Help, My Cat is on a Hunger Strike

A veterinary nutritionist explains why your cat isn’t eating and how to increase their appetite.

By Kate Sheofsky
July 5, 2021
Profile view of a man giving a cat food to eat
Studio Firma / Stocksy

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Is there anything you wouldn’t do to make yourself worthy of your cat’s affection? You scoop poop from their litter box. You let them sleep on your face. You tolerate 2 a.m. zoomies. And, of course, you try to feed them the very best food. Feeding is an act of love. But, contrary to how it sometimes feels, not eating isn’t necessarily an act of defiance. There are several reasons why your cat is not eating — and thankfully just as many solutions. We turned to BluePearl Pet Hospital’s board-certified veterinary nutritionist Dr. Lindsey Bullen, DVM, to break them down for us.

Let your new cat get acclimated

If you’ve just brought a new cat or kitten home, there’s a good chance that they’re nervous and stressed. “A new cat may go into hiding when you first bring them home,” says Dr. Bullen. “At that moment, they are far more concerned with feeling safe than eating dinner.” Your new cat may also be hesitant to try a different food. In a perfect world, you’d be able to transition them from their old diet to a new one over several days. But you may not know what your cat was previously being fed (if “cat food” at all, if they were a stray). Change is hard, especially for cats. In both of these cases, they may need a little time to get acclimated to their new home and food before they settle into an eating routine. 

Schedule mealtimes to keep tabs their eating habits

Underlying health issues are another reason why a cat won’t eat. Unfortunately, cats are notoriously good at hiding when they don’t feel well, and that can make it hard to tell if there are changes to their eating habits. “I recommend giving cats set meals instead of free-feeding,” says Dr. Bullen. “Especially in a multi-cat household, it’s very difficult to tell how much each cat is eating when there’s just a bowl of food left out all the time. Meal feeding makes it easier to see who’s coming to the food dish and how much they’re eating. I also recommend weighing your cat once or twice a month. Subtle changes in weight can be hard to see, particularly in long-haired cats. Regularly weighing them will help you detect changes and take action quicker.”

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Introduce kittens to various foods early on

Cats also have a reputation for being finicky eaters. Every cat is different, of course, but some certainly do have strong opinions about what they will (and won’t) eat. And we often chalk that up to part of their lovably maddening mystique. If you have a kitten, however, there are ways you can try to head off any picky tendencies. “It’s best to introduce cats to multiple kinds of foods when they’re young,” says Dr. Bullen. “As carnivores, they will develop a preference for flavor and form, and it’s harder to get them to change later in life. So, while I don’t recommend rotational feeding forever, offering them canned food, kibble, chicken, and fish when they’re kittens can be helpful in preventing finicky habits in the future.”

Add cat food toppers to make meals more mouthwatering

For adult cats, in addition to trying out different complete diets, there are steps you can take to make their food more interesting. “Warming up canned food will release flavors and aromas,” says Dr. Bullen. “You can accomplish the same effect with dry food by mixing in a little warm water.” There are also plenty of healthy foods you can add to their main diet. Unseasoned puréed meats, cottage cheese, baby food, commercial food toppers, and cat supplements are all great options. Dr. Bullen’s go-to recommendation is Purina’s FortiFlora Probiotic Supplement. “It’s made from hydrolyzed animal digest and the majority of my patients love the flavor.” Lastly, you can try different feeding set-ups. Some cats like to eat off a plate on the counter, others prefer a bowl on the floor. When choosing a dish, Dr. Bullen suggests avoiding metal or plastic, as both can alter the flavor or smell of the food. 

See your vet to rule out health issues like cat anorexia

It can be frustrating to work through a food-related issue with your cat. But it’s important to understand that cat anorexia is a serious health concern that can spiral quickly. “When a pet’s GI tract doesn’t get appropriate nutrients for about three days, the next generation of cells can’t function normally,” says Dr. Bullen. “Ultimately, anorexia is another word for self-cannibalism, and that’s not conducive to life.” Well, sure. Put it that way, and a few skipped meals do seem like a big deal. So, when does not eating warrant a trip to the vet? “If your adult cat goes two to three days without eating, it’s time to see a veterinarian. And if their loss of appetite coincides with vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, or changes in behavior, then they need to be seen even sooner — in 24-36 hours.” For kittens, the timeline is shorter still: “Kittens need to eat multiple meals a day. They should see a vet if it’s been more than 24 hours without eating.”

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Kate Sheofsky

Kate Sheofsky hails from San Francisco, where she developed a love of writing, Giants baseball, and houses she can’t afford. She currently lives in Portland, OR, and works as a freelance writer and content strategist. When not typing away on her laptop, she enjoys tooling around the city with her two rescue pups searching for tasty food and sunny patios.