There aren’t many things that are more worrisome for cat parents than a cat who won’t eat. Whether it’s because they’re sick or simply finicky eaters, inappetence in cats can become a potentially life-threatening problem if not addressed sooner rather than later.
Why maintaining appropriate food intake is important for cats
Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they need adequate amounts of protein in their diet. If they don’t get enough protein, they will catabolize muscle. Cats who don’t eat for more than 24 to 48 hours are at risk of hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver.) When cats are undernourished or starved, they will metabolize their own fat reserves for energy. This fat is then released to the liver, where it is not processed efficiently and stored there, leading to a fatty and low functioning liver. If not treated this condition can be fatal.
First law of feline medicine: No matter what, you have to keep cats eating!
Appetite has been strongly lined to quality of life, which is why getting a cat to eat is especially crucial to keep sick cats eating.
What causes food aversion?
Unfortunately, cats have long memories and food aversion can be a real problem, especially with sick cats. It becomes a vicious cycle: the cat feels sick, eats a little bit, feels even more nauseous, and then associates the food with feeling sick.
Food aversion can also be caused by syringe feeding. Syringe feeding, also known as force feeding, was long considered an acceptable method to try to get nutrition into sick cats, but it can be a miserable process for both cat and human. Force feeding can cause undue stress on an already sick cat, which is not only detrimental to the cat’s healing process, but can completely destroy the bond between cat and human.
What helps enhance a cat’s appetite?
Aside from the basics – a high protein, grain-free raw, gently cooked or premium canned diet – cats appetite responds to
- Odor: the smellier the food, the more likely cats are going to be interested in it.
- Texture: for some cats, texture can make a difference. Some cats prefer pate style foods, while other like morsels or chunks.
- Temperature: never offer food straight from the refrigerator. Cats prefer food at body or room temperature.
- Add water: for some cats, adding water may encourage them to eat.
- Meal toppers: There area variety of meal toppers available to enhance the flavor of any food. Our favorite is nutritional yeast.
Nutritional yeast: the secret weapon to get finicky cats to eat
I’ve found that nutritional yeast can act like “kitty crack” for even extremely finicky hold outs. Simply sprinkle a small amount over food.
Nutritional yeast is deactivated yeast that is grown on sugarcane or beet molasses. It is sold in the form of flakes or as a yellow powder. It has a strong nutty or cheesy flavor, which is why it is used as a cheese substitute in many vegetarian or vegan recipes. It is a great source of B vitamins, a good source of potassium, and is nearly 50% protein. It is naturally low in fat, sodium and it is sugar and dairy free.
Nutritional yeast is different from brewer’s yeast, which is a by-product of the beer brewing process. Brewers yeast also contains many vital nutrients, but has a more bitter taste. Some cats seem to like it, but if you want to try brewer’s yeast, make sure to read labels: some manufacturers will add garlic, which is toxic to cats.
Medications that enhance appetite
There are a number of medications available for cats that can help prevent nausea and enhance appetite. Your veterinarian can advise you as to which medications are appropriate for your cat’s condition.
Most cat parents will balk at the idea of a feeding tube. In human medicine, feeding tube placement has end-of-life connotations. Nothing could be further from the truth in feline medicine. “Feeding tubes shorten hospital stays, reduce the stress of administering medications, and ensure that nutrition, one of the most important aspects of healing, happens safely and effectively,” says Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, a feline veterinarian and owner of Chico Hospital for Cats. “They can aid in recovery from any illness that involves multiple medications, significant oral pain or any other condition that would cause a cat not to want to eat.”
One of the best articles I’ve seen anywhere about the benefits of feeding tubes can be found on Dr. Kristopher Chandroo’s website. Dr. Kris is a veterinarian and owner of The 100x Vet in Ottawa, Canada. He shared the experience of one of his clients with a feeding tube in his comprehensive article, What to Do When They Won’t Eat at All: Pina and the E-Tube. Pina’s guardians share what worked and what didn’t work for them.
If you have any tips or tricks that worked for you to get cats to eat, please share them in a comment!