Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
Urgent, for my own sanity! My 18-month-old cat will not eat. He wants to. He goes to his bowl and sniffs, then looks up at me like “You don’t expect me to eat this, do you?”
He refuses dry food outright. I have tried more than a dozen flavors, textures, anything I can think of. If he is really hungry, he will eat a few bites and I think “Oh good, I’ve found one he likes.” The next time I put it in his bowl, he won’t eat it. He lives on cat treats. I know it is bad, but I don’t know what to do. He is nearly perfect in every other way.
This is my second cat. The first one ran away at about the same age. I think I am scared Kitty Kat will do the same thing if I don’t satisfy his hunger. Please tell me what to do. I am so stressed.
Siouxsie: Ah, the feline food snob–the bane of a cat owner’s existence.
Thomas: In any case of refusal to eat, the first thing you want to do is rule out any medical problems. So we’d recommend a trip to the vet in order to make sure your kitty isn’t having dental problems or other issues that make it hard for him to eat.
Dahlia: This is particularly important if the behavior started recently. If he’s been eating anything you put down and then suddenly stopped, that’s a clue there may be a medical problem.
Siouxsie: If your kitty gets a clean bill of health, you’ll know that his refusal to eat is psychological or behavioral. Then you need to look at his previous diet.
Thomas: You don’t mention how long you’ve had this cat, so we’re not sure if you adopted him recently or if he’s been with you for a while.
Dahlia: If he has been with you for a while and there was a food he liked to eat, the problem could be that he doesn’t like the sudden change of diet. This could also be true if you recently got him from a shelter where he was fed a certain type of food.
Siouxsie: Most of us cats like to have some variety in our diet, but some are resistant to change.
Thomas: There are also some types of food that can be “addictive” because of strong smell or flavor. Canned tuna-flavor cat food is typically the worst offender in this regard. Tuna has a very strong smell (as you know if you’ve used it), and cheap tuna cat food often contains salt and other additives to make it more tempting.
Dahlia: The problem with this “tuna addiction” is that tuna is actually one of the worst foods a cat can eat in the long term because it lacks some crucial nutrients such as taurine–an amino acid crucial to a cat’s health. And if your cat is used to eating human-grade tuna, he can develop a vitamin E deficiency (tuna cat food actually has vitamin E supplements that can solve this problem).
Siouxsie: Cats are carnivores by nature and will do better on a red meat- or poultry-based canned food.
Thomas: So what can you do to get your cat eating again?
Dahlia: You’re going to have to ease him into his new diet, a little bit at a time. You’re also going to have to begin using the cat treats as a reward rather than a substitute for cat food.
Siouxsie: If your cat ate only canned food, mix a little bit of kibble with his canned food. Make sure to adjust the amount of canned food you feed so that your cat isn’t taking in too many calories; otherwise, he’ll start gaining weight. Start with maybe a tablespoon of kibble in the canned food and progressively add more kibble and less canned food.
Thomas: If he eats around the kibble and only eats the canned food, just keep on feeding him the same amount of kibble with his canned food until he begins to eat the kibble as well.
Dahlia: Through gradually adding the kibble to the canned food, you should be able to switch him over with some time and patience.
Siouxsie: If your cat previously ate a different brand of kibble, use the same technique. Mix a little bit of the new kibble into his old kibble and gradually increase the proportion of the new brand to the old brand until he’s eating only the new brand.
Thomas: When your cat finishes his meal, give him one cat treat as a reward.
Dahlia: Be careful of feeding your cat too many treats. Cat treats are often higher in calories than regular cat food and generally don’t have the nutrients cats need to stay healthy. Giving your cat a lot of treats can cause weight gain and nutrition problems.
Siouxsie: Some people say you should just serve the new food and refuse to accommodate your cat’s food snobbery. Eventually, these people say, the cat will eat whatever is put down when he gets hungry enough.
Thomas: There is a danger to this technique, though, because cats can get very ill if they don’t eat. When cats don’t eat, they can develop fatty liver disase, which can lead to life-threatening consequences.
Dahlia: That’s why we recommend a gradual transition to a new brand or type of cat food rather than simply refusing to feed your cat anything other than what you want him to eat.
Siouxsie: Your vet may also be able to recommend some other techniques for getting your cat to eat. Vets have encountered plenty of “food snobs” among their feline (and canine) patients and will undoubtedly have some wisdom to pass on.
Thomas: Finally, let us add that we really don’t think your cat is going to run away just because you and he are not communicating well on the food issue. If your cat goes outside, he may already be supplementing his diet with rodents and birds. Sometimes this, too, can lead to decreased food consumption.
Dahlia: If your cat is well bonded with you and enjoys your company, he’s probably not going to run away–whether or not you’re feeding him his preferred food. Good luck, Marilyn.