There’s almost nothing we wouldn’t do for our beloved felines. We scoop their litter box. We tolerate biting and 3 a.m. zoomies. We would let our arm go numb rather than disturb their nap time, and we support them during long hours at the biscuit factory (aka kneading). Of course, we also try to feed our felines the very best food.
If you find your cat isn’t eating, you may view it as an act of defiance (hello, picky eaters), or you may be concerned that something is seriously wrong. While cats can go weeks without food and three to four days without water, if your cat doesn’t eat for 24 hours, it’s a sign that you should monitor for any sickness, pain, or stress that may be affecting their appetite.
Many reasons could explain why your cat is not eating. Learn how long a cat can go without food and follow tips for getting your cat to eat.
How Long Can A Cat Go Without Eating?
A cat’s dietary needs vary based on their activity level, reproductive status, health condition, and age, with kittens being most vulnerable to the effects of a change in eating habits. Cats can survive for two weeks without food; however, this long without food can cause health problems.
“In my practice, we see cats that stop eating due to many different underlying health complaints or sometimes because of extreme stress,” says Dr. Rebecca MacMillan, BVetMed, BSAVA, PGCertSAM, MRCVS. “This lack of appetite can have health-damaging consequences in as little as two to seven days. A cat that is anorexic (not eating) will start to break down the fatty tissue in their body to get an alternative source of energy, but this can overwhelm the liver. Triglycerides from the fatty tissue can build up in the liver cells, which stops them from being able to function properly. This condition is called hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver).”
Because a cat’s health can deteriorate quickly if they aren’t eating, you should closely monitor your cat until they begin eating again. If your cat refuses to eat for more than 24 hours, it’s time to schedule an appointment with your vet.
Why Is My Cat Not Eating?
If your feline companion has gone on a hunger strike, there could be various factors to blame.
13 Reasons Why Your Cat Won’t Eat
- Allergies: Food allergies can cause an upset stomach, which deters your cat from eating. If you notice symptoms like lack of appetite, skin inflammation (rash, sores), increased scratching or biting, or other digestive problems (diarrhea, vomiting), it could be a sign that your cat is experiencing a dietary allergy.
- Anxiety: Like humans, anxiety can look different from feline to feline. Signs of an anxious or stressed cat include hiding, over-grooming, peeing outside the litter box, mood swings, and appetite changes. If you just brought a feline into your home and they won’t eat, they’re likely nervous and stressed.
- Dental pain: Injuries or infections cause chewing and eating to feel painful. If your cat’s loss of appetite is accompanied by stinky breath, drooling, or signs of discomfort, they may need a dental check. Common dental issues or cats include gingivitis, periodontitis, and fractured teeth.
- Depression: If your cat stops eating but shows no other indicators of a health problem, they could be depressed. Follow our tips to support a lonely or depressed cat, which includes interactive play, environmental enrichment, and supplemental support.
- Foreign objects: If your cat ate string or any other foreign object, they’ll likely have digestive problems such as decreased appetite, diarrhea, and vomiting. Swallowing foreign objects can be dangerous. Contact your vet immediately if you believe your cat swallowed a foreign object.
- Gastrointestinal issues: If your cat is experiencing nausea, abdominal discomfort, vomiting, or diarrhea, they may be reluctant to eat.
- Medications: Taking certain medications could result in a lack of appetite. If this side effect lasts over a day or two, contact your vet.
- New Food: In an ideal situation, you would slowly transition your cat to a new diet. Change is hard for everyone, especially cats. If your cat isn’t eating their new food, they may need more time to settle into their new routine.
- Pickiness: If you’ve got a picky eater on your hands, the taste, texture, or smell of food could cause your cat to skip a meal.
- Respiratory problems: Cats with respiratory infections will have a decreased sense of smell, which can also affect their appetite.
- Slow metabolism: As felines age, their metabolism naturally slows down.
- Travel: The stress of travel or even motion sickness could result in a loss of appetite for your furry friend.
- Underlying health condition: Various other medical issues result in a loss of appetite, including cancer, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, liver problems, and pancreatitis.
Our Personal Experience With Cats Not Eating
I have owned cats for over 35 years and have experienced many different health situations with them. On two separate occasions, I have had cats refuse to eat. This cat was named Ace, and he was a Siamese mix. Ace was a very active kitty and weighed about 25 pounds at 6 years old. He was always very excited to eat. One morning he seemed uninterested in his food. Later that day, I gave him some fresh tuna from a can, one of his favorite treats. He took a few sniffs but turned that away too. That evening I called the vet and made an appointment for the next afternoon. By the time I got Ace there, he was very low energy and had not eaten for about two days. Sadly, after tests, it turned out he was in end-stage kidney failure. He had never given a single sign of pain or discomfort, and I had no clue he was sick until he stopped eating. By then, it was too late to do anything to help him, and we had to make the hard decision to end his pain.
