My Older Adult Cat Won't Eat: How Can I Encourage Them?

by K Marie Alto October 27, 2022 16 min read 2 Comments

My Older Adult Cat Won't Eat: How Can I Encourage Them?

As our feline fur babies get older, it’s not uncommon for them to develop health issues.

It’s also not uncommon for them to have issues with their diet.

These can crop up for all sorts of reasons, from a cold to tooth decay to something much worse, so it's understandably frightening when you realize they haven't touched their food bowl all day.

Maybe they're still drinking – it's a good sign if they are – or maybe they aren't.

Cats 🐈 are not like humans; they can’t survive for weeks on water alone. So, when you find your kitty isn’t eating it’s important to know some ways to encourage them.

In this blog post you’ll learn the main reasons why your elderly cat is not eating, along with some useful tips to encourage them to eat.

This is perhaps the most comprehensive blog post I’ve ever written. I hope my experience with my own older cat will help other pet parents going through similar times.

Happy reading, learning, and sharing! 😊

Why Is It Important That My Cat Eat Every Day?

Before we dive into ways to encourage your senior kitty to eat, it’s important to know why eating is so critical to a cat’s health.

When a cat of any age stops eating the liver compensates by breaking down the fat in their bodies to create energy.

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If eating doesn’t resume the fat can build up in the liver, limiting its function, ultimately leading to hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver disease. Left untreated this disease is fatal.

This information isn’t meant to scare you, but to show the importance of monitoring if your kitty is eating. Hepatic lipidosis can happen at any age, so it’s always a good practice to be aware of how much your kitty is eating.

Understand Why an Older Cat Won't Eat

First things first, what is considered an older cat? In the past, cats that reached the age of 8 were considered old cats. Today, a cat’s senior age stage starts between the ages of 12 – 14 years.

“Thanks to improved nutrition, living indoors, and advances in veterinary medicine, cats live longer and are now considered older at 12 to 14 years…”- Richard Goldstein, DVM | Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

If your older cat isn't eating, there are a lot of possible reasons, and understanding those reasons is the first step towards addressing the underlying problem.

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1. Illness.

Cats are masters of hiding pain and illness, a survival mechanism they have engrained in their DNA.

That's why it often seems like they go downhill extremely quickly at the end; they've been hiding how bad things are until they can't hide anymore.

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The number one cause for a lack of appetite in a cat, particularly an older cat, is illness.

This can range anywhere from the common kitty cold, to allergies, to more serious conditions like infections, kidney failure, pancreatitis, or even cancer.

Older cats often develop problems as they age, and problems that were previously well-controlled stop being as stable.

Cat Suffering From Illness Image by Toe Beans

Something as simple as a cold can cause your kitty to stop eating. They may have a little fever and their nose gets stuffy. As a result, their food may not smell strong enough to entice them to eat.

Some cats with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may have a flare and associate their food with their tummy troubles.

Other conditions such as chronic kidney disease – a super common disease in older cats - can leave your kitty feeling nauseous, and who wants to eat when they feel like throwing up?

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Pancreatitis is another condition that can cause anorexia in cats, and this is something I’ve personally dealt with – twice.

This inflammatory issue is very painful and not only kept our Sosa from eating, but she also stopped socializing.

2. Oral health issues.

Cats can't brush their teeth the way we can, and thus they commonly  suffer from tooth decay.

Getting your kitties teeth checked at their regular vet visits can help identify these problems before they get out of control.

Cat Oral Health Issues Image by Toe Beans

Oral issues, whether it's a cavity or dental abscess, a broken tooth, a loose tooth, a lesion in the mouth, a tongue problem, or something else, can all make the act of eating into an unpleasant chore.

Your cat will likely pick at or avoid food entirely because it's painful to eat.

3. Stress and household changes.

Cats are generally creatures of habit.

“…older cats cherish predictable days more than younger cats do. "Just as we become set in our ways as we get older, cats do too," Dr. Goldstein | Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

They like to hang out in the same places and do the same things each day, which is why they tend to have issues when you do something like take a vacation, change your schedule (like daylight savings time) or rearrange your furniture.

A Stressed Cat Image by Toe Beans

Travel can also stress them out, and a stressed cat may not have the appetite to eat.

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Luckily, stress can wear off, and they'll eat when the hunger overcomes their anxiety, so this is one of the easiest causes to handle.

If you haven't tried CBD oil yet, it can be effective for cats with situational anxiety.

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4. Social or antisocial eating.

Some cats are social eaters, which means they like to have someone else with them while they eat, to act as a lookout and a guard and a comforting presence.

In the wild, this role would be filled with another cat, but if they're your only feline, you'll need to be on hand to comfort them while they dine. 

Cat Demands Dad to Watch Him Eat – 43s Video

Other cats hate the vulnerability of eating.

