Written by JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
Has this ever happened to you? You put some tasty food in your cat's bowl at mealtime, and your cat responds by sniffing the food and walking away or ignoring the food bowl completely. If this has happened to you, you're not alone. Many pet parents have experienced some wounded pride when their cats forgo a tasty meal.
Such behavior has earned some cats the reputation of being picky eaters. Wounded pride aside, though, a cat's refusal to eat more likely signals something serious going on, rather than finicky eating habits.
Not eating, especially in obese cats, can make cats quite ill. Thus, it's important to understand when a cat's refusal to eat becomes a problem and what can be done about it.
Reasons Why a Cat Won't Eat
The reasons why a cat won't eat fall into two broad categories: medical and lifestyle. Medical reasons are the most common cause of a cat's refusal to eat. Examples of medical issues that cause anorexia in cats are listed below:
Lifestyle factors contributing to a cat's refusal to eat include a change in diet, moving to a new home, and the death of a companion.
When Not Eating Becomes a Problem
How long a cat can go without eating before experiencing health problems depends on the individual cat. For example, a healthy, non-overweight cat who is a picky eater can likely skip an occasional meal and be okay. An obese cat, on the other hand, is more likely to suffer some health consequences after skipping a meal.
Generally, anorexia lasting more than 24 hours warrants a call to your veterinarian, regardless of whether your cat is a finicky eater.
What Happens When a Cat Stops Eating?
Anorexia in cats can lead to a disease called hepatic lipidosis, which is fatty liver disease. When a cat stops eating, the cat's body mobilizes its fat stores for energy. The fat is sent to the liver, where it is processed to provide this energy. Hepatic lipidosis occurs when the liver gets overwhelmed by the amount of fat it has to process. The liver cells, called hepatocytes, get filled with fat, causing liver dysfunction.
When a cat doesn't eat, they aren't getting enough protein. Being carnivores, cats need lots of protein in their diet to stay healthy. A lack of protein can worsen hepatic lipidosis.
Hepatic lipidosis can make a cat extremely sick, which can worsen the anorexia because the cat now feels too icky to eat. It primarily affects overweight cats because of their excessive fat stores; this is why anorexia is much more concerning for an overweight cat than a non-overweight cat.
Signs of hepatic lipidosis can vary, but commonly include the following:
Treating a Cat Who Won't Eat
If your cat hasn't eaten in 24 hours, contact your veterinarian. They may suggest trying one of the strategies listed below to encourage your cat to eat again:
These are only quick fixes. If your cat still refuses to eat, or begins eating again but is eating less than usual, your cat will need further treatment.
Hepatic lipidosis requires veterinary treatment that includes rehydration (if a cat's not eating, they're probably not drinking, either) followed by initiating food intake.
Getting an anorexic cat to eat again must be done carefully to prevent food aversion, which would prolong the anorexia. First, a veterinarian will offer some warm, palatable, and tasty food. If the cat refuses this food, they will need to be slowly tube fed a balanced diet that is protein-rich and calorie-dense.
Anorexic cats may also need supplements, such as taurine (an amino acid that's important for cat health) and vitamin E, to help them recover from hepatic lipidosis. Fortunately, anorexic cats who receive treatment early can make a good recovery and likely will not experience hepatic lipidosis again.
Bringing it Together
A cat's refusal to eat for 24 hours or more can lead to serious health problems. If your cat has stopped eating for at least a day, contact your veterinarian promptly so your cat can get treated early.
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