Unlike dogs, cats have a reputation for being somewhat fussy when it comes to food, but I think the word is somewhat of a misnomer. Cats aren’t intentionally fussy, there’s always a reason why a cat becomes fussy over food. This article looks at common causes of food rejection in cats and what you can do to overcome this.
Food bowl issues
- Small and narrow food bowls are uncomfortable to many cats. Your cat’s whiskers are extremely sensitive to stimuli, and many cats don’t like the feeling of their whiskers touching the side of their food bowl.
- Plastic food bowls can have a smell which puts cats off, as well as that, over time, plastic bowls can develop scratches which trap bacteria and smells. The best type of bowls for cats are glass, ceramic or stainless steel.
- Dirty food bowls can harbour smells of rotting food remnants as well as bacteria. Cats are guided by their nose and have an excellent sense of smell. Your cat’s food bowl should be washed at least once a day in hot soapy water and rinsed out thoroughly.
- Inappropriate location of food bowls can deter cats from eating. That may include food bowls which are placed too close to litter trays, cats don’t like to eat near their toilet any more than we do. If your cat has to walk past the snappy dog, or another household cat who ambushes him, he’s also going to be reluctant to eat.
- Shared food bowls are a no-no for multi-cat households. While many cats get along and love to sleep or play together, they prefer to eat their meals alone. Also, this goes back to inter-cat dynamics with one cat who may bully a more submissive cat or a food hound who wolfs down all the food before the other cat gets a look in. Each cat should have his or her own food bowl, and they should not all be lined up next to each other but spaced apart so each cat can eat in comfort.
- Food straight out of the fridge. Cats are used to eating their prey at body temperature, so refrigerated food should be gently warmed before giving it to your cat. If you use a microwave, mix it well afterwards to avoid hot spots.
- Food and water bowls too close. Cats don’t like their water bowl directly next to their food bowl, they should be separated by at least a metre.
Feeding one type of cat food and changing it suddenly
Clever marketing has lead pet owners to believe that their cats should be fed one type of food only, which is a great way to develop brand loyalty. As a result, many cats are raised on a single food source, usually dry (kibble), which can result in cats who become fussy if or when a different type of food is offered. Imagine what would happen if a child was raised on chicken nuggets and mashed potato for his whole life?
I’ve always recommended a varied diet to expose your cat to different flavours and textures, this can include raw, tinned and dry cat food as well as raw chicken necks, wings or chewy chunks of steak two to three times a week to assist with dental hygiene. This should preferably begin at the time of weaning
There are reasons I am not fond of a single type or brand of food (unless medically necessary).
- Sometimes your cat’s preferred food may be out of stock or go out of production.
- Feeding a varied diet increases the chances of your cat receiving a well-balanced diet (because despite strict nutritional guidelines, it is still possible for a food to slip through the process and not be 100% balanced and complete).
- A number of medical disorders are being linked to certain types of food. Dry food can alter the pH of your cat’s urine, making it too acidic or alkaline which can lead to the formation of urinary crystals. In in the wild, cats obtain most of their water via their prey, cats fed a diet of dry food often won’t make up for this shortfall and many are chronically dehydrated. This results in concentrated urine, which is the perfect environment for the formation of urinary crystals.
- Canned and fish flavoured food may be responsible for an increase in hyperthyroidism in cats as well as squamous cell carcinoma. A diet which contains a large amount of soft, canned food can lead to periodontal disease, which is the most common disease in cats under ten and is linked to a number of medical disorders.
- Finally, at some point, it may be necessary to switch your cat to a prescription diet to manage a medical problem such as kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes, allergies or hyperthyroidism. Having a cat who is receptive to changes in diet can help with this transition onto a prescription diet.
While both canned and dry food have been implicated in a number of medical conditions, they are still a good source of nutrition to all cats, by spreading out the types of food we feed our cats, we are at least reducing exposure.
