How to encourage your cat to eat

When cats are not feeling well or stressed they may suffer from a lack of appetite.

If that happens you’ll need to try and coax them to eat, which can sometimes be difficult. Cats do, however, respond well to tender loving care.

If your cat has had an operation or has a serious illness it may not feel like eating when you take it home. The trouble with not eating is that it is a vicious circle for the cat – it feels unwell and doesn’t want to eat, without food it feels weak and more unwell, and so on. If it doesn’t eat its body will start to break down body tissue for energy in order to function, and this can slow healing. Eating is very important for recovery. Otherwise the immune system may not function properly, making the cat more susceptible to infection, and the way the cat’s body responds to the drugs intended to make it better may even be affected.

Unlike dogs, which can go without food for some time without serious consequences, cats can develop a problem called hepatic lipidosis, a disease of the liver which can be fatal. This can develop if a cat doesn’t eat even for a relatively short time (two to three days). We also know that cats have very specific needs when it comes to nutrients, and a lack of these can be dangerous too. The problem is that cats are usually not so food-orientated as dogs and can be finicky eaters, so it can be difficult to encourage them to start eating sometimes.

Are there certain foods that you just can’t face because something about them makes you feel ill? Well, cats are the same. They may avoid a certain food because they associate it with feelings of nausea that they had with a particular illness. This is called food aversion and can contribute to a cat’s loss of appetite. Food aversion can occur when a cat is feeling ill and is continuously offered a particular food or is even force-fed. The cat associates the feeling of illness with that food and will therefore try to avoid it. So if your cat seems to be lacking in appetite, don’t leave the food down, and never try to force-feed it using a syringe. 

When a cat loses its appetite you want to try all sorts of things to get it eating again. Owners often turn to baby food because it’s soft and easy to lap, and perhaps they feel it’s nourishing and reassuring too. The trouble is that many baby foods include powdered onion or garlic to help flavour the food, but onion is toxic to cats so food containing it won’t help your cat to recover!

So what can you do to encourage your cat to eat?

First of all you can ensure the cat is comfortable and feeling secure (see the section on keeping your cat happy). Give it some space away from other cats and dogs that might be making it feel it has to compete for attention, good sleeping spots and even food. Cats respond to tender loving care, and spending a little time sitting with your cat, giving it some attention and putting small pieces of food on your finger to be licked off might just help to get it started. Illness can result in food not tasting of very much, but heating it to body temperature may help to release the aromas and make food more appealing again. Using strong-flavoured foods such as fish, or tasty food such as chicken or prawns may also help.

If your cat has to avoid too much salt or some other ingredient as part of its treatment, it’s worth checking with your vet whether particular foods are off the menu. The vet may even prescribe a food that’s specially developed to aid recovery. Offer the cat little bits, praising it frequently, and stay close by if that’s what reassures it and helps it to relax and eat. If the cat doesn’t eat, then remove the food and try again a little later.

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