My Cat Won't Eat: Feeding Picky Eaters

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CRPP

Behavior, Nutrition, Pet Services

I have a cat that is a very fussy eater, and she will sometimes just refuse to eat her meal. What can I do?

Because cat foods are so palatable now, it is not as common to find a picky eater, but it can happen. Pet owners can actually help to create a fussy eater by taking advantage of the huge variety among cat foods; different kibble flavors and sizes, different textures and flavors of canned foods, pouches of semi-moist food, and freshly packaged meals in the refrigerator section of the grocery or pet store. It appears that for some cats, providing lots of variety, different flavors, styles, and textures, can overwhelm a cat with choices. For some cats, too much of a good thing (e.g., lots of food variety) is not necessarily a good thing!

"Pet owners can actually help to create a fussy eater by taking advantage of the huge variety among cat foods."

A cat who will eat one diet for a while, then lose interest may have a problem digesting the food so be sure to have that ruled out by a veterinarian before considering your cat to be a picky eater. As long as a cat is not ill, either with a chronic illness such as inflammatory bowel disease, kidney disease, or with an acute illness such as a respiratory infection, she can actually survive for several days without eating. Most cats will not hold out very long before their survival instinct kicks in and they take your advice to eat what is offered. Unlike dogs, however, we must be very careful about attempting to jump start a cat's eating by simply holding out to force them to eat what is offered. If a cat has any predisposition at all, just a few days of not eating can cause a potentially fatal condition called hepatic lipidosis.

One approach is to offer food at a morning mealtime, leave it out for 15-30 minutes, then take it away until the next mealtime. At the next mealtime, offer the food again for 15-30 minutes. Whatever is not consumed is removed. This approach works best with dry kibble. If you offer canned food, it is best to discard what is not eaten in order to prevent illness from spoiled food. Unfortunately, this means wasting food. To reduce waste, offer just a small amount of food per meal, gradually increasing to an appropriate meal size as the smaller volumes are eaten consistently. Offer frequent meals initially – at least 4-5 meals a day to avoid too little calorie consumption. As your cat starts eating more at each meal, you can try decreasing meal frequency.

"It may be that the cat really does prefer a particular texture or flavor of food."

It may be that the cat really does prefer a particular texture or flavor of food. For these cats, once you identify a texture, dry, canned, or semi-moist, that they will eat, stick with that formulation for consistency's sake. For the semi-moist and canned food eaters, offer very small amounts at any one time. For a cat who is willing to eat dry, but just not all at once, it is reasonable to measure out the entire day's portion all at once in the morning. Yet another option is to utilize a preferred canned food formulation as a ‘top dressing’ on dry kibble. Some canned cat food has a gravy component that may be used as a way to increase the cat's interest in meal time.

One important consideration in dealing with a feline picky eater is to resist the temptation to begin feeding human food willy-nilly from the table. Once human food is given like this, it becomes much more difficult to transition back to balanced cat foods. It is actually quite difficult to balance a cat's long-term nutrition when feeding them homemade food. Over time, taste preferences may emerge that lead to deficiencies of particular nutrients. Also, there are currently no commercially prepared, validated mixtures of macro- and micro-nutrients for adding to homemade cat foods.

"There are some human food options that can increase the appeal of a cat's regular food and encourage consumption of the preferred nutrient profile."

While relying only on human food for feline sustenance is not a good idea, there are some human food options that can increase the appeal of a cat's regular food and encourage consumption of the preferred nutrient profile. Be sure to check with your veterinarian to determine if any of these suggestions are suitable for your cat, and to verify how much you can add in a day without risking weight gain.

  • No-salt-added chicken or vegetable broth.
  • Fresh or frozen water-based vegetables (green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, etc.).
  • The occasional dry-scrambled egg.

One last consideration for cats who are ’fussy eaters’; there appears to be a segment of the domestic cat population that simply eats when they feel like it. These cats may simply not want to eat on the schedule we have chosen for them. It may be argued that having such a cat, one who is not a voracious eater but who grazes, is a blessing. Owners of gluttons can barely imagine what it must be like to have a picky eater!

Free First Exam

Our pet care experts can't wait to welcome you. 

Find a Local VCA

We're here for you and your pet in 43 states. 
VCA is here for you and your pet Find A Hospital
Loading... Please wait