How to encourage Older Cats to eat

Anyone who has been owned by a feline senior citizen has probably had an issue with their appetite.  Nezumi, the floofy calico who rules me with a velvet paw, has had her own bout with this and seems to be coming out the other side.

She has had appetite problems from time to time over the years but has usually gotten over it in a week or two with a change in food or treatment of a condition.  For example, when she had a problem with ear mites she didn’t like eating because of her discomfort.  We fixed the problem, cleared her ears up, and her appetite came back.  Another time she had a feline upper respiratory disease and stopped eating because of her kitty cold.  A vet visit and some sage advice eventually got her eating properly again, but we had to do a lot of coaxing in the meantime.

She’s also had trouble eating when she’s stressed or emotionally distraught, such as when we have moved house or when she lost a good friend.  So I have probably come up with about as many ways to tempt a cat as there are, and I’m happy to share them.

This time our Nezumi really gave us a fright.  She lost so much weight and showed so little improvement that knew we needed help.  Few of the usual methods to get her to eat were working, and we just couldn’t put any weight back on.  So we took her back to our kind, gentle, vet, Doctor Strickland.  She runs a no-fear practice and I like seeing my furry friend being treated with caring and respect.  Doctor Strickland and her assistant gave Nezumi a good checking over, made some suggestions and gave options.  Together we decided to start by giving Nezumi some fluids and an anti nausea injection and then go back for bloodwork and possibly an x-ray if she didn’t improve.  Of course, after months of giving us trouble, our silly little girl started eating more regularly right about the time we scheduled the vet visit, but we were still very aware she could backslide and we wanted peace of mind.

As I begin writing this, she’s resting comfortably against my leg after having had a good meal of soft food.

During Nezumi’s life, though, I have had to tempt her to eat in so many ways that I figured I’d catalog them.  Some have worked, some haven’t, but even if they didn’t work for me, they might work for you.

First, the old standbys:

Warm their food gently in case they are having trouble smelling it (stir well to avoid overheating)

If it’s kibble, put a little water on it.  Just a bit, well mixed.  Make sure the cat likes the taste of the water that’s put on it.  Mine hates tap water!

Try blending the food with a bit of water if the cat seems to want to lick at their food but not eat it.

Try a different flavor if it’s canned.  Pay attention to what they like and dislike though.  For example, Nezumi loves chicken but hates chicken liver.  So if I get a food that smells at all like chicken liver I know she’ll refuse it.

Change their feeding location to a place they feel secure, and check the height of their bowl and its depth to make sure they aren’t striking their whiskers or having trouble reaching things.  (Nezumi vastly prefers to be near me when she eats so I’ve made a place for her right next to me where I sit at my computer.  She’s much more inclined to stay there and finish her meal instead of rushing to finish so she can be back with me.)

Give them a little catnip to see if it stimulates their appetite.

Sometimes petting and love can help make them feel more secure, so they will eat.

If your cat is already too thin:

Feeding kitten food can help them gain weight back.  Senior diets tend to be lower calorie because they are intended for cats who aren’t as active, so be careful.

If you can get your cat to eat them, a high animal protein, grain free diet is best.  It’s easier for them to digest and what they do get into their bodies will go farther.

Chicken or beef cooked without salt or other flavorings can help, as can pan drippings, as long as they are also without salt or flavorings.

Canned tuna can be good as long as it doesn’t have added flavor and is low salt, canned in water.  The oil that tuna is canned in is not natural tuna oil and can cause cats issues.

If they won’t eat anything else, try:

A feline health supplement like CatSure, that’s used as a meal replacement

Sprinkling nutritional yeast on their food (not brewer’s yeast or baker’s yeast)

Sprinkling a probiotic like FortiFlora

A high-calorie weight gain gel can help too – some cats will lick it, others need to have it smeared in their mouth, on their nose, or on their paws.  It’s not the best thing for truly long term use but it can help get them started, and give them vitamins and energy.  (Some pet stores will price match online prices, so check that out.)

Goat’s milk with probiotics, sometimes available in a pet store freezer section

Kitten formula – comes in liquid or dry, but don’t use human formula

A little yogurt, butter, or cottage cheese.  Be careful with this though and stop immediately if your cat has diarrhea.  Ghee can be used for lactose intolerant cats for pure calories.

