13 Tips for How to Get a Cat to Eat EVERY Time
Have you got a really fussy cat? Are they really picky when it comes to eating and you're just tearing your hair out, trying to get them to eat?
Do you buy one food, they seem to like it and then they just go off it completely. You buy another one and you end up with 10 different unfinished bags of foods in the cupboard that your cat just won't eat? It can be a nightmare.
Well, help is at hand as in this article I'll give you 13 ways for how to get a cat to eat as well as discuss how to prevent them from becoming picky and fussy in the first place!
How to get a cat to eat
Get them hungry
Change food bowl
Are they social or solitary eaters
Avoid food aversion
Slowly transition to new diets
Keep food fresh
Start with what your cat likes
Sprinkle a tasty treat on top
Give strong smelling food
Give appetite stimulants
Before I get into the details of each of these strategies for how to get a cat to eat, you need to answer 2 important question to know if your cat really is just being picky or if there may be a more serious problem behind their lack of appetite.
Is your cat actually hungry?
This might seem like an obvious question but bear with me.
You might think that your cat doesn't eat very much, but actually, our cats aren't very big and the food that we give them can actually be really energy dense. Especially if you're feeding a dry food. It may not look like much that they're eating, but it's actually more than they need or more than enough to satisfy their energy requirements.
There's a massive obesity epidemic at the moment and it's actually more often the owners of overweight cats who say to me that they are worried that their cat isn't eating enough!
As a general rule, if your cat is eating every day, if they're not losing weight, if they are otherwise bright, happy and behaving normally, then more than likely there's no problem at all. They will be eating all that they need to and aren’t really being picky, they’re just not really hungry!
Is your cat sick or healthy?
Clearly, if there's a disease process going on then that has a high chance of causing your cat to lose their appetite.
Any disease is something that we really need to address before we then started looking at the tips for how to get a cat to eat discussed below.
It could be that your cat has got terrible dental disease and they have stopped eating because of the pain that they are in. As a side note though, it's amazing how much pain that they can put up with. Don't take the fact that just because your cat is eating their teeth must be fine. I've actually discussed this in a separate article all about dental disease in cats.
They could have an intestinal problem. Something like pancreatitis, which is actually quite common and can be quite challenging to diagnose. Your cat might have advanced kidney disease, they might have a liver problem, they might feel nauseous because of inflammatory bowel disease or any number of other conditions that can cause a cats’ appetite to be reduced.
So if your cat is really not looking very happy, if they got a change in their normal character, or if they have simply been a bit picky for a while then getting them checked over is a very good idea. Once you know if anything else needs to be addressed you can then start thinking about how you can get your cat to eat.
How To Get a Cat to Eat
Let’s jump into the 13 strategies to get your cat to eat, regardless of whether they are sick or just plain fussy.
1 - Get them hungry
My first tip is to simply get your cat hungry. What this means is that if you've got food down all the time then they're just going to be grazing and never actually be hungry. Ad-lib feeding is never a good thing because you're going to have no control over how much they eat and cats are also terrible at self-control as well in the majority of cases. This means you're more likely to get an overweight or obese cat. Obesity causes a lot of problems far more serious than just being fussy.
Withholding all food for 12 hours is highly likely to be enough to make them hungry. Once they’re hungry it's much more likely that your cat will accept whatever food you put down.
Now, a word of warning here. If you do have an overweight cat you really shouldn't starve them. If you’ve read my post on how to get a picky dog to eat I do say that a hungry dog will eat and won’t starve. Cats are different (in so many ways!)
A healthy cat who really doesn’t want to eat what your offering may actually starve themselves to the point where they develop something called hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease. And this can be fatal! So we don't want any cat to go without food for more than 24 hours although obese cats are most at risk.
While withholding food for 12 hours though is perfectly safe, if your cat hasn't eaten for longer than 24 hours then getting them checked by your vet is a very good idea. Especially if they are overweight.
2 - Change your cat’s food bowl
Step number two is to think about the type of food that you're using to feed your cat.
Cats can be very sensitive when it comes to flavor as well as smell. If you're using certain plastic or metal dishes then they might be adding flavors to the food that turn off your cat’s appetite. Smell is just as important as flavor (which I’ll come onto later) and a plastic or metal bowl, on a hot day especially, can really smell.
Bowl shape is another consideration. If your using a deep bowl, and your cat is having to reach their head down right into it, then their whiskers will be continually getting knocked. It has been suggested that if this is a long-term problem, a cat may develop a real sensitivity in their whiskers and that it can actually cause significant pain.
So think about what your cat’s food bowl is made of. Consider changing that and also change to a more shallow bowl or dish.