Eating takes focus and is a distraction, and a cat that fears intrusion or food insecurity might not want anyone or anything around when they eat.

They say a watched pot never boils; a watched cat never eats.

Cat Eating Food Image by Toe Beans

If your cat is older, you likely know their preferences by now, but those preferences can change.

In particular, if your cat has recently been stressed, injured, or is ill, their habits may change, often in the more antisocial direction.  

When Is It Time to Take Your Cat to the Vet

The biggest question on your mind is probably if and when you need to take your fur baby to the vet.

If they aren't eating, do you need to rush them to the emergency vet, schedule an ASAP appointment, just give them a call to get some advice, or skip the vet and handle it yourself?

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Unfortunately, there's no single answer to this question and a lot of it will depend on whether the situation has happened before.

The first thing you should do is watch your furry friend and see what other behaviors or symptoms they may have.

If your cat has occasional bouts with food aversion but will eat if you can get the circumstances just right, it's possible they aren’t ill and just want you to run to the pet supply store to get them a new food option.

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Just like us, cats can also get tired of eating the same thing and sometimes are up for a change. My 18-year-old Sosa does that all the time.  

And so, I keep a smorgasbord of different types of food that allows me to spice up her menu options.

If your fur baby has some symptoms of something else going on, like signs of a toothache, a runny nose, sneezing, or congestion, you'll want to call your vet and ask for advice.

They can tell you if you should try some at home treatment options or if you should bring them in for examination.

A Cat at the Vet Image by Toe Beans

If your feline friend has more pronounced symptoms, particularly if they are withdrawing and hiding, you’ll want to schedule an appointment and bring your fur baby in for a vet check.

This is also true if they haven't eaten in more than a couple of days; weight loss and the associated health issues that come from it can come on quickly.

Finally, if your older adult cat is very food averse, has refused to eat for a couple of days, seems ill or in pain, or is even aggressive when you try to feed them, an emergency vet trip may be in order.

Something worse may be going on under the surface, and it's reached a breaking point where they can't hide it anymore, and you need to address it.

To be clear, if your cat hasn't eaten for more than a couple of days, it's best to at least call your vet to talk to them about it.

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They'll be able to ask questions to gauge what other symptoms you might be dealing with, including some you may not have known to think about, and can determine if a vet trip is appropriate.

You don't want to let your cat struggle for longer than necessary, and an unnecessary vet trip is way better than unnecessary suffering.

In single-cat households, monitoring a cat’s eating habits is very simple. It all comes down to keeping a watchful eye on the amount of food remaining in the bowl. Pretty straight forward, right?

But what if you have 2, 3, 4 or more cats? One common challenge faced by multi-cat households is identifying when one cat isn’t eating.

One thing all pet parents with multi-cat households should not do is to free feed. This includes using any kind of electronic feeders. Wait, what?

The set-it-and-forget-it nature of these feeders will very likely prevent you from realizing early on when one of your kitties isn’t eating.

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As discussed above, liver failure happens very fast in cats. Keeping a close eye on your fur children eating habits is a must do for every pet parent. Especially if all of them are older cats.

My best advice is to never free feed when you have multiple cats.

Of course, I’m not recommending that you get rid of that fancy and expensive feeder you just purchased that comes with a fancy app that allows you to monitor all sorts of things, not at all.

My advice is to use that feeder and any automatic food dispenser for exceptions and not the norm. For example, you may want to take a short vacation, or perhaps do a little mid-day meal while you’re at work.

When you have to be away and use the feeder, have your neighbor check on your cats every day during your absence. Your cats will thank you.

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How to Encourage Your Older Adult Cat to Eat

If your older fur baby won't eat, don’t worry, you’re not alone, and you do have options.

There are lot of different things you can try, and as they won't all work, it's worth experimenting. Just keep in mind that if a technique doesn't work, it’s best to try another method.

1. Lightly warm their food.

By heating up their food, particularly if it's wet food, helps make it a lot easier for them (and you, unfortunately) to smell it.

Warming Up Food Image by Toe Beans

Sometimes, your cat may be losing their sense of smell, either because of congestion or age.

As that happens, they'll be less likely to even know food is available. Warming it up (and stirring it carefully to avoid hot spots) can make it more obvious for them.

2. Add a bit of water to their dry food.

This can be an important option to make it easier to eat dry food. You don't want to turn it into mush completely, but a little bit of moisture can make it easier to eat.

Cat Eating Dry Food Image by Toe Beans

This is also one of the indications that your fur baby may be having a tooth problem; if wet food is fine but dry food isn't, it might be because they have a hard time chewing it without pain.

“When a cat ages, his teeth may go bad, or he may develop gum disease that may make it difficult to chew dry food. "If they get to that point, then offer them canned food or dry in a finer nugget size,” Dr. Kallfelz. | Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

3. Add something they like to their dish.

There are a few flavors that are extremely attractive to felines and can make them all the more interested in eating, even when they were turning their nose up.

