My Cat Only Eats a Little at a Time - Causes and What to Do
See files for Cats
Different cats will have different appetites according to their individual medical picture. When our cat does not eat at all, it is usually due to a serious health problem which causes them a loss of appetite. For example, most will be unable to eat when in extreme pain. However, it is also possible that a cat will suffer a loss of appetite which results in anorexia. This may not mean the cat is in immediate danger, but over time they can develop dehydration, weakness, muscule fatigue, decreased immunity and, eventually, organ failure.
At AnimalWised, we look at why my cat only eats a little at a time. We discuss the underlying physical and psychological causes of this behavior, as well as find out what we may be able to do about it.
My cat tries to eat but can't
As we stated in the introduction, there is a difference between a cat only eating a little at a time and not eating at all. Since a cat needs to eat to survive, there is something wrong if they refuse to eat at all. In the wild, cats will not have guaranteed food as they should do in our homes. This is why domestic cats may still feel insecurity if they do not have regularly portioned food.
All cats are individuals. Some will try to eat at any given moment, something which can lead to obesity in cats if not controlled. Others may have a relatively low appetite, but are still able to maintain their health and activity levels. When a cat doesn't eat very much, but tries to, it is likely some physical trauma is preventing them from doing so.
If you see your cat struggles to eat dry food, but has less problem with wet food, it might mean they have a dental problem or disease of the mouth. Examples of diseases which affect a cat's mouth include:
- Feline chronic gingivostomatitis
- Tooth resorption
- Physical trauma
- Foreign bodies
In any of these cases, the pain in the cat's mouth stops them from being able to chew hard food. In the case of tumors, it could be that pressure from the swelling prevents the cat from being able to swallow. Tooth decay and gum diseases such as gingivitis can also cause serious dental pain, making it difficult to chew. Take the cat to a veterinarian to examine their mouth if they can only eat a little at a time.
My cat only eats a little at a time due to disease
If a cat does not have a problem with the mouth which prevents them from chewing and ingesting food, then it is possible an underlying disease is the problem. Anorexia and loss of appetite are both symptoms of various feline diseases, some of which you may not associate with eating problems. In these cases, the cat may want to eat, but is unable to due to discomfort. They include:
Besides not eating very much, have you noticed your cat is drinking less than usual? Consequently, they may also not be urinating as before. If you answer in the affirmative, it is possible these are symptoms of some form of kidney failure. Kidney disease occurs more often in older cats and those suffering from obesity. Yearly visits are important for all cats to test their kidney function, but vulnerable cats should have even more checkups.
When we see our cat is only eating a little at a time, we need to ensure we look for any other concurrent symptoms. If the cat also suffers from vomiting and/or diarrhea, it is possible they have some form of gastrointestinal disease. Such diseases include:
- Colitis (inflammation of the colon)
- Presence of foreign bodies
- Liver disease
In these cases, the discomfort caused by the disease prevents them from wanting to eat. In severe cases, they will not eat at all, but cats with mild cases may still eat a little to keep them going. Eating too much can cause these problems to be more painful.
Although not as acute as a dog's, a cat's sense of smell is very sensitive. Unlike many other animals, they only breathe through their noses, although it is possible for them to intake air through the mouth. Loss of smell is directly linked to a loss of appetite since taste and smell are so closely linked.
A loss of smell in cats can be caused by a sinus infection or any of the many types of upper respiratory diseases which can affect cats. In addition to eating very little, if your cat has labored breathing, persistent coughing, leakage from their eyes or a runny nose, it is possible they are suffering from a disease which affects their olfactory ability. Appetite usually returns once these problems have been alleviated.
Other infectious diseases
Some diseases in cats affect their entire nervous system. It means their immune system can become compromised and they are more susceptible to secondary diseases. Viral diseases are some of the most dangerous and can serious compromise their health.
Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is a viral disease which is a response to the feline coronavirus (FCoV). The immune system is compromised which leads to non-specific symptoms such as anorexia, fever and weight loss. Since animals in catteries and shelters live in close proximity, spread of this virus is common. Older cats are also more susceptible due to a weaker immune system to fight the virus.
