12 Tips to Get Even the Most Finicky Cats to Eat

Cats should not go more than 24 hours without eating. Read our 12 tips for getting a finicky cat to eat to restore their routine.

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a 2-part series. If you haven’t read it yet, start with Part 1: Is Your Cat Really a Finicky Eater?

Introducing a healthier diet or trying to find something your cat "likes" takes time and patience. By: Debora Lichtenberg/Petful
Introducing a healthier diet or trying to find something your cat “likes” takes time and patience. By: Debora Lichtenberg/Petful

The truly finicky cat tests your patience and makes you open up more cans of food than seems humanly possible.

This seems wasteful, as it should. What to do with all those opened, licked but not eaten cans? Put them in the refrigerator and try again later? Fat chance. Unlike me, cats don’t see see the virtue in leftovers. Even microwaving a refrigerated can of cat food does nothing for most cats, and leaves your house smelling like old meat compost.

If you are worried about your cat’s appetite, bring this problem up with your vet to make sure your cat is just finicky and not sick. Weight loss or GI symptoms can mean there’s more to this than being picky. As I mentioned earlier, if your cat eats every day and maintains a decent weight, chances are he’s okay and may just not be turned on by food.

Piggies and Pickers

Cats, like people, can have “food issues:”

  • They can be social eaters or need total seclusion.
  • They can have intense food preferences or eat anything you offer, including dog food.
  • They can overeat or undereat. Even over-eaters can be “finicky.”

Conditioned to 1 Food

Many cats like to stick with the familiar. They can be afraid to try new things, so buying and offering a vast majority of foods may be enforcing rather than solving the problem of the finicky eater.

Introducing a healthier diet or trying to find something your cat “likes” takes time and patience.

Most finicky eaters eat enough dry food or one canned food to get by. The goal is to broaden the finicky cat’s horizons with a healthier diet and to get the dry-food addicts off the stuff.

Here are the big problems with dry foods:

  • The protein is more plant-based than animal-based.
  • Carbohydrates are too high.
  • Water content is too low. Even if the dry food induces your cat to drink a lot of water, it’s not sufficient.

Overfeeding

You may think your cat should eat more than she actually needs. Most Americans believe the ideal body weight for a cat is actually an overweight cat. Our culture is killing its cats with too much food.

Environment

It may not be the food at all that’s keeping Freddie from the food bowl. Something may have scared Fred when a particular food was served. Unbeknownst to you, there might be certain flavors or textures that have confused him or made a variety of foods undesirable.

Has anything changed in your house, like a new cat, a new puppy or even a new bowl? Cats can have compulsions about food and food aversions just like people. Fred may just want his old bowl back or his old feeding station returned, particularly if his food was moved to make room for a dog or a baby or another cat.

Solitary Eaters

Cats prefer their own bowl. They may even prefer their very own place at the table, far away from any other cats in the house.

Cats who want total privacy when eating present a particular but not insurmountable challenge. Recognizing your cat’s peculiar eating behaviors is half the battle. Then you can move on to his food preferences.

Feline Suicide by Hunger Strike

This is not funny. A subset of cats will test your patience to the max and stop eating for days if you don’t give them what they want.

If they are truly on a hunger strike, you need to get them to eat. Cats can develop a fatty liver syndrome called hepatic lipidosis, caused by starvation. Obese cats are more at risk.

Cats should not go more than 24 hours without eating. If your cat has not eaten for more than 24 hours because he is sick or acting sick, please bring him to your veterinarian.

But if he is not eating because you are trying to change his diet or offering him a healthier diet, you need to break down and give him a little of what he wants after 24 hours.

