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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