Years later, I have another cat, also a male named Zaphod. He is now about 11 years old. When he was 5, he started to become low energy and lost interest in eating. He was drinking a minimal amount of water. While he did not show signs of sickness, I took him to the vet that same afternoon. He had developed struvite crystals in his urinary tract. This was causing him a lot of pain and blood in his urine. He needed to be put on a special prescription diet with lots of extra moisture. It took several months to get him back to full health. However, it was his refusal to eat that tipped me off to something being wrong. Getting him medical treatment as soon as I could was a huge part of saving his life and giving him the best chance at a full recovery.Danielle DeGroot, Love Your Cat Writer and longtime cat owner
Fatty Liver In Cats (A Vet’s Expert Opinion)
Contrary to humans and dogs, cats become sick quickly when not eating. Cats who don’t eat for a day or two risk developing fatty liver, which can cause liver failure.
“In my experience, cats with fatty liver can present with sudden weight loss, a swollen liver (which may cause an enlarged abdomen), dehydration, vomiting, and jaundice, which causes a yellow tinge to their skin and mucous membranes,” says MacMillan. Because a lack of eating almost always precedes fatty liver, MacMillan warns against putting your cat on a restrive diet to lose weight, saying that this sudden change could trigger a potentially fatal condition.
“If fatty liver is caught early, it is treatable with hospitalization and supportive care,” says MacMillan. “Affected cats require intravenous fluids to correct any dehydration, along with nutritional support. This is usually in the form of a feeding tube with a careful reintroduction of food. Your cat will also require blood tests to monitor their liver values and to check for electrolyte imbalances, as well as to screen for any other underlying illnesses.”
According to MacMillan, fatty liver can be fatal if not treated quickly. “I would urge owners to seek help from a vet early on if they are worried about their cat’s appetite, as this leads to better outcomes. The good news is that if a cat successfully recovers from fatty liver, then they are very unlikely to experience a recurrence of the condition.”
How Can I Get My Cat To Eat?
While it’s best to seek veterinary guidance if your cat doesn’t eat, there are steps you can take within the first 24 hours to encourage your cat to break their fast.
5 Ways To Encourage Your Cat To Eat
- Move your cat’s food bowl: For an anxious cat, moving their food bowl to a low-traffic area, away from loud noises and other animals, can encourage eating. Always keep your cat’s food bowl away from their litter box.
- Replace/clean the food bowl: A dirty food bowl is unappetizing and may cause your cat not to eat. Make sure your cat’s food and water dish are clean. A food dish that’s too deep can cause whisker fatigue, where your cat experiences stress from sensory overload. Try a wide, low-profile bowl or switch the bowl’s material (try stainless steel or ceramic) if your cat won’t eat.
- Change food type: If your cat shows little interest in their current food, switch it up. If you recently switched to a new cat food, allow your cat to eat the food they like, and you can eventually try transitioning to a different food again. For cats that normally eat dry food but won’t eat, try giving them wet food.
- Add a topper: Add every flavor using meal toppers. Options include broth, fish oil, pumpkin flakes, and freeze-dried fish or other meaty treats.
- Try heating the food: Cats like warm food, plus heat will make the food more aromatic.
If none of these techniques work, contact your vet. There may be a serious health condition at play that requires medical intervention.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can A Cat Survive Five Days Without Food?
Yes, a cat can survive up to two weeks without food as long as they drink water. Still, it is hazardous for a cat to go without food for this long. After three days of fasting, your cat’s fat stores will begin to break down for energy use. This can lead to a build-up of fat in your cat’s liver, a condition called hepatic lipidosis—aka fatty liver.
What Do You Feed A Cat That Won’t Eat?
If your cat won’t eat cat food, get creative by adding human food. Try feeding them a can of tuna or anchovies with added water (make sure it’s a low-sodium option). Sprinkle a bit of Parmesan cheese or add a dollop of cottage cheese to their regular food.
If your cat still doesn’t eat, talk to your vet. There are appetite-stimulating medications that may be an option for your kitty.
Cats can go without food for two weeks and water for three days. While it’s easy to downplay a cat’s low appetite, it’s essential to monitor your cat for signs of anorexia. If your cat hasn’t eaten for 24 hours, it’s unlikely to cause any long-term harm, but it indicates they aren’t feeling the best. Look for signs of a specific underlying health condition and contact your vet for additional support.