12 Tips to Get the Most Stubborn Cats to Eat

  1. Making your finicky cat hungry really helps. Stop free-feeding. Remember the never-empty dry food bowl? Get rid of it. All day long while you’re at work, let Cat-brat get really hungry. She can’t make you feel guilty if you’re not home. Natural hunger can work in your favor.
  2. Establish a feeding schedule. If your cat has been eating free-choice, begin feeding 2 meals a day. Most cats are hungry after not eating for 12 hours. They should dive into the first thing you put down after a 12-hour fast, which should be a small portion of healthy canned cat food. Real hunger is a stimulant!
  3. Play with your cat before feeding times. Get the little bouncy ball or his favorite tassle-chasing toy. Exercise stimulates appetite. Get that cat a gym membership!
  4. Play “Work for Food.” If you are losing patience and your cat is resistant to canned food, throw 8 to 10 pieces of dry food around the kitchen to stimulate activity and hunger, and then try a portion of canned food again.
  5. Dry food, particularly the low-end stuff, is like a drug. Cats can smell their Friskies Crack in the cupboard. If you are transitioning your cat from dry to canned, or trying to feed a better quality dry food for that matter, keep the dry food in the fridge where they can’t smell it. Better yet, put it outside. If your cat can smell their dry food anywhere in the kitchen, they might hold out for it.
  6. Cats are often social eaters and like to eat with you. “Feed me” equals “pet me.” I have been known to be over at the hospital at 3 a.m. offering some yummy morsels to an anorexic patient while petting him in the total quiet of the night with no distractions. My heart takes huge leaps when the cat first responds to the beauty of touching and rubbing — and then eats his food.
  7. For hunger strikers, sprinkle a tiny amount of tuna or chicken on the food. If they love this, begin to press this highly desired food into the canned cat food. If they are still maniacal about eating dry food, dip some pieces of dry food into tuna juice and see if they begin to get the idea.
  8. Raw meat, baby food or deli meats are appealing to certain cats. Follow safety protocols when it comes to raw meat. These foods also get the cat away from the “crunch” sensation of the dry food. We, as humans, should understand this. The sensation of a crunching potato chip or the smell of a Frito is addictive for some of us!
  9. Parmesan cheese sprinkle works for many cats. Yes, the stuff in the green can. Sprinkle on top of the food you want them to eat.
  10. FortiFlora (a probiotic) is intensely attractive to some cats. Sprinkle just 1/4 or less of a package on top of a meal.
  11. Moistening wet food is an option, but it can be a health hazard. Discard after 20 minutes. Dry food is very high in bacteria and mold. Wetting it promotes mycotoxins and aflatoxins. This is a recommendation with safety reservations. The same goes for mixing in canned with dry food. This should not be left out for longer than 20-30 minutes.
  12. Supermarket and lower-end canned cat foods are still much better than a dry diet. If your cat likes a 9Lives or Friskies canned food, for example, you have already won a big part of the battle. You can begin to mix in a better canned food or a prescription diet in with the popular brand if necessary. This often works.

In this video, a cat has been enticed to eat by providing wet food, so getting off the dry food diet was easy:

There’s a lot more info on transitioning the hard-core dry food addict or feeding the sick cat, but I’ve gone on long enough for one article. I have borrowed heavily from information found at a great website — catinfo.org — by Dr. Lisa A. Pierson, DVM, who is really dedicated to feeding cats a healthy diet. Please visit her site.

Just remember that your cats are individuals. My house has been inhabited by obese-buds, skinny-minnies, piggy-wiggies and finicky-wicketies. Cats have lots of food issues, just like your friends and kids. The key is finding out what works and what keeps them healthy.

I remember when my kids wanted to eat frozen pizza and tater tots, and I felt like the worst mother in the world. Now they’re eating kale and Swiss chard. YEAH!

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Nov. 12, 2014.

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36 comments

  1. teenygozer Reply

    I sprinkle the surface of my cats’ food with about a teaspoon to a tablespoon of Kal Nutritional Yeast flakes. We refer to this stuff as “kitty crack”. It’s full of vitamin B and really good for them, gives them a beautiful, sweet-smelling coat, so it’s a win-win. They love it and it’s good for them!

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      Sounds like a great solution, teenygozer! Who makes Kal Nutritional Yeast flakes? I’m wayyyyy over the East Coast and I haven’t seen them!

      1. teenygozer Reply

        Er, “Kal” is the company that makes Kal Nutritional Yeast flakes! 😉

        I get them cheapest by buying them online from Vitamin Shoppe. Yeast flakes are delicate and don’t do well in heat or being shipped during hot weather so I order the largest size in the cooler months, it lasts for months. Suggestion: keep a smaller cup-sized container of the yeast flakes that’s easier to sprinkle over the cat food so the big container stays cool and only the small container gets taken out of the fridge every feeding time.

        1. Melissa Smith Reply

          Thank you so much!!

  2. Shireen Noroozi Reply

    I have a dilemma that I can’t seem to find answered on any cat/pet-sites or even by my vet. My cat will randomly not eat certain cans of food – if she does, it’s only about half a can. But of course it’s pulling teeth to get her to want the left-overs. I can definitely afford quality food for my cat but I have a very hard (emotionally and eventually financially) time throwing out half a can of food that most humans would be happy to eat. I only buy the smallest cans of food out there yet still about half is thrown out. I’ve taken her to the vet but she is healthy. The only thing that has worked is to put a cat-treat or two in the food which will get her to at least take a few bites of it. I know she’s hungry because she practically screams at me her “food prep/feed me” meow for quite a bit before I can set it down.

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      Hi Shireen! Wow that is so strange. My cat snarfs down just about anything I put in front of him….and boy do I know what you mean when you say “food prep/feed me” meow. I swear it shakes the rafters of the house.

      Have you tried the Parmesan cheese sprinkle trick from the above article?

