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Feline Picky Eaters

picky_feline_eatersI have a cat that is a very fussy eater, and she will sometimes just refuse to eat her meal. What can I do for her?

Because cat foods are so palatable now, it is not as common to find a feline picky eater, but it can happen.  We, as pet owners, can help to create a fussy eater by taking advantage of the huge variety among cat foods; different kibble flavors and sizes, different textures and flavors of canned foods, pouches of semi-moist food, and freshly packaged meals in the refrigerator section of the grocery or pet store. It appears that for some cats, providing lots of variety—different flavors, styles, and textures—can overwhelm a cat with choices. For some cats, too much of a good thing (e.g. lots of food variety) is not necessarily a good thing!

"We, as pet owners, can help to create
a fussy eater by taking advantage
of the huge variety among cat foods"

As long as a cat is not ill, either with a chronic illness like kidney disease or with an acute illness like a respiratory infection, he can actually survive for several days without eating. Most cats will not hold out very long before their survival instinct kicks in and they take your advice to eat what is offered. Unlike dogs, however, we must be very careful about attempting to jump start a cat’s eating by simply holding out to force them to eat what is offered. If a cat has any predisposition at all, just a few days of not eating can cause a potentially fatal condition called hepatic lipidosis. 

"As long as a cat is not ill…
he can actually survive for several days
without eating."

One approach is to offer food at a morning meal time, provide access for 15–30 minutes, then take the food away until the next meal. Then offer the food again for 15–30 minutes. Whatever is not consumed is removed. This approach works best with dry kibble. If you offer canned food, it is best to discard what is not eaten in order to prevent illness from spoiled food. Unfortunately, this means wasting food. To reduce waste, offer just a small amount of food per meal, gradually increasing to an appropriate meal size as the smaller volumes are eaten consistently.

"It may be that the cat really does prefer
a particular texture or flavor of food."

It may be that the cat really does prefer a particular texture or flavor of food. For these cats, once you identify a texture—dry, canned, or semi-moist—that they will eat, stick with that formulation for consistency’s sake. For the semi-moist and canned food eaters, offer very small amounts at any one time.  For a cat who is willing to eat dry, but just not all at once, it is reasonable to measure out the entire day’s portion all at once in the morning. Yet another option is to utilize a preferred canned food formulation as a “top dressing” on dry kibble. Some canned cat food has a gravy component that may be used as a way to increase the cat’s interest in meal time.

"resist the temptation to begin
feeding human food willy-nilly"

One important consideration in dealing with a feline picky eater is to resist the temptation to begin feeding human food willy-nilly from the table. These are cats that then are even more difficult, generally speaking, to transition back to balanced cat foods. It is actually quite difficult to balance a cat’s long-term nutrition when feeding them homemade food.  Over time, taste preferences may emerge that lead to deficiencies of particular nutrients. Also, there are currently no commercially prepared, validated mixtures of macro- and micro-nutrients for adding to homemade cat foods. 

"there are some human food options
that can increase the appeal
of a cat’s regular food"

While relying only on human food for feline sustenance is not a good idea, there are some human food options that can increase the appeal of a cat’s regular food and encourage consumption of the preferred nutrient profile.  Be sure to check with your veterinarian to determine if any of these suggestions are OK for your cat, and to verify how much you can add in a day without risking weight gain.

  • No-salt-added chicken or vegetable broth.
  • Fresh or frozen water-based vegetables (green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, etc.).
  • The occasional dry-scrambled egg.
  • Air popped popcorn

One last consideration for cats who are “fussy eaters”… there appears to be a segment of the domestic cat population that simply eats when they feel like it. These cats may simply not want to eat on the schedule we have chosen for them. It may be argued that having such a cat—one who is not a voracious eater but who “grazes”— is a blessing. Owners of feline gluttons can barely imagine what it must be like to have a picky eater!

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CRPP

© Copyright 2016 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.