Cat Eating Something They Like Image by Toe Beans

Some options include:

  • A small amount of low-sodium, no-onion, no garlic chicken broth instead of water.
  • A small amount of the juice from a plain can of low/no-sodium tuna (not the kind stored in oil, though.)
  • A small amount of fish oil, preferably a pet-safe variety.
  • A small amount of nutritional yeast; it has a slightly nutty, cheesy flavor cats love.

You don't want to saturate the food in these substances, of course; just add enough to entice them with the smell. 

These options can also be tried in combination with the lightly warming their food option.

4. Try a dash of catnip.

Catnip stimulates feline senses.

For some cats, it can make them sleepy; for others, it gives them energy. Still others aren't really affected by it at all.

Cat With Catnip Image by Toe Beans

Either way, a bit of catnip can be worth a shot; it might help stimulate their appetite enough to make them finally take a few bites. 

Just beware, not all catnips are created equal, and some may actually do more harm than good to your cat.

Before you rush to purchase the first catnip you find online, make sure to read my guide on how to buy non-toxic catnip for cats here.

5. Change up the food to a different flavor.

In particular, for wet foods, flavor matters.

Even if it's a food that your cat has been enjoying for years, they may simply decide that they don't like it anymore.

Here‘s something to consider, if your kitty isn’t feeling well, they may associate it with their food. 

For years my Sosa ate (and loved) a specific brand of wet food. After she recovered from her first case of pancreatitis, she refused to eat the food – ever again.

Cat Sniffing Foods Image by Toe Beans

Changing from chicken to fish, or to liver, or another flavor can be a good way to check if they'll be interested in something else.

6. Stick with them (or leave) when they eat.

This is going back to that social/antisocial eating thing.

In many cases, a social eater can eat alone if they feel secure where they live, and an antisocial eater can eat in company if they trust you, so you may not have noticed their preference once they settled into your lives.

Cat Eating With Owner Image by Toe Beans

However, if they're stressed or ill, their tendencies may become more dramatic, so they may want you nearby or want to be left alone. So, try them both out and see if they help. Some cats are more needy than others!

7. Move their food dish.

Sometimes, a food aversion can come from some source of stress or trauma related to the location, not the food or their own health.

Cats like to feel safe while they eat, and if something scared them when they were eating, they may no longer consider that location a safe space to chow down.

Moving Cat's Food Dish Image by Toe Beans

So, consider moving their food to another location, preferably one they like to hang out in when they're feeling good.

8. Change their bowl.

Sometimes, the bowl you use to feed your cat may be the culprit.

Any number of things can go wrong with a dish; maybe it needs washing, or it was washed, and the residue of the soap is still on it. Sometimes, a deeper bowl can irritate your fur baby's whiskers (leading to whisker fatigue) and turn them off from eating from it.

Changing Cat's Food Bowl Image by Toe Beans

You can try out serving food on a plate or shallow dish, changing their bowl or otherwise changing how you feed them and see if any of those steps help.

9. It's time for a vet appointment.

If all else fails, it’s time to head to the vet.

Your vet will be able to run some tests to identify any underlying acute or chronic health condition that might be causing your cat to not eat.

When you head to the appointment, come armed with any other changed behaviors you’ve noticed, how long they’ve been going on, and any things you’ve tried to help.

Your vet has a lot of tools that can be added to the list to help your kitty eat. The first being to address the cause – perhaps your kitty has an infection and needs an antibiotic.

Or perhaps they have pancreatitis and need pain meds. Is nausea perhaps the culprit? There’s a pill for that too.

Vet Providing Cat Medications Image by Toe Beans

Blood work and a urinalysis can reveal a lot of potential illnesses, but sometimes additional imagining may be needed too.

In the end your vet may send you home with a variety of medications to help your kitty kick their illness to the curb. Some of these medications might include:

  • Antibiotics – these will help knock out an infection. Be sure to finish the entire course of treatment, even if your kitty is feeling better.
  • Anti-nausea meds – there are a couple of go-to options your vet might give you.
  • Pain meds – this is a very common treatment for pancreatitis to help your kitty remain comfortable while they heal.
  • Fluids – your vet will check your kitty’s gums and may do a skin fold pinch test to see if your kitty is dehydrated. If they are, you may be sent home with a bag of fluids and some needles to administer them subcutaneously.
  • An appetite stimulant – appetite stimulants and anti-nausea medications often go hand-in-hand because you don’t want to make a cat hungry that feels like throwing up.

Keep in mind that it can take time for a sick kitty to start feeling better, so you may need to return to some of the suggestions above like warming their food or choosing a nice fishy smelling option to encourage them to eat.

