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Cat pet parents are well aware of how finicky felines can be. One minute, they’re affectionate and cuddly, and the next, they want nothing to do with anyone. They can also be incredibly picky when it comes to their food.
A cat’s refusal to eat their regular food is understandably concerning, especially if they aren’t usually a picky eater. It can also be incredibly confusing (even frustrating) if the feline doesn’t reject their favorite treats. That can leave pet parents wondering, "Why are my cats not eating?"
There are many reasons why a cat might stop eating their dry kibble but continue eating cat treats. Some aren’t serious and may only require minor adjustments to get the feline back on track. Others may be the result of underlying medical conditions that require veterinary care.
Most cats are creatures of habit. They thrive best with a set routine. Any deviations from their usual feeding schedule can upset them. Even seemingly minor alterations, such as less frequent food dish washing or a pet parent sleeping in on the weekends (therefore setting the cat’s breakfast out later), can lead to food refusal. Leaving dry food out all day for the feline to graze at will (free feeding) may also contribute to a loss of interest in food over time. Cats are hunters and, though they may crave food on a regular schedule, instinctually have a need to work/hunt for it.
Sometimes, disinterest in dry food is a result of a behavior problem. Pet parents want their pets to be happy and healthy. When a cat won't eat much of their food one day, it’s natural to want to do something about it. Some pet parents offer treats to give their felines a few extra calories. While it’s unintentional, this can teach cats that not eating their meals gets them tastier treats instead. Too many treats can also fill a cat’s belly, leaving them with no room for their usual food.
Other behavior-related reasons cats may stop eating their food include:
Stress/anxiety (one cat might feel threatened by another one being too close during mealtime)
The cat doesn’t like the location of their food bowl (it may be too close to their water, their litter box, a noisy appliance, or a location they consider unsafe)
Environmental changes (a new pet or human family member, a recent move, etc.)
A cat may stop eating a specific type of food because they associate it with feelings of sickness. Known as a food aversion, this often happens because the cat ate that food when they were ill. Even though they might be feeling better now, the association remains.
Appetite loss may also be a sign of an underlying medical condition. For instance, dental disease can cause pain, making it difficult for a cat to chew their dry kibble. However, they might continue eating treats because those have a softer texture. Other health issues that can cause a decreased appetite for dry food include:
Parasites (hookworms, tapeworms, roundworms)
Pain (injury, arthritis)
While this isn’t always the case, many health issues have other symptoms, such as vomiting or diarrhea, that can let people know something might be wrong. If a cat isn’t eating, keep an eye out for additional signs of a potential problem.
While a cat might be getting calories from treats, refusing their regular food does pose some problems. For one thing, their diet becomes unbalanced. Most commercial dry kibble contains the combination of protein, fats, and carbohydrates (as well as essential vitamins and minerals) that felines need for optimal nutrition. Treats, which are typically high in fat, don’t provide much in the way of nutrition. Poor nutrition can lead to a wide array of health complications.
Cats that don’t eat a lot are also at an increased risk of developing hepatic lipidosis, a condition in which the liver starts digesting the body’s fat for energy. Eventually, the liver can become overwhelmed and stop properly functioning.
If a cat has stopped eating their dry food, here are a few strategies that may help encourage a cat to start again:
Sometimes, all a cat needs is a little encouragement to jump start their interest in their dry food again. Try adding a small amount of something enticing (and nutritious!) to their bowls, such as salmon oil, bonito flakes, or a small amount of wet food.
If the cat has an inconsistent feeding schedule, it can also be helpful to establish and stick to a routine. When setting meals out, leave the food bowl for 15 to 30 minutes before removing it, and don’t put it back down until the next scheduled feeding. Learning when they can eat and that they only have so much time to do so could encourage the cat to start eating their regular food again.
There are so many kinds of food available for cats today. Dry kibble comes in many different sizes, textures, and flavors. A cat that may have gotten bored of their current food (or developed an aversion to it) might be excited by a new smell, taste, and feel.
Cats are instinctual hunters. Lack of mental stimulation may cause some cats to get bored of kibble. For cats that seem bored or indifferent at mealtime, Fuzzy vets recommend using interactive puzzle feeders, treat dispensing mice toys, or changing the location of feeding so the cat must explore and find where their meal is. This will activate a cat’s predatory instincts and may encourage them to eat smaller volumes but more consistently or frequently in the day. Pet parents may also mix in different types of higher reward treats with the kibble in a toy or puzzle feeder to stimulate a cat’s curiosity and motivation for the food.
If the cat still won’t eat their regular food or they’re showing additional signs of a potential health issue, pet parents might want to consider getting help from a vet. A vet can perform a thorough examination and diagnose (or rule out) an underlying medical condition that may be contributing to the cat’s appetite loss. They can also prescribe an appropriate treatment and provide additional feeding plan recommendations.
A well-balanced diet is vital to a cat’s overall health and well-being, and dry food can play a significant role in that maintenance. So, when a cat suddenly shuns their regular food and only wants to eat treats, pet parents may understandably be concerned. While their disinterest could be the result of a routine shift or recent environmental change, it could also be a sign of an underlying health condition.
Discovering the cause of a cat’s refusal to eat their food (but still eating treats) and taking steps to restore their appetite is essential for keeping them healthy and happy. Fuzzy is here to help. Our team of online vets is available whenever pet parents need to answer questions, address concerns, and provide steps or options to improving the finicky cat’s care. Become a Fuzzy member and chat with our licensed vet support in seconds if concerning nutritional or behavior changes arise.