You’d think it would be relatively easy to spot when a cat’s appetite is flagging — or revving up. “If you have one cat, it’s fairly obvious when your cat is not eating the same amount of food,” explains Linda A. Ross, DVM, associate professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “But the majority of cat owners live with more than one cat. When you live with two or three or four cats, it’s obviously more difficult to know if one particular cat is or is not eating.”
Many cat owners feed cat food once or twice a day, and leave dry food for nibbling all day long. It can be hard to tell who’s eating and how much. Therefore, it’s important to keep an eye out for signs that your cat’s appetite has changed. We’re not talking about a cat that habitually eats too much. “In a healthy cat, if food is available all the time, and if its food they really like, they can overeat and become overweight.” You can address overeating by changing your feeding pattern, but that’s not an appetite problem.
A change in appetite, on the other hand, may signal a health problem in your cat. Here’s how to spot a problem, when to consult your veterinarian — and common causes and treatments.
When your cat has poor appetite
“Poor appetite just means your cat is not feeling well,” says Dr. Ross. “One could write a book about the number of diseases that cause a cat to not feel well and stop eating.” If you suspect that your cat’s appetite has flagged, and you have several cats, you may want to separate them into different rooms, so you can see how much each one is eating.
A more telling sign: weight loss. “You can evaluate that by feeling your cat,” explains Dr. Ross. “Does your cat feel thinner?” If you have a bathroom scale, you can also pick up your cat, weigh both of you, and then put your cat down, and note the difference. If your cat feels thinner or weighs less, it’s time to call the vet.
“The first thing I do when I see a cat with decreased appetite is a physical exam and check to see if the cat is running a fever,” says Dr. Ross. “That’s a common cause. Another common cause, especially in cats that go outdoors or are part of multi-cat families, is a bite wound or abscess from another cat.”
Dental problems can affect appetite, too. “Dental disease is common in cats,” says Dr. Ross. “Sometimes it makes it difficult to chew. You may see a cat, instead of chewing the normal way, turning his head to the side, or you may see food falling out of his mouth.” Fixing the dental problem usually fixes the appetite problem. More serious conditions — liver or kidney disease, cancer such as lymphoma, and certain infectious diseases such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) — can also cause low appetite and weight loss. “The most important thing is to correct the underlying disease.”
If the cause is a fever or bite —once the acute situation is resolved — your cat’s appetite should return quickly. But when chronic conditions such as liver or kidney disease cause a persistent appetite problem, “nutrition is important,” says Dr. Ross. Work with your vet to get your cat on the right diet. “For kidney disease, the goal may be to feed a low-protein diet,” she says. “But in general, we would rather the cat eat something rather than nothing, even if it’s the ‘wrong’ thing.”
You can also try new ways to entice your cat to eat (see sidebar on page 7 for ideas), and in some cases, your veterinarian may prescribe appetite stimulants or feeding tubes (see sidebar at right).
If your cat’s appetite or weight is flagging, the most important thing is to get him or her to the vet. “It’s fine to use treats, but if your cat’s appetite doesn’t return to normal, make an appointment with your veterinarian,” urges Dr. Ross.
“If your cat just loves food and eats too much, he’ll gain weight,” says Dr. Ross. That’s not an immediate medical concern — although obesity can certainly lead to medical problems down the line. “But we get concerned when an animal is eating a lot and not gaining weight, or is actually losing weight.”
The most common causes, often seen in older cats, are hyperthyroidism (high thyroid hormones) or diabetes. Another possibility is an intestinal condition, in which food goes into the digestive track but nutrients are not absorbed properly.
Appetite changes caused by one of these conditions can be dramatic. “It’s pretty obvious,” says Dr. Ross. “Your cat is eating all the food, begging for food, stealing food — all of a sudden your cat jumps up and eats off your plate. I had one owner who came home to find that her cat had gotten into the kitchen cabinet and was eating a box of pancake mix.”
Once you treat the underlying condition, the appetite gets back on track. “That’s one of things we look for to know that our treatment is working: appetite returns to normal,” says Dr. Ross. — Bob Barnett