Tube treats like SqueezeUps and soft senior “lickable treats” that usually come in pouches.  Similarly, the “broths” line of foods is good for tempting cats.

Once the cat is eating again, try and improve the quality of their diet as none of those treats are meant to be a sole calorie source for long.

If you syringe feed, be careful of how you do it and don’t get liquid into their lungs.  If you have a vet or vet tech handy, have them show you how.

If you have seen the vet and your cat has Feline Upper Respiratory Virus:

This common cat ailment can cause loss of smell, and thus loss of appetite.

Sometimes L-lysine can help them fight the virus, so feed them more chicken when they eat.

Rubbing and massaging your cat around the top of her head, ears and forehead can sometimes help her sinuses drain, improving appetite.

Wipe your cat’s nose if she’ll let you.  If you are very lucky, you can also use a baby’s suction bulb to gently clear her nose of mucus and help her breathe better.

Safety tips:

If you try to tempt them with human food, such as baby food, avoid anything with onion, garlic, or added salt.  Same with tuna or mackerel.

Do not let a cat go for more than a day without eating.  They can suffer irreparable liver damage if they stop eating suddenly, especially if they are overweight.

Always, always, ALWAYS try to figure out why they aren’t eating.  It could be something as simple as maybe that particular can or bag of food went rancid or tastes strange for some other reason.  Maybe you switched their bowl with the other cat’s bowl and it doesn’t smell like theirs.  Maybe their water is dirty and they want a drink first.  There could also be environmental factors like unusual noises.  It could also be any number of medical conditions so always keep that in mind.

Sometimes it’s a change in the environment that will really mess up your cat’s appetite.  A new roommate or family member, a new pet, a move to another location, and more.  Many cats crave routine and are really bothered by change.  In that case, plenty of reassurance will help, and sometimes isolation in a place where the cat feels safe.

Finally, keep an eye on your cat’s basic bodily functions.  Are they using the litter box normally?  Are there any strange smells about their breath or fur?  Did they stop grooming?  Are they moving around as much as usual?  How do their eyes and coat look?  Watch for hidden spots of vomit around the house and if they usually cough up hairballs and suddenly stop, watch for that too.  You’ll want to know all of this if you talk to the vet, as well.

My story has a happy ending… Nezumi is still sitting near me after a nice meal, and I’m finishing this article a few days after I started it.  This moment was only made possible with perseverance, paying attention to our girl’s cues and needs, and of course the help of our family vet!

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13 thoughts on “How to encourage Older Cats to eat

  1. Correne Sinclair says:

    Great advice. It’s so difficult to see your cat stop eating and not know what to do. I had to do syringe feeding with one of my cats and it worked well.

    • Rohvannyn says:

      I’m glad it worked out for you! My poor girl hates being syringed but it’s a lot better than watching her starve. Thank you for your reply!

  2. Karen says:

    I’ve been going through a similar thing with my Maddie. She dropped a lot of weight a couple years ago and it turned out she had a thyroid condition and urinary infection. We cleared up the infection and started her on thyroid medicine, which helped her gain weight, but now she needs fluids every few days and is picky about food. I have to sit with her as well while she eats! It’s like she gets distracted easily. Thanks for sharing Nezumi’s story. I wish you more years with her. Cheers.

  3. Crystal says:

    great post. Daisy Mae is going on 13 and only eats when she wants to but at least she is eating. She won’t eat grain free food. My mom told me that she read in an article to exercise your cat 5 minutes daily to stimulate them and keep them healthy.

    • Rohvannyn says:

      Exercise is definitely a good thing to try. I hear you about the grain free food – mind won’t either unless she’s in a REALLY good mood. *eyeroll* And yet I keep hoping and trying her on different things.

  4. KDKH says:

    Thank you! I’m going to save this in case we ever need it. We have a middle-aged cat (14) and you never know! I usually hate blogs that list things, but this was helpful. You have some good ideas here!

    • Rohvannyn says:

      I’m glad you found me an exception to the usual rule! I wish you all the best with your teenager.

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