It can be a helpless feeling to see your cat refusing to eat. Is something upsetting them? Do they not like the food they're eating? Do they feel unwell? Unfortunately, they can’t really tell us—which makes it harder to figure out why your cat isn't eating and what to do about it.
There are many potential causes for your cat not wanting to eat. These can be due to an illness of some kind, a behavioral problem, or an issue with the food itself.
Regardless of the cause, when your cat has not been eating for 24 hours (or 12 hours for young kittens), they need to be examined by a veterinarian, as inappetence can have very serious consequences for cats.
While the cause can vary, there are a few commons reasons why your cat won't eat.
Illness of some kind is the most common cause for a cat refusing to eat. This can be anything from an issue in the mouth to a gut problem, endocrine disease, or even organ failure.
In some cases, you'll be able to see other symptoms associated with the illness, such as vomiting, diarrhea, or lethargy, but there can be cats where inappetence (not eating) is the only visible symptom. This is why it's so important to have your cat checked by your vet if they have not eaten for 24 hours or if you see any other symptoms alongside the inappetence. The sooner treatment is started for some more serious diseases, the better the chance of a successful outcome.
In the absence of an obvious illness, your vet might start looking for a behavioral or psychological cause for your cat’s inappetence. Possible causes could include stress due to a new housemate, a new type of food or food bowl, house renovations, or even the death of a friend. Your vet will most likely question you very thoroughly on any changes in your cat’s environment that might be causing stress.
Cats can be quite sensitive when it comes to the smell, taste, and consistency of their food. Some cats also prefer a wide variety of food choices and will sometimes refuse to eat the same food after a while.
The first very important step to take if your cat is not eating is to have your cat examined by a veterinarian. If you are uncertain about what to do, you can always contact our Vet Pros and talk through the issue with them. They will be able to help you decide on the best next step.
It's very important that your vet treats any underlying illnesses in order for your cat to feel well enough to start eating on their own again. Regardless of the cause for the inappetence, it's necessary for your cat to start eating as soon as possible to prevent serious secondary complications.
If necessary, your vet might start your cat on a medicine that helps to stimulate appetite while they're looking for the underlying cause for the inappetence. If this is unsuccessful or contraindicated, your vet might consider placing an esophageal tube through which your cat can be fed. The tube is placed directly into the esophagus through a small incision in the neck. You can then feed soft food directly through the tube to your cat. This is a stress-free way of getting much needed nutrition into your feline friend.
In cases where no illness can be identified, it will be necessary to try different techniques at home.
Try to minimize stress as much as possible. This might mean you have to separate your cat from housemates completely or just feed them in separate rooms. Make sure your cat has plenty of hidden areas to rest in if they need some time to themselves. Provide ample litter trays and clean trays regularly.
Check all expiry labels on food to make sure it's fresh. Keep soft food in the refrigerator for no more than 3 days. Store dry food in an air-tight container to prevent it from going off prematurely.
For very fussy cats, you might have to offer more than one food option during meals. Alternate those options every few days to keep them interested. You can also try a food topper or gently heat their food for a few seconds in the microwave to release the smell a bit more.
If your cat won't eat and you're not sure what to do next, the Pawp team is here to help 24/7.
Reviewed and fact-checked by
Dr. Mari, DVM at Pawp