in 30-45 minutes the texture & odor will appeal to far more cats.

      -- Some cats, especially ones with renal problems, develop ulcers or excessive stomach acid and will either refuse to eat or vomit as a result. OTC Famotidine/Pepcid AC in a vet-directed dosage (a specific fraction of a pill) can work wonders.

      -- There's 2 kinds of appetite stimulants: sedatives can cause allergic reactions, while antihistamines shouldn't be able to. My vet prescribed anti-histamine cyproheptadine, first in injected form & then oral, with great results.

      -- Normally I wouldn't touch Fancy Feast with a ten-foot pole (lowest-quality ingredients, smells so bad it makes *me* want to barf), when microwaved it's useful as a food of last resort for feeding or medicating *really* sick cats.

      ----

      I hope that someone finds some use in my notes. :)

    • profile image

      TommysPal 4 years ago

      One day my former mother in law showed up on my doorstep with her cat in her arms. He was an elderly cat but when I saw how thin he had become I was in shock. I took over the cats care and had to feed him with a syringe numerous times a day. It turned out that he was full of cancer and he was so far gone by the time he came to me he could not be revived.

      You're so right by telling people that if your cat starts to lose weight get to the vet as soon as possible.

      Thanks for writing this lens and making people aware.

    • verymary profile image
      Author

      Mary 4 years ago from Chicago area

      @anonymous: sorry about the stress with wet foods -- but clearly your cat does better with dry. hey, have you tried moistening up his dry food just to get some more H20 in him? if you get some water up to boiling, or close, in the microwave, you can pour a bit over the kibble & cover it with foil for a few minutes to soak in. he may like that & tolerate it, if you don't use too much water at first. just a thought.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      As much as I would love to feed mostly/all wet, my cat does not tolerate wet food well, even though he loves and begs for it every morning. So, I give it as more of a treat. He's fine with 2-3 oz/day, if I have time I'll even split 3 oz up into 2 feedings. He gets a specialty brand kibble which he likes well enough. I've tried many canned brands, even grain-free ones, no such luck.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      @anonymous: It is possible your cat has food allergies. My cat use to throw up at least once a week, sores on her body as well. I changed her wet food slowly to a food she did not have before EVO duck, and Instinct raw lamb for variety. For dry cat food, Duck and green peas. She no longer has sores on her skin, and doesn't throw up except on rare occasions.

    • verymary profile image
      Author

      Mary 4 years ago from Chicago area

      @anonymous: the vet said no medical problems? hmm. have you tried different canned foods (try those w/out fruits & veggies in them ....cats don't need those, and they can bug the tummy) and giving several small meals a day vs. 1 or 2 big ones? if he's refusing several kinds of food, I would call the vet & ask about kitten food, or even PLAIN chicken or turkey baby food .... cannot have any onion in it, even onion powder (toxic for cats). if he eats the baby food, maybe you can gradually get him back to good-quality canned cat food by covering it with the baby food or mixing a little bit in. ask the vet, though. good luck!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      My cat has no medical problems but since my move last year has gotten alarmingly skinny. He's still energetic but is refusing to eat dry food. When I feed him canned food he has an upset stomach or throws up everywhere. Should I just feed him pieces of my chicken and beef so he's getting extra protein or would kitten food with the extra fats be a better option?

    • verymary profile image
      Author

      Mary 5 years ago from Chicago area

      @anonymous: thanks for this info! puree can work miracles for our senior cats. "meat pudding" is basically my cat's favorite texture. we too moved his litter box upstairs, etc....sounds like a similar situation to yours. so glad your sweetie is doing better--phew! it's inspiring, as Sam is a couple of years younger, and we hope he'll continue on his thin-but-stable path.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      My girl is 19, last year got very thin, ate less, got very weak. I was afraid it was near the end. Her vet found nothing wrong, checked everything, said her bloodwork looked like she was a 2-yr old. Due to her weakness, I put a 2nd litter box upstairs and moved her food upstairs also to make it easier for her.

      Began feeding kitten foods (higher fat), and some of those canned foods with extra gravy. Bought a small Cuisinart food processor and now I purée all foods, adding half a can of water to each batch. The gravy foods make a sort of meat soup, the pureed kitten foods look like a meat pudding. She's eating like a little pig now, demanding 2 cans a day now. Still thin but she has gained some weight and has gotten her energy back. She's a happy camper again!

      Btw, my vet has started her also on a med for her joint comfort, Adequan. I give the injections, it's helping.

      Hope this info helps your babies.

    • verymary profile image
      Author

      Mary 6 years ago from Chicago area

      @Diana Wenzel: Aw, hope you figure it out & can fatten them up a bit!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 6 years ago from Colorado

      Excellent tips. I have a couple of cats that are losing weight. I've started to feed them wet food, which they really like. Hopefully this will help. They are also going to the vet this week for a check-up.