      1. Shireen Noroozi Reply

        I know! I’m used to both kittens and dogs who think anything edible must be really delicious. I used to feed my other kitten liverwurst and small amounts of canned tuna. She loved milk despite it not being so healthy for her. She would play with anything too. And of course dogs will eat anything. This adult cat though only likes seafood-based foods. If it’s a mix with chicken, she acts like I’m poisoning her. She’s gotten better about eating a variety of seafood-based cans. But every now and then she’ll starve all day long and naturally get lethargic and cranky. She actually doesn’t care about human food. I’ve actually tried to place little bits of my smoked tuna, chicken, pork, little carrot pieces and nothing. So I can’t even really tempt her with a little. At first she had no interest in the dry dog food I had around but a week ago (on one of her hunger-strike days), she chewed through a bag of dog food and almost had herself a little feast until I cleaned it up. I’ll try the cheese. Is mozzerella safe for cats? Also, are there containers that one can put cat-food in so it doesn’t seem like a leftover to the cat?

        1. Melissa Smith Reply

          I’m not sure about mozzerella for cats, to be honest. I have never given it to my cat but that’s not saying much because he’ll eat anything lol! I am sure there are containers out there that look pretty and maybe not so much like tupperware so your cat could be fooled. I almost wonder if you should put it in tupperware but then put the tupperware into an empty dry food bag and put that in the fridge!

          1. Shireen Noroozi Reply

            Well she didn’t like the mozzerella. But I’ll try the tupperware trick. Today I’m just scooping out half of the small can and puttting a lid on top

            1. Melissa Smith

              Boy, she’s tough!!

  3. nferg80 Reply

    I’m so glad I came across this site. My cat would not eat her food at all. However, evertime I cooked she would be there doing her “Mom, I’m hungry!” cry. I gave in and gave her some turkey deli meat, but she threw it up minutes later. Honestly, I think cause she ate it so fast. I then tried petting/feeding her and it worked for a brief moment. Then i belief she remembered she was on a hunger strike then stopped. Finally, I did the mozzarella over dry food trick and behold!! She ate it!! I was so happy I hugged and kissed her afterwards!! Thank you so so so much!! I’m gonna continue to try this trick until she get the idea and maybe even switch her over to wet food as well. Again, thank you for helping me feed my fur baby!!!☺

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      So glad to hear this!! 😀

  4. maria blasko Reply

    My senior rescue is addicted to cheap dry food. I have been able to transition her to healthy dry food and fish-only wet food. Now, I am trying to get her off fish wet food so I started using Forti-flora on chicken and meat wet food. . Well, now she is addicted to THAT and won’t eat anything (kibble or wet) if it doesn’t have FF sprinkled on. This seemed ok, minus the cost, until I found out there is animal digest in Forti-flora! Animal digest usually comes from rendering plants that render euthanized shelter cats and dogs so I no longer can support using Forti-flora. I’ve tried high quality nutritional yeast as well. She is on a schedule but I haven’t let her go a full 12 hours with no food bc she is so sad and pathetic, begging for food!

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      Hi Maria! Oof you’re in a tough spot – keep trying, and if you get really worried definitely just give her vet a quick buzz to see what he or she recommends.

  5. Isabela Guzman Reply

    Um excuse I have been having problems with my cat. He doesn’t want to eat any dry foods and prefers to eat wet food. My family can’t always go out on our way to buy wet food. It’s kinda expensive and the malls are to far away. And he doesn’t seem to eat a lot he’s gone thin! (Sorry for bad English)

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      Hi Isabela! No worries, you are perfectly understandable. 🙂 Some other pet parents have tried adding things like cheeses to their dry foods to make them more appealing to their cats. You can also try mixing wet with dry, and then gradually reducing the amount of wet food until your cat has adjusted to all dry. I hope this helps!

      1. Isabela Guzman Reply

        Thanks!

    2. lockhrt999 Reply

      You can get wet tuna or salmon in the can for the cats. It can last a month in the refrigerator. Don’t give that to the cat directly just put a spoon of the tuna juice on your regular dry food, mix it well and see how your cat finishes the whole thing in no time. 99% dry and 1% wet does work.

    3. missled Reply

      I’m sorry, Out of your way? You should maybe think about not owning a cat if you cannot afford to feed him or her properly. A cat should be considered part of the family…. Is it out of the way to buy nutritional food for you to eat? Probably not. Just think about that the next time you are shopping for food for yourself please..

      1. Melissa Smith Reply

        Please remember that there is a language barrier, sometimes phraseology isn’t always perfect 🙂

  6. Invisible Wall Reply

    It’s not always possible to feed wet food.
    There are times I need to be away for a couple days, dry food is the only option.
    Thus I have my cat on a routine of wet in the morning, dry at night.
    There are 2-3 pee clumps/day, plus 1 bowel movement.