Leaving wet or raw food in the bowl for too long
In the wild, a cat’s diet consists of high-protein foods eaten multiple times a day. In contrast, most pet owners schedule feeding to twice a day, dumping a large quantity of food into the bowl, which can sit there for up to 12 hours. As cat’s appetite is largely ruled by his smell, food which has been sitting out for a long period of time is not appealing to your cat any more than it would be to you. Consider switching your cat over to several smaller meals a day.
Feeding human food
Going one step further from cats who become used to one type or brand of food, some can become addicted when they are offered a certain food as a treat and refuse all other food offered. The term tuna junkie was coined to describe cats who develop an addiction to tuna.
Some types of human food can be fine for cats to eat as long as it is an occasional treat, but it should not be a part of a cat’s normal diet as it is not nutritionally balanced. Cats who eat a lot of tuna can develop yellow fat disease, an extremely painful condition caused by inflammation of the fat tissue which occurs as a result of high fatty acids and low levels of vitamin E. Tuna also contains the enzyme thiaminase which destroys thiamine in your cat’s body. Thiamine is responsible metabolising carbohydrates into energy and maintaining a healthy heart and nervous system.
The problem with cats becoming addicted to a non-species specific food is twofold.
- It is not nutritionally balanced, and your cat is not receiving all his nutrients he requires, which over time can be life-threatening. Vitamin A toxicosis, Vitamin D toxicosis, thiamine and taurine deficiency to name a few.
- Getting an addicted cat to eat a suitable cat-friendly diet can result in him holding out, and developing a life-threatening condition known as hepatic lipidosis in which the liver begins to break down your cat’s own fat as a result of inadequate food. The liver is not very efficient at this and can quickly become overwhelmed.
Stress or depression
Another common cause of not eating can be stress related. Many people are shocked to find out cats do indeed suffer from stress. This may be due to inter-cat bullying, changes in household such as moving home, a new partner, baby or pet, loss of a companion.
A stressed cat needs time, love and patience. If he has stopped eating, he should be seen by a veterinarian who may be able to prescribe medications to help reduce his stress and/or stimulate his appetite.
There are too many possible medical causes to list in this article, but loss of appetite in a cat who usually eats well can be a symptom of sickness. That may include nausea (many disorders can make your cat feel sick), dental pain, generalised pain, infection, kidney failure, cancer and surgery are all common causes of loss of appetite. If your cat has suddenly lost his appetite, it is important to see a veterinarian to determine the underlying cause.
Deteriorating sense of smell
As your cat advances towards his senior years, his sense of smell diminishes which can lead to a reduction in your cat’s appetite. Switching to a wet diet and warming it up can help stimulate his appetite.
This can develop in cats who were offered a particular food while they were sick or feeling nauseous and begin to associate that food with a feeling of nausea. Food aversion is a known side-effect of chemotherapy or pregnancy in humans. This makes sense from an evolutionary point, as our brains associate nausea with the food and try to protect us from further nausea/sickness by forming an aversion, even if the food wasn’t the cause of the nausea in the first place.
Hiding medicine in your cat’s food
If your cat associates an unpleasant smell or taste with his food, he is going to avoid it. If you do want to hide medicine, it is better to hide it in a small treat, and not his regular food.
How to encourage a fussy eater
Once you have ruled out a medical cause, you can look at ways of making meal times more cat-friendly.
- Give each cat their own bowl and place it well away from the litter tray.
- Some cats are happy to eat within close proximity to one another, other cats aren’t. If that is the case, feed them in separate locations.
- If you do have a cat who has become addicted to a particular type or brand of food, gradually switch it over by adding increasing amounts of the new food while decreasing the old type. This should be carried out over several days.
- Think carefully about where your cat’s food bowl is placed, the kitchen is a natural spot but in most houses, it is one of the busiest rooms with lots of people coming and going. Other distractions or deterrents are noisy rooms such as garages where vehicles may be started up, startling your cat.
- If you do have a sick cat, try offering him tasty food by hand. He should be away from other cats, so your focus is 100% on him. The food should be warmed, and in bite-sized pieces. If he is still reluctant to eat, don’t force him.