How to Deal With a Cat That's a Picky Eater

WebMD veterinary expert answers commonly asked questions about cats and finicky eating habits.

By Sandy Eckstein
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed by Katherine Snyder, DVM

Is your cat a picky eater that turns up his nose at almost everything you serve? Why are some cats good eaters, while others act like they'd rather starve than eat what you give them? WebMD asked Tony Buffington, a nationally known expert in feline health and nutrition, for some tips on how to keep our kitties happy and well fed. Buffington is a member and past president of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition and a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State University.

Q: Why does my cat like something one day and then won't eat it the next?

A: In nature, cats are very open to trying new foods. So if a cat is finicky, something is wrong. It helps to understand how cats feed. Cats are solitary hunters. They aren't pack hunters. They have a completely different evolutionary history with food than pack animals have.

In the wild, they eat between 10 and 20 meals a day, and they are opportunistic feeders. That means they eat when food is available. They hunt small prey, and those animals -- small birds, mice, bugs -- don't have a lot of calories. That's why they have to eat so often.

So if a cat is finicky, something is preventing its natural feeding behaviors. Then it's a matter of figuring out what that is. It can be any number of things from it just doesn't like the food to it's too frightened to eat. Sometimes, just breaking a cat's routine can put a cat off its food. This is especially true with indoor cats. They often perceive change as a threat.

Q: Does my cat need more than just dry food to eat? Why?

A: No, dry food is fine as long as it's a commercially available food from a major manufacturer. Some people are radically opposed to dry food. Some people hate canned food. I think you should feed your cat what he likes.

Q: Should I free feed my cat (always leave food out) or just put food down for a short period of time?

A: Cats are nibblers and eat many small meals, so my preference is the daily ration of food be put out several times a day. Even better, put it in a foraging device. These are small plastic containers with holes in them. The cat has to play with them to get the food to fall out. It doesn't just slow down a cat's eating; it also stimulates the cat mentally.

Q: Should I cook for my cat instead of buying her food?

A: You can, but I don't recommend it. It takes a lot of time, and you have to include supplements. If you want to do this, you really should talk to your veterinarian to be sure you're doing it correctly. There are places that will sell you the supplements and then you can just add in the protein and carbohydrates. That is if you have the time and the interest.

Q: Can a food allergy cause my cat to be a picky eater?

A: I'm not aware that that's been looked at. But if the cat has an adverse reaction from eating a food and it can make that link that it was the food that made it sick, then it will certainly avoid the food. The problem with food allergies is that it can take days or weeks for the problems to manifest. So the cat probably won't make the connection that it's the food that's making it sick.

Q: If my cat rejects a food, should I keep offering it to her or try something else?

A: It depends on how it was offered. If the old food was taken away and only the new food was offered, then try it again side by side with her old food. I've seen cases where a cat rejected a new food when it was offered alone, but when it was offered next to her regular food, then she tried it.

Usually cats will start eating a new food within a day or two if it's a food they will like. If it's a food you want to switch them to, once they've started eating the new food, just put more of the new food out and less of the old food. That way they still have the safety of their old food, but you're using their hunger drive to get them to eat more of the new food.

Q: How long can my cat go without eating before I should worry?

A: Not eating is not normal for cats. If a cat isn't eating but otherwise seems healthy, then it probably doesn't like the food. So I'd change the food. But if it's not eating and also seems lethargic or sick, then take it to your veterinarian immediately.

Q: Can there be physical reasons my cat is a picky eater?

A: Yes. The most common and least specific sign of illness in a cat is not eating. So it's important to know when your cat isn't eating. And if he isn't eating, it's important that you figure out why, whether it's an illness, whether it's environmental reasons, or whether it's just because he doesn't like the food.

Q: Can two cats share a bowl? Or should each be fed separately?

A: Cats should be fed in separate bowls out of sight of each other. And the location of your cat's feeding area also is very important. It should be someplace where another animal can't sneak up and trap the cat. And don't put the bowl somewhere where equipment or a motor can suddenly turn on and scare the cat, like near a central heating duct or next to a refrigerator that can kick on.

I've seen cats that stopped eating because the owner moved the bowl somewhere and the cat was afraid to go there and eat.

Q: How do I keep my kitten from becoming a finicky eater?

A: Pick a good feeding site. And particularly in a kitten, feed it a variety of flavors and forms of food. Always offer the different foods in separate containers. Your kitten can't tell you what he likes and dislikes. So keep offering him choices so you can find what he'll like and what he doesn't. It's like kids. You want to expose them to lots of different choices.