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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 Buffalo Wilderness High Protein Grain Free, Natural Kitten Pate Wet Cat Food, Chicken 3-oz cans (Pack of 24)
Blue Buffalo Wilderness High Protein Grain Free, Natural Kitten Pate Wet Cat Food, Chicken 3-oz cans (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!
 

Poll: Wet or dry cat food?

What does your cat eat?

See results
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?

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