3 - Is your cat a social or solitary eater?
Cats tend to be one or the other. They either love eating in company or prefer to by themselves, unobserved.
If they're a social eater, then actually stroking your cat, petting them at the same time as offering food, can really be all that it takes to get them started.
If you've got a solitary cat this is clearly not going to work. Instead, leave them to it. Put the food down, take a step back and leave them in privacy. Watching them is going to stress them out and stop them eating. Come back 15 minutes later to see if they have eaten or not, if not then take the food up again.
4 - Avoid food aversion
My 4th step to get a cat to eat is to not put them off a particular food for life. This is something that can happen if you try and force your cat to eat, especially when they are unwell or feeling nauseous.
If you try and force your cat to eat, either by keeping food in their face or trying to syringe feed them, they can become so repulsed by that food that even when they do become hungry or want to eat they will never touch that food again. They develop a total, lasting repulsion to that food.
We definitely don’t want this.
When you're trying to get a picky, fussy or sick cat to eat, you should offer them some food, give them 15 minutes or so to eat it, and then take away anything not eaten. Just to give them a break. This is especially important if your cat isn't able to move away from the food for whatever reason.
A couple of hours later, try again
5 - Slowly transition to a new diet
This next tip is for you if you need to change your cat’s diet and they are having a hard time accepting it. This could be because you need to change to a special disease-appropriate diet, or you just fancy changing to something that will be healthier for your cat.
Make any diet change a slow process. Your cat will never eat it if you just suddenly make a switch overnight.
In most cases, slowly transitioning over 2 weeks will be all it takes. More picky cats though might need a longer period to get used to the fact that the new diet is going to a permanent feature on the menu.
As time passes, slowly increase the proportion of the new diet you are feeding, while reducing the amount of the old diet. The idea is the change is so subtle that your cat doesn’t even realize there is a change taking place and so the thought of being fussy doesn’t even cross their mind!
Check out my dedicated article for more tips about how to change your pets diet.
6 - Keep the food fresh
I’ve already mentioned that cats have a keen sense of taste and smell. Any old thing simply will not do! If you think you will get away with leaving your cat’s wet food out all day, drying in the sun your cat will continue to go hungry. If their biscuits are not stored in an air-tight container and go stale they will likely remain uneaten.
Keep your cat’s food as fresh as possible. Give them 20 minutes or so to eat up and then pop any leftovers in the fridge until the next meal-time.
Remember, just because a dog would more than happily eat it does not make it fit for a cat!
7 - Start with what you know your cat normally likes
If your cat has just come home from being unwell, or you’ve been given advice about starting to feed them something else, then don’t jump straight into it, and maybe don’t even start that slow transition just yet. Start feeding something you know your cat loves first. Make sure they are eating well and then make the change.
A good example of this would be transitioning a cat onto a special renal diet right after the diagnosis of kidney failure. At the time of diagnosis, a cat may be chronically dehydrated and need to be placed on IV fluids. They may well be feeling nauseous and their appetite may just be generally poor.
Now would be the wrong time to switch diet. You’d be at serious risk of creating a food aversion.
Instead, the plan should be to re-hydrate, reduce nausea and feed whatever the cat likes. Once they are feeling better the diet transition can begin.
8 - Sprinkle something tasty on top
My 8th strategy for feeding a fussy cat is to use a topper. Sprinkle something super tasty and appealing on the top of your cats' food to make it simply irresistible.
There are many things that can act as toppers. Some tried and tested cat favorites include:
Grated parmesan cheese
Fortiflora probiotic (you can buy them here)
It might be that as first your cat does nothing more than lick the tasty topping, but that’s a start. Very soon they should be tucking into their food with gusto. It often seems like once a cat remembers they are supposed to eat they just get on with it.
9 - Try strong smelling food
This tip takes advantage of the fact that cats are really smell orientated when it comes to appetite. A cat who is perfectly well apart from having a blocked nose will be pretty ambivalent about eating.
Regardless of why your cat is being fussy, feeding something super-smelly (seafood such as sardines are perfect for this) might be enough to tempt them into taking a mouthful and then they’ll be on their way.
And if your cat actually is all snotty, try keeping them in the bathroom while you have a hot shower so that the steam can help clear their nose allowing then to smell again.
10 - Warm the food up
If a strong smelling food is not quite enough, warming it up will 10x the effect! This may make the smell unbearable for you (or make you very hungry!) but when smell is so important in cats it is important to try and take full advantage of this.
You clearly don't want to make it too hot and burn your cat's mouth. Care needs to be taken if you are warming the food in the microwave. This is because microwaves will often result in hot-spots within the food. Warm it up, give it a mix and let it sit for a few minutes to avoid this. Also, put a bit on the inside of your wrist to check it’s not too hot.
