Cat Acts Hungry But Wont Eat – What’s Going On?

Cat Acts Hungy But Wont Eat Image

The cat stands looking at it’s bowl and walks away, only to return sometime later and do the same.  And again.  This is when we switch into worry mode.  If the next day Mr. Whiskers does it again, we switch into full blown panic mode.  ‘’What is going on?’’ we ask ourselves before silently clicking off the dire things that could be wrong.

While refusal to eat may be due to something relatively minor like not liking a new food, deciding he doesn’t like his usual crunchy bits any longer, or just a temporary hairball upset, if it goes on too long it can result in a serious health crisis.

A cat may be nauseated without vomiting or gagging. This is often the case when the cat acts like it wants to eat but only takes a bite or two and leaves it. So, we open a smorgasbord of canned foods, baby foods, tuna, sardines, goat milk, broth—anything and everything we can think of that might appeal to our fur baby. Only to see him circle it a time or two and walk away.  When the cat seems interested but walks away, the pain or nausea over-rides their hunger.

Lip smacking or licking the lips repeatedly is a sign of nausea.  They will often do this before vomiting.  A cat may look at his food smack his lips and either walk away or gag. Sometimes the cat will attempt to bury the food either with a paper or bag or just make the motions. This most often means they are feeling nauseous.

Sometimes a cat who is sick will eat something new for a few days but then rejects it. She may again eat something new and again reject it. This is not just a finicky cat.  Something is wrong.

In fact, if a cat is eating less than 50% of its regular food intake two days in a row something is wrong.

What happens when a cat stops eating

Not eating for a day or two may seem relatively minor and we tend to think when he gets hungry enough, he’ll eat. But that’s often not the case for a cat.  In fact, if they don’t like a new food they can go on strike and hold out for days, stubbornly refusing to eat the new food.  If an overweight cat refuses his food, we might consider it a good thing because he might lose some weight. Not so much.

When a cat doesn’t eat—particularly an overweight cat—they have to rely on their fat reserves for energy. But before these fat reserves can be burned for energy they must be processed by the cat’s liver.  To do this the cat must have adequate supplies of protein.  When a cat isn’t eating, rapid weight loss begins, and its protein reserves are very soon depleted.  The liver becomes overwhelmed by all the fat and the cat can go into hepatic lipidosis. And this can lead to liver failure and death.

When a cat stops eating it could be due to an illness of some type and a call to the vet is in order.  The cat should be seen by the vet and evaluated as soon as possible.  ‘’You’d never miss dinner unless you were sick, and the same is true for most cats. If your furry friend refuses to eat for a period of longer than 24 hours, he or she may have a potentially serious underlying medical problem that requires immediate attention,’’ says Dr. Ilana Rodan, former president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP).   “Cats can develop a secondary disease called hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver, if they are picky for quite a while or don’t eat,” she says. “Even if your cat has already been seen by a veterinarian and no obvious illnesses have been identified, additional testing such as abdominal ultrasound and/or appetite stimulants may be indicated.”

Disorders that may cause a cat to stop eating

Often not eating is a symptom of a far larger problem.  Some are quite simple such as a bad tooth. Some are not simple like infections, pancreatitis, kidney failure, diabetes, intestinal problems, hyperthyroidism and cancer. Don’t panic but don’t let it go.  You need to find out what’s going on. And if it is just a bad tooth it needs to be fixed.

Unfamiliar Surroundings

Cats are creatures of habit. A new apartment or house can really through them off, causing feeding problems.  They become depressed and anxious and the first thing that goes is the appetite. It helps if they have their old food dish and other familiar items around them.  They will usually begin eating again as they begin to feel more at home. If not, an anti-anxiety medication from the vet for a little while often helps.

Recent Vaccination

Has your cat had a vaccination recently?  Sometimes cats have a bit of a reaction to vaccinations and nausea or upset tummy can happen for a day or two.  Vaccines are lifesavers, but they do have side effects. Most are very mild, and the cat should be his hungry self soon. Still, you should try to get him to eat something to prevent serious liver problems.

Respiratory Problems

Respiratory problems can cause havoc with your cat’s sense of smell. The ability to smell his food has a lot to do with his appetite. Also, if your cat’s nose is stuffy it’s hard to eat and breath at the same time.  Upper respiratory disorders can clog your cat’s nose and restrict smell. Lower respiratory tract diseases may affect the lungs causing breathing difficulties.  These problems can be cleared up with the proper antibiotics.  Cancer can also cause respiratory problems.  But regardless of the severity of the problem it needs to be diagnosed by a vet and get back on its food.

Digestive System Disorders

Obviously, tummy troubles  are the most common problems when a cat won’t eat.  With a stomach issue, inflammatory bowel disease, pancreas problems, will usually also make your feline friend vomit, have pain and diarrhea—either singly or all of these together.   But even before any other symptoms appear your cat may stop eating. Acid reflux, an imbalance of intestinal bacteria, irritable bowel disease, tumors and parasites can be the problem.  Some may be as simple as adding a probiotic to the cat’s food or getting a prescription for something to ease stomach acid. But never play vet and try to treat it yourself until the problem has been diagnosed by a vet and a treatment plan is given.