    1. EMM Reply

      I’m with you. I feed dry in the morning, wet at night. The cats actually seem to prefer the wet food, but its easier to ask helpers to feed the dry food when I am away.

  7. lockhrt999 Reply

    There’s no cat in the world which is as picky eater as mine. If she doesn’t like the food she would rather go on starvation till death and gone she has once. She actually gets bored of the same food. She doesn’t like the dry supermarket food which is out for more than just 30 minutes. If it isn’t freshly out of a can, the cat refuses the food. She would meow and even sometimes yowl till you present her fresh food or till you go suicidal. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1a099b86f72e16b33cd44d07cc4c8d6b20c4db04530e33d9f5a05480b6dcda37.jpg

    Apart from dry cat food, I give her 2-3 pieces of chicken daily. It’s the max I can manage as family is vegan and they don’t like how much I care for the cat. They think I’m overdoing and it’s not worth it. They think we should release the cat. The cat is genetically very week, she won’t even last a day on her own.

    I have no idea what to do.

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      Hi! I would recommend a checkup with the veterinarian to rule out anything medical going on, first.

    2. Robert Harrison Reply

      You not met my cat alfie he is picky little bugger who’d only eat Felix brand cat food and dry snacks like go cat or dreamies now he wont even eat his Felix cat food so its of to the vets with him as im at breaking point with him he refused to eat all day

      1. Melissa Smith Reply

        So sorry to hear Robert, please let us know how Alfie does!

  8. Cheryl Treat Reply

    Hello All, My furry guy has a megacolon, he does well for a few weeks then gets backed up, throwing up and straining to go. He will only eat hard food, I have offered him every type of wet cat food, I have tried water dishes with moving water, dry food made wet with water, pumpkin, chicken broth. he will have nothing to do with it. After reading this, I will remove his dry food for the night then offer wet food in the morning. Any other suggestions. ?

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      Hi Cheryl!

      Gosh, the poor lil guy 🙁 The only thing I could think of here is to maybe start mixing water or broth with his dry food (if he still refuses the wet in the morning.) Gradually increase the amount of liquid per dry and see if he’ll accept a gradual switchover?

  9. Melissa Smith Reply

    That must be terribly frustrating – I think my best advice here is to find the brands of dry and wet that she seems to eat more of and stick with those for awhile, then if you want to switch, gradually do so. Best of luck, and I feel for you!!

  10. Stephanie Webster Reply

    How is it, beyond the moisture issue, that dry food is automatically so much worse than wet? We’re trying to transition our cat off of dry food because he gulps it without chewing and then throws it up. But his dry food is grain and animal byproduct free. It’s made with meat and not much else. Meanwhile, I can’t find a wet food that doesn’t have carrots, peas, potato starch….cats are obligate carnivores, right? I’m inclined to doubt the assertion made here that even “bad” wet food is better than “good” dry food. I know cats in the wild get a lot of their water from their prey and that they are prone to kidney disease if they don’t get enough hydration. But cats in the wild aren’t eating peas, carrots, or xantham gum, either.

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      This is a fantastic question! I am kicking myself because I just had my cat to the vet the other day for his vaccinations and I should have asked her myself. I have to drop a stool sample off this week (ew lol) so if I can snag her I will ask!

  11. Julian Brown Reply

    Buy a high calorie gel and smear it on his paws. Recently fixed a problem with my cat not eating. Here’s a link to an example of this: http://amzn.to/2wI1Qyl

  12. Mintas Lanxor Reply

    I feed my young cat wet in the morning and dry in the evening too. Yet, she eats very little and strikes me as undernourished compared to other cats even though she’s not acting sick or lethargic. Most cats will lick clean food containers that used to have meat gravy in them, but not this one. It’s as if she wasn’t exposed to human food variety in her early life. I’ve also noticed that she looks like she hasn’t quite learned the fine art of grabbing wet pate food with her mouth and teeth even though I break it up in smaller bits. She will lick it, and if she doesn’t succeed in grabbing it, she’ll give up on that morsel. For most other cats, that skill comes naturally. I’ve ended up feeding the remains of the food in the bowl to her out of my hand, which helps.

    I wish I could find a bowl with a rough surface on the bottom that would help her keep the food in place rather than sliding around as she’s trying to grab it.

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      Hi Mintas! This thought just randomly occurred to me – how are her teeth? If she has some tooth pain that might impact her eating habits.

      1. Mintas Lanxor Reply

        Hi, Melissa. Thanks for responding. Her teeth look just fine. I sometimes touch them as I’m scratching her head, and she doesn’t react as if that were hurtful. I guess all cats have their own personalities and idiosyncrasies, including feeding skills and habits.

        1. Melissa Smith Reply

          They sure do!!