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Why is My Cat Not Eating or Drinking?

Despite their comfortable modern lifestyle as family pets, many cats retain the instinct to hide signs of illness, pain, or weakness.

That’s why it can be challenging to tell if a kitty isn’t feeling well, especially in the early stages.

So if your cat isn’t eating — whether the change happened suddenly or gradually over time — it’s important to seek veterinary care to determine if there’s an illness behind this behavior change.

Here are some important things to know if your cat has stopped eating.

What Causes a Cat to Stop Eating?

A loss of appetite is referred to as “anorexia,” whereas “Hyporexia” or inappetence means a pet is eating less than normal (although the term anorexia is commonly used to describe both scenarios).

There are many possible reasons why a kitty may refuse their food. Here are some of the most common causes:

  • An upset stomach for any reason (eating spoiled food, sweets, or garbage, having a hairball, etc.).
  • Finicky eating habits.
  • A food change.
  • Stress or emotional causes (for example, while boarding, while an owner is out of town, or a change at home).
  • Dental problems that make it difficult to chew food.
  • Pain anywhere in the body.
  • Parasites (like roundworms or Giardia).
  • Infections, especially upper respiratory infections that can cause fever, mouth ulcers, a sore throat, or a temporarily decreased sense of smell.
  • Food allergies, IBD, or other digestive tract issues.
  • Toxin ingestion.
  • Foreign body ingestion (for example, swallowing a string, toy, or other item that could get stuck and cause an intestinal blockage).
  • Medication side effects.
  • An underlying medical condition (kidney or liver disease, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, cancer, etc.).

SEE ALSO: Cat Diarrhea: Causes and Treatment

What About a Cat Who’s Not Drinking Water?

It’s very unusual for a kitty to not drink enough water if their food intake is normal. If you think your cat isn’t get enough water, though, try a kitty water fountain. Some cats prefer moving water to sitting water, and the noise of running water attracts them to the fountain to drink. Here are some additional tips and tricks.

One possible cause for decreased water intake, though, could be a food change. If you start incorporating canned food or another higher moisture content food into your cat’s diet, your pet may drink less water from their bowl since they’re getting more water at mealtimes. This is perfectly normal, so no need to worry.

But if your kitty is also eating less than usual, or if you are concerned, go ahead and schedule a veterinary appointment

On the other end of the spectrum, if your cat is drinking more water than usual in combination with not eating, this could be a symptom of a health problem such as diabetes or kidney disease. It’s important you talk to your vet if this is happening to your pet.

What Is the Treatment for a Cat Who’s Not Eating or Drinking?

Treatment for a kitty who’s refusing their food consists of two components: treating the underlying cause and providing supportive care.

Directly addressing the underlying cause is important to ensure the loss of appetite is truly resolved (or managed as well as possible in the case of chronic illness). Without treating the underlying cause, anorexia could return after supportive care is discontinued.

To determine why a cat stopped eating, a veterinarian will take a detailed history (ask you about your cat’s symptoms, any changes in the home, history of travel, etc.) and perform a physical exam to check your pet’s overall health and look for any abnormalities that could explain the loss of appetite (such as a respiratory infection or dental problem).

Diagnostic tests are commonly needed to reach a diagnosis, since these tests give your vet more information about what’s going on inside your pet’s body. Common tests include:

  • A fecal check (to look for parasites).
  • Bloodwork and a urinalysis.
  • X-rays or ultrasound.
  • Tests for infectious diseases.
  • Depending on your cat’s history and symptoms, additional testing may be recommended, such as biopsies or a food trial on a prescription diet.

Once a diagnosis is reached, targeted treatment is prescribed. For example, a cat with a bad tooth will be scheduled for a dental procedure to remove it, and a kitty who’s stressed about a change in the home may be prescribed calming supplements.

Regardless of cause, supportive care is important to help a sick cat feel better, prevent complications of not eating, and promote healing.

Supportive care varies depending on a cat’s needs and symptoms, but common treatments include:

  • Medications for nausea.
  • Antacids or stomach protectants.
  • Appetite stimulants.
  • Pain medications.
  • Fluid therapy (electrolyte balanced fluids administered under the skin or via an IV catheter).
  • Diets for sensitive stomachs or hairball control.
  • Extra measures to increase appetite or make food more palatable, like:
    • Offering canned food or a special treat to tempt appetite.
    • Warming food up to body temperature to increase the aroma.
    • Hand feeding while giving extra praise and attention.
  • If needed, hospitalization and placement of a feeding tube. This is usually reserved for pets who need nutritional support for a longer period of time.

Remember: Never give your sick cat medications without checking with your vet first — many are toxic to pets!

SEE ALSO: Alternative Diets 101

What Do You Do When Your Cat Won’t Eat?

If your kitty at any age (from kitten to senior cat) stops eating, do you need to take them to the vet right away? Or, is it okay to wait until morning — or even to monitor for a few days if your kitty is acting normal otherwise?

With cats, don’t wait to see if appetite will improve. Cats who don’t eat for more than a day or two are at risk for a condition called fatty liver, which can cause liver failure. Fatty liver, or hepatic lipidosis, happens when the body moves stored fat to use for energy during anorexia. The process overwhelms the liver, which is involved in processing the stored fat. Obese or overweight kitties are at the highest risk, but fatty liver can happen to any cat.

Other potential complications of not eating include dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, weight loss, and delayed healing and recoveries.

If your vet has ruled out a medical condition and has determined your kitty’s loss of appetite is due to picky eating habits, they can discuss techniques to establish a healthy eating schedule. Your vet may also recommend trying a new food or try switching from dry food to canned food. Some cat owners have also had success with mixing in fish oil or a small amount of canned tuna into their cat's meal. Just remember, you don't want to rely on feeding you cat human foods as your pet won't get all of the nutrients they need (that's why we suggest trying a canned cat food first).

SEE ALSO: Why Your Cat Is Throwing Up

Regardless of what is causing the loss of appetite, addressing the issue with your veterinarian as soon as possible provides your kitty with the best possible care — before an underlying medical condition progresses or complications develop.

Prompt care will also help your kitty feel like their normal self again as soon as possible. 

If you're cat isn't drinking or isn't eating, book an appointment with us. We'll discuss your concerns and run diagnostics to pinpoint the issue, if necessary.

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