What To Feed A Sick Cat That Won’t Eat

Cat Behavior, Cats

Last Updated - February 21, 2024

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Looking after an ill cat can be demanding, especially if they're not eating. When cats lose their appetite, it could indicate different health problems, from minor issues to severe illnesses. Dedicated pet owners need to recognize the reasons behind this and learn effective methods to stimulate their appetite.

In this post, we will share what to feed a sick cat that won't eat and practical and veterinary-approved methods to help your sick cat regain its appetite and eat. We'll explore various approaches, including dietary adjustments, environmental changes, and when to seek professional veterinary care.

Reasons for a Cat's Decreased Appetite

A cat's decreased appetite can be attributed to various reasons, ranging from minor issues to serious health concerns. Understanding these reasons is crucial for any cat owner. Here are some common causes:

Dental Problems: Cats may refrain from eating due to discomfort caused by dental problems such as gum disease, tooth decay, or mouth injuries.

Respiratory Infections: Cats with upper respiratory infections might have a reduced sense of smell or difficulty breathing, affecting their desire to eat.

Kidney Disease: Chronic kidney disease, common in elderly cats, often leads to nausea and a decreased appetite.

Liver Disease: Liver problems can manifest in various symptoms, including a loss of appetite.

Digestive Issues: Problems like constipation, intestinal parasites, or gastrointestinal disorders can lead to decreased eating.

Gastrointestinal Obstructions: If a cat ingests something they shouldn't, like a piece of a toy or string, it can cause a blockage in their gastrointestinal tract, leading to decreased appetite.

Recent Vaccinations: Sometimes, cats may temporarily lose their appetite after vaccinations due to mild side effects.

Stress or Anxiety: Environmental changes, such as moving, introducing new pets, or alterations in the household routine, can induce stress in cats and diminish their appetite.

Age-Related Changes: An elderly cat can eat less due to a decreased sense of smell and taste or other age-related health issues. Many elderly cats lose weight as they age, so it's best to consult a veterinarian to determine if its metabolism changes with age or other possible causes.

Medications Side Effects: Certain medications can induce nausea or reduce appetite as a side effect.

Change in Diet: Cats are often finicky eaters and may refuse food if their usual diet is changed abruptly.

Pain or Discomfort: Any form of physical pain or discomfort, whether from injury or arthritis, can reduce a cat's desire to eat.

Feline Upper Respiratory Infections: These can cause nasal congestion and a loss of smell, decreasing a cat's appetite.

It is crucial to closely observe your cat's eating habits and seek advice from a veterinarian if the loss of appetite persists or is accompanied by other symptoms such as lethargy, weight loss, or behavioral changes. Early diagnosis and treatment can be crucial for the health and well-being of your pet.

Closeup shot of cat being checked by Vet doctor

Image by Freepik

When Should You See a Vet?

If your cat won't eat, it's important to consult a veterinarian promptly, ideally within 24 to 48 hours of noticing the change in appetite. Cats are prone to hepatic lipidosis, a serious liver condition that can develop quickly if they stop eating.

Early intervention is crucial, especially if your cat displays additional symptoms such as lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, or changes in behavior. If the loss of appetite follows a change in environment or diet, while less urgent, it still warrants a vet visit to rule out underlying health issues. Your vet may prescribe appetite stimulants, a liquid diet, or other medication to help your cat eat.

What to feed a sick cat that won't eat

High-Quality Wet or Moist Cat Food

High-quality wet or moist canned food can be particularly beneficial for a sick cat that won't eat. This type of food is generally more palatable and aromatic than dry food, which can be crucial in stimulating the appetite of a cat who is feeling unwell.

Selecting high-quality wet or moist cat food is crucial for the health and recovery of a sick cat. When choosing, prioritize foods where the primary ingredients are whole, identifiable meats such as chicken, turkey, beef, or fish, as these provide high-quality protein. Steer clear of options that list meat by-products or fillers like corn, wheat, or soy, as they have lower nutritional value and can be more challenging for cats to digest.

Cats, being obligate carnivores, require a diet low in carbohydrates, so seek out options that meet this criterion. The food should be nutrient-rich and fortified with nutrients such as taurine, vitamins, and minerals. Also, avoid foods with artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives to prevent potential allergies or harm. Discovering the appropriate product may require consulting with your veterinarian, who can suggest specific brands or formulas suitable for your cat's health condition. Specialized pet stores often have knowledgeable staff who can offer advice on high-quality brands.

The soft texture of wet food makes it easier for cats to chew and swallow, especially if they have dental problems or a sore throat. Wet food also has a higher moisture content, which helps ensure proper hydration, which is crucial for a sick cat's recovery.

Moreover, premium wet cat foods are often nutritionally balanced and rich in essential vitamins, minerals, and proteins, supporting the cat's overall health and immune system. By providing a diet that is both appealing and easy to eat, high-quality wet cat food can play a vital role in encouraging sick cats to eat and aiding in their recovery process.

Warm and Palatable Foods

Warm and palatable foods can be a game-changer when encouraging a sick cat that refuses to eat. Warming up cat food enhances its aroma and flavor, making it more enticing to a cat's sensitive sense of smell. This increased palatability is especially crucial for sick cats, as illness can dull their appetite and sense of taste. The food's warmth also makes it more similar to the temperature of fresh prey, which can appeal to a cat's natural instincts.

In addition to enhancing flavor, warm foods' soft and moist texture is easier for cats to consume, particularly if they have dental issues or a sore throat. Offering such appealing and comfortable-to-eat options can significantly stimulate a sick cat's appetite, ensuring they receive the necessary nutrition for recovery. It's a simple yet effective way to provide care and support to a feline companion during their time of need.

