How to Handle a Finicky Eater

A healthy cat who wont eat may be seeking variety in her diet - even warming her food may help

As in all things, cats can be particular about their food. “It seems to be a feline attribute,” says Katherine Houpt, VMD, Ph.D., ACVB, Cornell University Professor of Behavior Medicine, emeritus. Some cats are just naturally picky and like to have variety in their diet, but changes in eating habits can also be a sign of stress or major illness. “If a cat who was an eager eater becomes finicky then a trip to the veterinarian is warranted — sooner rather than later,” says Dr. Houpt.

Enticing Foods. For a cat who will eat one day and then turns up its nose the next, rotating foods can be the solution. “You will become a good customer of all those tiny, expensive cans of cat food,” comments Dr. Houpt. “Do not stock up on one flavor; for example feed salmon on Monday, turkey on Tuesday, beef on Wednesday.” Adding bits of meat can also make mealtime more exciting for a picky kitty.

Another easy way to entice cats to eat is to heat up their food a little. Sick cats may have an impaired sense of smell, which makes them less interested in food. Heating up the food strengthens the aroma, which is often enough to inspire the cat to eat.

Kidney Disease. “Cats with kidney disease are very likely to become finicky and must be encouraged,” says Dr. Houpt. Cats in kidney failure are often less enthusiastic about their meals, either due to feeling ill or not liking the restricted-protein diet. “Chicken is a meat that cats seem to like even when they are feeling sick so that is my standby,” says Dr. Houpt. “My teenage cat with kidney disease shares a rotisserie chicken with the rest of us.” (See our article on page 1.)

Therapeutic diets for kidney disease are low in protein, sodium, and phosphorous, and high in fiber, antioxidants, and water-soluble vitamins. Many cats do not find these diets as palatable as regular high-protein diets. If putting a cat on a therapeutic diet for kidney disease, make the transition gradually and work with your veterinarian to determine a formula that will work for your cat. Try to select a flavor that your cat enjoys, and heat it up if necessary. Homemade meals are another option, but be sure to consult a veterinary nutritionist to make sure that you are preparing a balanced diet that meets all of your cat’s needs.

Feline Hepatic Lipidosis. “Fat cats who stop eating are in particular danger when they begin to accumulate fat in their liver tissue,” says Dr. Houpt. Hepatic lipidosis, commonly referred to as “fatty liver,” is usually secondary to another health problem, such as kidney disease, diabetes, liver disease, pancreatitis, or hyperthyroidism. Illness causes the cat to stop eating, and the lack of incoming nutrients leads the body to break down its fat stores for energy. This causes large quantities of fats to accumulate in the liver, which prevents the liver from working properly.

As the liver starts to fail, the cat becomes even less interested in eating, which only worsens the situation. Cats who are not seen and treated quickly can go into liver failure, which may end in death. Cats with liver damage may become jaundiced (yellowing of the skin and mucous membranes).

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Management involves supportive care and tube feeding to provide the cat with sufficient nutrients, plus diagnostics to figure out what the underlying cause of the episode is.

Hepatic lipidosis can occur in cats of any age and body condition, but overweight cats are the most at risk. Their ample fat stores can provide plenty of energy, but also quickly overwhelm the liver when the body begins to break them down. Weight control is definitely something that should be practiced with all pets, but cats should never be made to go without food. Discuss weight-loss options with your veterinarian.

Cancer. Like humans, many cats with malignant cancers suffer from muscle wasting and weight loss even if they continue eating normally. This condition is called cancer cachexia. In some cases, the physical nature and location of the tumor cause the cat to become anorexic, while in others the tumor releases factors that affect the cat’s desire to eat and/or ability to utilize nutrients. Tumors in the GI (gastrointestinal tract) tract, including the mouth, can make eating painful or difficult. Tumors anywhere in the body can impact metabolism. If your cat is losing weight while still eating well, a visit to the veterinarian is definitely in order to rule out cancer.

Stress. Cats generally respond to stress by hiding, which may include avoiding their food bowls. Some events that cause stress are adding a new cat or other animal to the family, moving, and being boarded. In cases of household upheaval, make sure your cat’s food bowl is in a spot that he or she can get to easily and that feels safe. For example, your cat may not feel comfortable eating anywhere near a dog. If boarding your cat, send some extra special treats along, such as canned food or bits of meat. Most boarding kennels are also willing to heat up food to entice an anxious cat to eat.

Illness and veterinary visits are also both inherently stressful, which can add to a sick cat’s list of woes.

Appetite Stimulants. For cats that can’t be enticed to eat or who are hospitalized, there are medications that can stimulate appetite and treat nausea. Mirtazapine (brand name Remeron, an appetite stimulant) is the most common option today, but other options include cyproheptadine (an antihistamine and anti-serotonin agent; when serotonin is depressed it can increase appetite), and diazepam (Valium, short-term effect). Appetite stimulants should always be used under the direction of a veterinarian to avoid side effects or reactions between other medications that your cat might be receiving.

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Many cats are picky about what they eat, and that in itself is not something to be concerned about. However, if your cat starts eating less and less or quits eating entirely, a veterinary visit is necessary to rule out or treat any medical problems. Even 24 hours without food can be problematic for adult cats, and kittens must be monitored even more closely. Unexplained weight loss in conjunction with normal or increased food intake is also a reason to go to the vet sooner than later.

Causes of a Lack of Appetite INCLUDE

  • Cancer
  • Hepatic lipidosis (liver disease)
  • Kidney disease
  • Pancreatitis
  • Stress
  • Teeth problems

When to Involve Your Vet

  • Eager eater no longer interested in food
  • Increased thirst and/or urination
  • Jaundice
  • Lethargy
  • Noticeable weight loss
  • Smelly food won’t entice appetite