Last Updated on October 3, 2021 by Julia Wilson
Unlike dogs, cats have a reputation for being somewhat fussy when it comes to food. I think this 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, many cats don’t like their whiskers touching the side of bowls.
- Plastic food bowls can have a smell that puts cats off. Over time, plastic bowls can develop scratches that 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. Wash your cat’s food bowl at least once a day in hot soapy water and rinse thoroughly.
- Inappropriate location of food bowls can deter cats from eating. Cats don’t like to eat close to their toilet, so avoid placing food bowls near litter trays. 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. One cat bullying a more submissive cat or a food hound who wolfs down all the food can also cause problems. Each cat should have his or her own food bowl, spaced apart so each cat can eat in comfort.
- Food straight out of the fridge. In the wild, cats eat freshly killed prey. Warm food to make it more appealing. If you use a microwave, mix it well afterwards to avoid hot spots.
- Food and water bowl too close. Cats don’t like their water bowl directly next to their food bowl. Separate the two 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. A lot of cats are now fed a single food source, usually dry (kibble). The result is cats who turn their nose up at a new type of food.
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
Why is variety good?
- Sometimes your cat’s preferred food may be out of stock or go out of production.
- Providing a varied diet increases the chances of your cat receiving a well-balanced diet. Despite strict nutritional guidelines, food can slip through and not be 100% balanced.
- Some types of food are linked to several medical disorders. 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. Cats obtain most of their water via their prey in the wild, and domestic cats fed a diet of dry food don’t tend to make up for this shortfall. 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 containing a large amount of soft, canned food can cause periodontal disease, the most common disease in cats under ten and is linked to several 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 to a prescription diet.
Canned and dry food have been implicated in several medical conditions. However, they are still a good source of nutrition for all cats. 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 twice a day. They dump a large quantity of food into the bowl, which can sit there for up to 12 hours. Food that has been sitting out for a long period of time is not going to appeal to a cat whose appetite is ruled by his sense of smell. 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 are suitable 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 for 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.
- Your cat is not receiving all the nutrients he needs when food is not balanced. Over time this 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. The liver begins to break down your cat’s own fat when the body does not receive enough food, as the liver is not efficient at this, it quickly becomes overwhelmed.
Stress or depression
Stress is a common cause of food refusal. This may be due to inter-cat bullying, changes in the household such as moving home, a new partner, baby or pet, loss of a companion.
A stressed cat needs time, love and patience. A veterinarian needs to see a cat who has stopped eating who can prescribe appetite stimulants or medications for stress.
There are too many possible medical causes to list in this article. A loss of appetite in a cat who usually eats well can be a symptom of sickness. That may include nausea, dental pain, generalised pain, infection, kidney failure, cancer, and surgery. A sudden change in appetite needs to be investigated by a veterinarian to determine the 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.
Associating food with feelings of nausea can occur if they were fed a particular food while sick or nauseous. Pregnancy and chemotherapy are triggers of food aversion. 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 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 mealtimes 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 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.
- The location of food bowls is important. The kitchen is a natural spot but in most houses, it is one of the busiest rooms in the house. Noisy rooms such as garages are also too distracting to distracting.
- If you do have a sick cat, try offering tasty food by hand, warmed and in bite-sized pieces. Separate the cat from other cats in the home so that the focus is 100% on the unwell cat.