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14 Tricks for Getting Your Picky Cat To Eat — Plus a Cat Behavior Specialist Explains Why All the Fuss

Does your pet gobble up a meal one day and turn her nose up the next? Here’s how to deal.


When I brought my cats home from a local city animal shelter, I almost tripped over them at suppertime. They associated the can opener with a dinner bell. They gobbled up whatever I put down. Not a speck of food remained in their bowls.

Breakfast consisted of dry food. Dinner was wet canned food. No complaints.

I varied the menu. Wet food varieties included pâté, shredded meats, and small bite-size bits. The dry food, served in the morning, changed. I tried different brands. Everything went well until it didn’t. Both cats ignored the meaty bits and shredded varieties. After a few months of variety, they only wanted, and still to this day (nine years later) only want, pâté.

“I can’t say with certainty that all cats are finicky eaters,” Samantha Bell, cat expert for Best Friends Animal Society, says, “but we know many are.”

Why are some cats so choosy?

The reasons are plentiful, according to Bell. “At their core, cats are predators. Our domestic house cats are closely related to their wild ancestors. And their instincts still tell them to vary what they eat so their bodies get all the nutrients they require. A diet of only mice will be missing the nutrients they can get from birds, for example. So, they’re hardwired to want a little variety in their diet.”

Age Is a Factor

“As cats age, their sense of smell becomes diminished so they may not be as interested in their food,” Bell says. “This could also be the case if a cat is getting an upper respiratory infection (a kitty cold). If they have any gastrointestinal issues or sensitivities, those could make their food less appetizing.”

Appetite Killers

Dental concerns can cause your cat to eat less because chewing could be difficult or painful. Underlying health issues like kidney disease, pancreatitis, hyperthyroidism, and cancer are often discovered when a cat refuses to eat or becomes finicky. Other causes include depression, stress, and anxiety.

A Scientific Explanation

According to a study in the journal Royal Society Open Science, cats prefer foods with a one to four ratio of protein to fat. Cats are carnivores and need to eat a protein-rich diet. One essential amino acid found in protein is taurine. Without taurine in their diets, cats can develop serious health problems such as blindness and heart disease.

Helping Your Pet Go for Diversity

“As soon as you notice any behavior change in your cat, like finicky eating, the first thing to do is to get them to a vet,” Bell says. “There is often an underlying medical reason.”

If they get a clean bill of health from the vet, you can:

  • Warm their food so it has a stronger smell.
  • Try different brands, flavors, and textures of food.
  • Add another food bowl in a different location.
  • Try serving them at different times of the day and when you find times they like, stick to that schedule.
  • Try serving their food on different bowls and plates.
  • Clean each bowl and their water dish after each meal.
  • Sprinkle a probiotic called FortiFlora, designed to settle digestive troubles, on top of their food. According to Bell, “It’s quite tasty for cats.”
  • Pour some of the oil from a can of tuna over your cat’s food.
  • Stop feeding them for a day, if they’re not eating. If it continues, take them back to their veterinarian.
  • Leave a small amount of dry food out. Some cats are nibblers and prefer grazing.
  • “You can also play with them using a wand toy,” Bell says. “Their hunting cycle is hunt, catch, kill, eat, groom, and sleep. So after hunting and killing a wand toy, their instincts tell them it’s time to eat.”
  • When Bell’s three senior cats became finicky, she changed their diet. “I discovered they only want wet food that has chunks or shreds in it,” she says.

Cooking for Kitty

If you have the time, talk to your cat’s veterinarian about what to include in the food. Commercial cat food contains protein, carbohydrates, and supplements; the supplements in your cat’s food are essential for their overall health. While some online pet food retailers sell supplements, it’s wise to discuss this with your veterinarian to make sure your cat gets a healthy and balanced diet.

Sharing Issues

Each cat should ideally have her own bowl. My two cats are sisters and the smaller one sometimes bullies the bigger one. Some cats need to be fed in separate rooms because they don’t feel comfortable with another cat around who may encroach on their territory.

Limit the Treats

“Cats’ stomachs are the size of a ping-pong ball,” Bell explains. “If you give your cat several treats, it’s going to fill them up and then they won’t be as hungry for their regular food. So, it’s not so much that the flavor of the treats is making them finicky. They’re just filling up on things other than their regular food.”

Bell recommends breaking treats into tiny pieces so they don’t become stuffed. “The same goes for human food,” she says, “I will give my cats a teeny tiny speck of cheese now and then. But I make sure it’s not enough to affect their meals or their digestive system.”

From Kitten to Adult to Senior

As your cat ages throughout her life, you will need to change her food. Kitten food is high in calories and nutrients designed for your cat’s development. Once they reach adulthood, at age 1, those extra calories in kitten food can lead to added weight.

When your cat reaches age 7, you’ll want to switch from adult to senior cat food, which supports joint health and a cat’s immune system. Most senior cat foods are slightly lower in calories than adult foods, which is ideal for a less active cat.

Switching food should occur gradually, over a seven-to-10-day period. On days one and two, give your cat three-quarters of the normal food and add one-quarter of the new food. Here’s how to proceed during the rest of the transition:

  • On days three and four, serve half of your cat’s current food and half of the new food.
  • For days five to seven, use a ratio of three-quarters of the new food to one-quarter of the former food.
  • For days eight to 10, serve only the new food.

Taking a week to change your cat’s diet helps to avoid digestive woes and allows your cat time to adjust to the change. If during this time your cat doesn’t adjust, try again by extending the transition period for another week. If this doesn’t work, try other brands, flavors, and textures.

If your cat goes a couple of days without eating, take him to the veterinarian.

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Inside Your Cat’s Mind, in 2022.

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