Foreign Bodies

A cat may not eat its food, but it will eat all kinds of gorky things ranging from plastic bags to wool socks.  They often get hairballs stuck in the stomach or bowel too. Most times the cat’s body will expel these things on your favorite rug but sometimes they get stuck in the bowel and become an obstruction.  The obstruction prevents food and sometimes even water from getting through the digestive tract and the first thing you’ll notice will be nausea, vomiting, and refusal to eat. Sometimes the nausea and vomiting will come a little later.  Obstructions are very serious and must be quickly diagnoses with x-ray or ultrasound and removed.

Ingestion of Toxic Substances

This could be a human medication that found its way to the floor or cleaning agents, but very often it’s a houseplant of some type. The Christmas Poinsettia plants are mildly toxic to cats and can cause nausea, upset tummy, drooling, and sometimes diarrhea.  Christmas tree needles can get stuck in the tummy and tree water is highly toxic.  Holly and mistletoe is best left in the store.  At least nausea and vomiting, at worst death. Never bring Amaryllis, a very toxic plant, into your home either if you have a cat.

Dental Problems

Infected or painful teeth and gums could be the issue. Cats can break teeth sometimes. Also lesions of various kinds can form in the mouth preventing eating. Gum inflammations or abscesses can also cause a lot of pain.  Cats are not so different from people in this regard. It’s difficult to examine a cat’s teeth unless the cat has been sedated—also a lot like people.  Sometimes a tooth has to be extracted under general anesthesia.  They usually start feeling a lot better once the anesthesia wears off.


Cats can be frustratingly finicky.  If your vet rules out the above disorders it may be fussiness.  It often takes a long time for a cat to get used to a new food. They will often just suddenly say ‘’no thank you’’ to a food it has been happily eating for a long time. Who knows why? People get tired of certain foods and so do our cats. A change in food is in order.

Psychological Problems

Cats can become depressed just like we do. And just like us they don’t have much interest in food when depressed.  But unlike us, they don’t suffer free-floating depression. Feline depression is situational such as the death or absence of a loved one or a move to a new house.  Anxiety can happen when there is a new family member such as a new baby or a kitten or puppy.  It can happen when a family member has a change in work hours. Or it can be caused by a remodeling project, even road construction outdoors. Loud frightening noises can keep them from wanting to eat.

Food Issues

As mentioned, cats can suddenly decide they no longer like a food they’ve been eating happily for years.  Often, this happens when cat food manufactures change something in the recipe.

Food Shape or Texture

Cats are very sensitive to shape and textures in their food. Some cats like round shaped cat kibble, others like triangular shapes. Or a change from canned food to dry or dry to canned will cause your cat to put her little foot down and say ‘’no.’’

Spoiled Food

Because alley cats eat out of garbage cans on a regular basis it’s erroneously thought that cats cannot get food poisoning but that isn’t altogether true. Cats are cautious about the food they eat and can tell if food has gone bad. That’s why if the cat won’t eat it, perhaps you shouldn’t either! Cats can, however, get salmonella and E Coli.  Check the expiration dates on food you cat won’t eat. If it smells rancid toss it and apologize to your cat.

Food Recalls

Too often, as far as I’m concerned, pet food is recalled.  So, if your cat has stopped eating his food check to see if it’s been recalled.  Cats are fairly good at detecting something wrong.

How to Get Your Cat to Eat

Sometimes it takes an appetite stimulant from the vet but there are things you can try.

Kitten Food

Kitten food contains more protein, vitamins, minerals and fat and it tastes better than adult food. It might be the thing that your kitty will eat. And it’s filled with things kitty needs right now, including extra calories.


Cat probiotics comes in flavors cats like.  They help keep the colon healthy and also increases appetite.  Your vet may have some or you look in Chewys .  If your cat has a pancreatic problem, avoid the oil and go instead for the chews or powders.

Nip it

A little cat nip on kitty’s food can’t hurt.  It acts as an appetite stimulant.

Cold cuts

Deli meat like turkey—hold the salami to spicy—is one of the closest foods that are like what cats eat in the wild.  This usually piques their interest and appetite. But avoid processed meats high in sodium and nitrates.

Heat it Up

Gently warm your cat’s canned food in the microwave. Just a few seconds will be enough. Test it with your finger to be sure it’s not too hot.  Heating makes it smell more and works for most cats.

Final Thoughts

Usually, a cat will begin eating again in a few hours or several at most on its own with some gentle encouragement and its favorite foods or treats.  But watch kitty carefully and if there’s any doubt in your mind call the vet. It’s better to be too safe than very sorry.

Let us know any issues you’ve had, or what you have found helps, in the comments below.

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