11 - Hand feed
If your cat is still resisting then hand feeding is my next step to getting your cat to eat.
Pop a little on their finger and then let your cat lick it off. If it’s biscuits you’re feeding then use your hand as a dish. You can try wiping a little under your cat’s gum, that’s fine, but don’t force it. Remember we don’t want to create a food aversion.
This step is especially useful for social eaters. The combination of hand feeding, gentle stroking and talking can be a powerful way to get a picky cat to eat.
12 - Try appetite stimulants
My final strategies for getting a picky or fussy cat to eat are really reserved for those cats who are unwell and my 12th tip is to try giving your cat an appetite stimulant.
There are several different options here. A drug called Mirtazepine is probably the most popular at the moment. Cyproheptadine is another that has been used for some time, although may take several days to take effect.
A couple of other drugs can be given in the vet clinic and include B vitamins and diazepam. The latter works really well in the short term as an injection but tablets have the potential to cause acute liver failure in cats and so are generally avoided.
Appetite stimulants can be given for a day or two in the case of short-term illness but can also be given long-term as needed if your cat has a condition known to cause a reduction in appetite, such as chronic kidney disease.
13 - Tube Feeding
My final strategy to feed a cat who will not, or cannot eat is to feed them via a tube. This is clearly a decision that needs to be made in conjunction with your vet and is generally reserved for very unwell cats, those who have not been eating for some time, or those with a severe injury to (or mass in) their mouth, throat or esophagus.
Feeding tubes come in several different forms. The simplest one used for very short-term feeding passes to the stomach through the nose. It can be placed in an awake cat but is actually quite hard to use for any length of time because it is just so narrow.
Next come esophageal feeding tubes which are placed through the neck. This might sound scary but they are actually very quick and simple to place during a quick anesthetic. Cats tolerate them well, they are much wider and they can be left in place for quite some time.
A gastric feeding tube is next. This takes more time and equipment to place but is the ultimate tube for really long-term feeding.
These might all sound a bit over-the-top but can make all the difference to the recovery of a cat who is otherwise very unwell. Nutrition is a vital part of recovery and the expense of placing a tube may very well pay for itself and then some by reducing the length of hospitalization needed.
How to prevent fussy eaters
Those are my 13 ways to get a cat to eat, but how do we avoid them becoming picky in the first place. Now you’ve got them eating normally, how can we make sure we don’t have to go through that palaver all over again?
Don’t let your cat dictate meal times.
Don't chop and change food all the time and definitely don’t change just because your cat decides to turn their nose up the first time. The very worse thing to do would be to immediately replace their food with something you consider more of a treat. If you do this your cat is simply very effectively training you to give them what they want, rather than the diet of your choosing!
If your cat's not eating, you're worried and you want to feed something else, take up their food and wait an hour or two. Only then should you give the new food a go. This will mean your cat won’t associate their refusal with the arrival of the new (and potentially tastier) food.
Feed multiple small meals
This goes hand in hand with my question of whether your cat is actually hungry or not. Don’t feed ad-lib, with food always available. Instead, feed regular small meals.
This way, your cat is more likely to be hungry when the food goes down, and they are more likely to happily eat whatever they are offered.
Feed different types of food
It's fine to rotate through foods to give your cat a little bit of a variety and actually this can be beneficial to your cat. This is especially important if you're feeding a predominantly dry food diet. Cats can become serious dry food junkies if that is all they are fed! If you then need to feed them wet food in the future it can become a real nightmare.
I've discussed ways to get your cat to drink more water in a separate article. The very first one is to feed a wet diet, so when needed you definitely want your cat to accept it.
Feeding different consistency foods is great at making sure this will be simple. Different textures are important too to make sure your cat will happily eat a chunky wet food with gravy as well as a smooth mousse.
Just don’t chop and change every day and do it on your terms, not your cats.
Feed a good quality diet
My final way to prevent your cat from becoming a picky eater is to feed them a good quality food. If you're feeding a really cheap, low-quality diet then chances are it will be high in salts, fats, and other additives. When you then try and feed something a bit better quality you’re going to have trouble
My analogy is that this is like feeding a toddler on nothing but fast food and then expecting them to eat a bowl full of salad the first time it’s offered.
It’s not going to happen!
Start as you mean to go on, stick to a high-quality food and you won't go too wrong.
Give these strategies a try and I’m sure your cat will be tucking into their next meal with gusto! Then come back and let me know which one worked best for you and your cat. Which one did you try but didn’t seem to make much difference? And what other tips do you have for getting your fussy cat to eat? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.
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