Caring For A Sick Older Cat That Won’t Eat

I mentioned earlier that my 18-year-old Sosa has had two bouts of pancreatitis.

The first time, the treatment went pretty smoothly. I closely followed the medication schedule and bought a variety of fishy wet foods (she had only had chicken wet food up until that point).

A little warming of the food and offering it multiple times a day, after a few days she was almost back to normal.

The second case wasn’t as simple. Sosa had a high fever this time, she had licked her nose raw, and also had an upset stomach.

Her vet appointment was on a Friday morning and after many tests, poking, and prodding, she received her first dose of all of her meds and we went home with our fingers crossed, but not feeling hopeful based on her current state.

She was being treated for an infection on top of the pancreatitis, so we were sent home with all the medications noted above. We were at a desperate time in our lives. Given her fragile state and age, the doctor was really concerned that she wasn't going to be able to overcome the infection.

She looked miserable, had lost a substantial amount of weight, and was hot to the touch. She did nothing but sleep the rest of the day.

That evening, I setup a humidifier in her room to help with her congestion. Unfortunately, she didn’t eat anything overnight despite the variety of options I left for her. That's when I began  hand feeding her.

Every couple of hours I would wake her up and offer her a bit of wet food or treats. It was a bite here and a bit there, but hey it was progress.

Left to her own devises the bowls of nearby food were ignored. Later we tried a meat tube treat during her sub-cutaneous fluids and she was interested.

Meat tubes are not nutritionally balanced, but we had an idea. We crushed the treats she was eating (which according to the manufacturer can actually be fed as a balanced meal) and mixed them with the meat tube in a sandwich bag and fed it to her out of a cut corner.

It worked like a charm! She ate a little and was finally getting some good balanced calories into her frail body.

The hand feeding many many small meals was working – in fact it was the only thing that was working (well of course the meds too).

The stronger she got the more treats we put into the meat tube mix making it thicker and thicker like a pate wet food.

It took about 3 days before our Sosa turned a corner and by a full week, we were able to stop most of the meds.

At this point though and still to this day (this article was written 8 months after the incident) she’s decided she doesn’t want any wet or dry food and she still prefers to be hand fed.

She pretty much only eats nutritionally balanced treats now – certainly not ideal, but keeping an 18-year-old cat eating is less about “high quality” food and more about balanced calories.

I still use many of the methods above to encourage her to eat. A little warmed wet food – of all different varieties – with a little tuna juice or a little meat tube topper.

Sosa cat eating a meat tube

I’m constantly changing up the flavor of the treats and I like to add catnip to her wet food. She also has food and water options in all of her favorite napping spots.

Overall, Sosa still prefers being hand fed, and what my little love wants, she gets.

In closing I’ll leave you with a few additional recommendations to encourage your older cat to eat:

  • Feed smaller more frequent meals.
  • Variety is often the spice of life for an older cat, so avoid buying cases of something they like, because tomorrow they may not (it’s like they know a full case arrived so it’s time to start boycotting).
  • Try different textures of wet food. Pate, shredded, cuts, in gravy, etc. They all have different appeal levels to a kitty that isn’t eating.
  • Keep in touch with your vet. If your kitty is ill, tweaks in medication may be needed as you try to get over the hump of the worst of the illness.
  • Take notes. It can be hard to remember what worked and what didn’t. It’s also helpful to know the results of starting or stopping a med, especially when they can be given at different intervals.
  • Reach out to groups with similar issues. In particular, there are a bunch of facebook groups for cats with health conditions and they are often a wealth of knowledge, if not another person to remotely lean on.
  • Don’t be discouraged. Getting an older cat to eat is often challenging and can be emotionally draining. Just do the best you can and enjoy each day you have with your baby.

Have you ever had to deal with a situation where your fur baby wasn't eating? If so, what did you do to resolve the issue, or did it simply resolve itself? Be sure to leave your stories down below; I'd love to hear them all!

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 30K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).

2 Responses

K. Marie - toe beans team
K. Marie - toe beans team

November 07, 2022

Marian – I’m sorry to hear about your fur baby’s diagnosis. It sounds like with persistence and patience you really managed to turn around a bad situation. I’m so glad to hear your little guy has gained two pounds! That’s a huge success for not only a senior but one with lymphoma!

Marian
Marian

November 07, 2022

My senior kitty (15/M) stopped eating last year. I took him to the vet and they put him on Prednisone for lymphoma. Getting the meds in him at home was hell until I figured out to crush it up and mix it with a broth cat treat and/or meat tube. The first week or so was awful, trying to get him to eat anything, since he refuses canned food. Cat milk worked until he was up for his regular food. After trying several different foods, we finally went with kitten chow, and at his last checkup, he had gained two whole pounds. He even plays with the other cats, as long as he thinks I’m not looking.

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