Similarly, another infectious disease which can cause the cat to not eat much is feline panleukopenia. This is similar to parvovirus in dogs and is equally as fatal. Small bacteria lead to a disease called feline infectious anemia which also causes a decrease in appetite. Symptoms of hemolytic anemia such as pale or yellowish mucus membranes, depression, increased heart rate and others may also present.
All of the above infectious diseases can be very serious for your cat. This is why it is imperative you take your cat to the veterinarian if you see them stop eating since early intervention provides the best prognosis.
Other reasons a cat only eats a little at a time
The above causes are some of the most serious pathological diseases in cats. They can shorten their life span and will likely need management for the remainder of their lives. However, there are also practical and psychological reasons why a cat may only eat a little food at a time:
Change in diet
Sudden changes in the brand or type of food you give your cat can cause them to eat less. For example, cats which only eat wet food may not like when you change to dry food only. They may only eat a little at a time to avoid starvation.
Cats can be picky eaters. Even though two brands of cat food may seem the same to us, our cat may not agree. Since their sense of smell is acute, two different brands can be very different to them.
It is also important to note that cats are obligate carnivores and require animal protein to survive. Some guardians wonder can cats be vegan? The answer is no, since they require nutrients found only in animal protein. Synthetic substitutes may be made, but they are not necessarily beneficial to the cat. Although there are fruits and vegetables cats can eat, if we have too much in their diet, they may not eat much of their food.
If your cat only eats a little at a time, it is possibly the symptom of toxification due to eating something poisonous. There are plants we keep in the home which are toxic to cats. Ingestion of such plant material can cause them to vomit and they may be unable to eat much until their digestive system returns to normal.
Similarly, medications, household cleaning products and many other chemicals in the home can poison cats. This is one reason why we should never give human medication such as Ibuprofen to cats. We should only give our felines medication prescribed by a qualified veterinarian.
When a female cat is in heat, their appetite usually decreases. They are so interested in finding a mate, they may only eat a little. Sterilization of cats will prevent this problem as well as other health issues such as breast cancer and uterine tumors.
An often overlooked, but very important, reason why cats only eat a little at a time is due to stress. Cats are very susceptible to any changes in their environment. Even the most subtle can be very stressful. If a new family member enters the home, we change the scent of a room, we are renovating the house, we get a new pet or any other change can cause the cat to become stressed and lose their appetite.
What to do if my cat only eats a little at a time?
As you can see in this article, there are many possible causes of why a cat will reduce their appetite. Some of these health problems can affect a cat simultaneously. However, knowing what to do will depend on looking at the underlying cause. Some you can deal with yourself, but anything which threatens their health needs intervention from a veterinarian.
For example, if a cat only eats a little after you change their cat food brand, you can return to buying the original brand. However, if the cat is showing signs of infection, you will need to take them to the veterinarian to achieve the correct diagnosis and implement a suitable treatment plan.
To prevent a cat from being stressed and encourage eating, we need to find the cause and eliminate it from their environment. We also need to find ways to help relax the cat and restore their emotional stability. We can do this by spending more time with them, encouraging comfort and even using synthetic pheromones.
You can find some help with this by watching out video below on how to relax a cat:
If you want to read similar articles to My Cat Only Eats a Little at a Time - Causes and What to Do, we recommend you visit our Diet problems category.
Harvey, A., Tasker, S. (Eds). (2014). Feline Medicine Manual. Ed. Sastre Molina, SL L ́Hospitalet de
Llobregat, Barcelona, Spain. Palmero, ML, Carballés, V. (2010). Feline infectious diseases . Ed. Servet. Zaragoza, Spain.
GEMFE. Cats and feeding . iCatCare, High Street, Tisbury, Wiltshire, SP3 6LD, UK https://www.avepa.org/articles/alimentacion.html
- Harvey, A., & Tasker, S. (Eds). (2014). Feline Medicine Manual. Ed. Sastre Molina, SL L ́Hospitalet de
Llobregat, Barcelona, Spain.
- Palmero, ML, & Carballés, V. (2010). Feline infectious diseases. Ed. Servet. Zaragoza, Spain.
- GEMFE. Cats and feeding. iCatCare, High Street, Tisbury, Wiltshire, SP3 6LD, UK https://www.avepa.org/articles/alimentacion.html