Old brown and white cat in front of food bowl

If your older cat is not drinking and is lethargic, take them to a vet within 24 hours.

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How do you get an older cat to eat?

By Dr. Liz Barton MA, VetMB, MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

From changing how you feed and what you feed your older cat, there are several ways to get them to eat – just first make sure that they're not sick. 

If you have an older cat and they're underweight, you may want to get them back to a healthier size. But as well as considering their diet, it's also important to find out why they've lost weight, just in case it's due to a health problem that you're not aware of.

What cat food is best for weight gain in older cats?

If your older cat is underweight or losing weight, they are in negative calorie balance. This is either due to reduced intake, reduced absorption or increased use or loss. They may be eating less if they have dental disease or are feeling nauseous. Reduced absorption can be due to diarrhoea and diseases affecting the gut or liver. Increased use in older age is usually due to endocrine diseases or calorie-consuming conditions, such as heart disease and cancer.

There may also be increased loss due to kidney disease (loss of protein in the urine). Finding out the underlying cause of why an older cat is underweight is key to helping reverse this process. When you speak to a vet, they may advise a diet that is higher in calories, but is still appropriate for older cats who have different dietary needs from younger cats to stay healthy.

How do you fatten up a cat?

Once underlying causes of low body weight have been checked by a vet, feeding an appropriate diet at the correct amount for the age and stage of your cat’s life should enable them to maintain a healthy body weight. All cats are different and some may require more than the feeding guide to stay at a healthy weight. You do not want your cat to be ‘fat’, but to have a body condition score in the middle of the range (body condition scoring tools can be found on the internet).

If you are feeding your cat to gain weight, it’s important to regularly monitor their condition and make sure they are gaining some weight and also they are not gaining too much weight. Speak to a vet because they may offer a diet clinic, where you can regularly take your cat and check progress with expert advice.

How can I get my older cat to gain weight?

If your older cat is otherwise well and with no underlying disease, encouraging them to eat may include feeding higher calorie, tastier food. They may increase overall intake, if fed little and often. Warming the food encourages eating, as their sense of smell may not be as good in older age. Puzzle feeders and scatter feeding can turn meal times into a game, stimulating their mind, increasing exercise and increasing the amount they eat.

Does dry food make cats gain weight?

Dry food has less water content than wet food, so is more calorie dense. If you feed the same quantity of dry food as wet, there will be a lot more calories in the dry food, which could lead to weight gain in your cat. It’s important to follow feeding guidelines and also reduce the amount of food, if you cat starts to become overweight.

Why is my elderly cat not eating?

Older cats who are not eating may be suffering from a number of problems. They may have dental disease, though this tends to be quite severe if it’s stopping a cat from eating. They may be feeling unwell, with a temperature or nausea. Nausea is commonly due to dehydration, which often follows kidney disease in older cats. Blood tests may reveal kidney or liver disease, which can cause inappetance. They may also be struggling to reach the food due to arthritis in their neck or joints. Putting feeding bowls on a raised surface at head height, or making it easier for them to reach food with ramps or platforms, may help to increase food intake.

Often, the exact cause isn’t known, and simply rehydrating an older cat with an IV drip will cause them to start eating again.

How long can an elderly cat go without eating?

While younger cats can manage for a few days without eating, older cats will start to become dehydrated and lose body condition more rapidly. Provided they are drinking and behaving normally, it may be okay to wait a couple of days to tempt them to eat at home with warmed, tasty food. If they are not drinking and are lethargic, you should take them to be checked by a vet before dehydration sets in – ideally within 24 hours.

How much should an old cat eat?

Older cats should be fed according to feeding guidance on the food packaging, ideally with a diet formulated for senior cats. If they are losing or gaining weight on this diet, the amount they are fed will need to be gradually adjusted to help them maintain a healthy body condition.

Is senior cat food necessary?

Senior cat foods are generally restricted in protein and salt, are easier to digest and have fewer calories, as older cats tend to be less active. While it is not necessary to feed senior food, it is recommended, as it will help your cat to stay healthy in older age.

Is wet food better for older cats?

Wet food can help cats to stay hydrated. As older cats will be prone to more water loss in their urine, increasing the amount of water in their diet can help – and wet food is one way of achieving this. Wet food is not as abrasive on the teeth, so will not help to combat dental disease, but many biscuit kibbles also break too easily to help reduce dental disease.

When should I speak to a vet?

If you have tried these recommended methods for encouraging your cat to eat and are still not eating, it is best to talk to a vet early. If your cat is showing any signs of dehydration or is very lethargic, speak to a vet straight away, as they may be in need of an IV drip.

What should I ask a vet about the best diet plan for a senior cat not wanting to eat?

Talk to a vet and they will tell you that they want to make sure there are no underlying treatable causes for your older cat not eating. Once these have been ruled out or addressed, then it is good to discuss the most appropriate diet and feeding plan for your older cat. This may include regular diet checks to ensure a healthy weight, increasing or changing the diet, increasing water intake, and feeding little and often.

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