Meat-Flavored Baby Food

Meat-flavored baby food can be an excellent option for a sick cat reluctant to eat. This type of human food is generally very palatable. It has a smooth, pureed texture, making it easy for cats to lap up, especially if they are experiencing oral discomfort or have difficulty chewing solid foods.

Baby food is often gentle on the stomach, which benefits cats with digestive issues. The simple meat flavors, like chicken or turkey, appeal to cats' carnivorous preferences and tempt even the most finicky eaters. Moreover, the absence of seasonings, garlic, and onion (which are harmful to cats) in these baby foods ensures their safety for feline consumption.

While meat-flavored baby food should not be a long-term dietary solution due to its lack of certain nutrients essential for cats, it serves as a useful short-term strategy to ensure that a sick cat maintains some caloric and protein intake during periods of reduced appetite.

Veterinary Prescription Diets

Veterinary prescription diets are pivotal in caring for a sick cat that won't eat. These diets are scientifically formulated to address specific health issues, such as kidney disease, digestive problems, or recovery from surgery. Tailored to meet the unique nutritional needs of cats with health challenges, these diets ensure that even with a reduced appetite, the cat receives the essential nutrients required for healing and maintaining overall health. These foods' texture, flavor, and aroma are formulated to be highly palatable and appealing to even the most hesitant eaters.

Moreover, these diets often incorporate easily digestible ingredients to alleviate any digestive discomfort and aid in nutrient absorption. By offering a veterinary-prescribed diet, cat owners can provide a targeted, therapeutic approach to their pet's nutrition, supporting recovery and managing illness more effectively. It's a critical tool in the care regimen for sick cats, helping bridge the gap between medical treatment and everyday nutrition.

Chicken Broth

Chicken broth can be a valuable aid in encouraging a sick cat to eat. It's light and easily digestible, making it an excellent choice for cats with a decreased appetite due to illness or recovery. The aroma and flavor of chicken broth are highly appealing to cats, often stimulating their interest in food.

Additionally, broth's warm, soothing nature can be comforting for a cat that is feeling unwell. It's particularly useful for hydration, a critical aspect of a cat's recovery, as sick cats may not drink enough water on their own. Chicken broth (provided it's free from harmful additives like onions, garlic, and salt) offers a nourishing and hydrating option.

Make a pot of plain chicken broth free from salt and seasoning if possible. It can be served independently or mixed with regular cat food to enhance palatability. While not nutritionally complete, chicken broth serves as a supplemental means to entice a sick cat to start eating and drinking, supporting their overall recovery process.

Chicken And Rice

Chicken and rice can be a beneficial temporary meal option for a sick cat with a diminished appetite. This simple combination is gentle on the digestive system, making it a suitable choice for cats experiencing gastrointestinal upset.

The lean protein from chicken provides essential nutrients, helping to maintain muscle mass and strength during recovery. It's also highly palatable, which can motivate a reluctant eater to consume food. Rice, being a gentle carbohydrate, contributes to the meal's overall digestibility and can help bind loose stools, a common issue in sick cats. Serving this meal slightly warm can further enhance its aroma, increasing its appeal to a cat's sensitive sense of smell.

If possible, make your own chicken and rice without salt and seasoning. However, if you are unable to whip up some yourself, you may be able to find some at the grocery store or specialty store. While chicken and rice should not be a long-term dietary solution due to their lack of certain vitamins and minerals essential for cats, they can serve as a soothing interim food to entice sick cats to eat until they can resume their regular diet.

Feeding sick cat

Image by Freepik

How To Help Sick Cats To Eat

Small, Frequent Meals

Offering smaller amounts of food more frequently throughout the day can encourage a cat to eat. This approach can be less intimidating for a cat with a decreased appetite and can help stimulate their interest in food over time.

Hand Feeding

Hand feeding can create a nurturing experience and encourage a sick cat to eat. It's a way of providing comfort and bonding, but it should be done gently to avoid stressing the cat.

Feeding Environment

Establish a serene and comfortable feeding environment. This means feeding them in a quiet area, away from busy household traffic and far from their litter box. A stress-free environment can help encourage a cat to eat.

Add Fish Oil

Adding fish oil to healthy cats and sick cat's food can be beneficial in multiple ways. Fish oil is abundant in omega-3 fatty acids, renowned for their anti-inflammatory properties. This can be especially beneficial for cats with arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, or skin allergies.

The scent and flavor of fish oil can also make the food more appealing to a cat with a reduced appetite, encouraging them to eat. Omega-3s are essential for maintaining a healthy coat, reducing dandruff, and improving overall skin health, which can be compromised in sick cats.

Moreover, these fatty acids support brain and eye health, especially for aging cats. When introducing fish oil into your cat's diet, it's essential to start with small amounts to prevent digestive upset and to choose a high-quality, mercury-free fish oil supplement designed for pets. Always consult a veterinarian before introducing any supplement to ensure it suits your cat's specific health requirements.

Use syringe Feeding

Syringe-feeding a sick cat with liquid food can be necessary when they refuse to eat. This method ensures they receive vital nutrients and hydration. It requires gently administering a vet-recommended, nutrient-rich liquid diet directly into the cat's mouth using a syringe, providing controlled, measured nourishment during recovery.

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About the Author

Doctor of veterinary medicine with extensive experience in animal welfare with a strong interest in feline medicine and plans to pursue ABVP-Feline specialty board certification. A key member of many local veterinary associations and avid reader of animal related science journals and studies.