What to do about a finicky cat
One of my favorite cat memes depicts a panhandling kitty with a sign that reads, “Will work for food, then take, like, two bites and walk away.”
Maybe you’re lucky enough to have a cat who will eat anything. But if you’ve ever had a finicky cat, who seems to turn his nose up at everything you put in his dish, you will relate.
The frustration of presenting can after can of gourmet food to a cat who won’t even try it, is real. The expense is real, too. “Just eat already!” you want to say to your picky cat.
It’s easy to feel like your finicky cat is just being a jerk. Or trying to manipulate you. It feels personal. But I assure you that a finicky cat has no such intentions.
Most of what we see as “pickiness” in cats, is actually the result of evolution, and your cat is a slave to his biology. Traits that can annoy us to no end, are the same ones that have enabled the cat to survive the ages. While countless other species perished on their evolutionary journeys, our house cats are survivors, in large part because of what they’ve learned to eat and not eat.
Let’s see if I can convince you.
“Finicky” is just another word for “survivor”
When your cat walks away from the 11th can of whatever organic, free-range, non-GMO, raw, limited-ingredient, grain-free, sensitive-stomach, or holistic cat food you’ve opened up (and thrown away) this week, it can feel like she’s doing it on purpose.
She's not. Her behavior is driven by her biology. She’s not thinking; she is behaving the way her genes have told her and all of her ancestors to behave in order to survive.
I repeat: your cat is not being picky to make you crazy.
Here are just a few of the ways a cat’s biology makes him appear to be finicky about food:
Neophobia is an inborn trait in cats“Neophobia” literally means “fear of new things,” and usually refers to an animal (or person’s) fear of new foods or new situations. Some cats, like some people, are just more neophobic than others.
Kittens in the wild learn from their mothers what is food and what is not food. Mama cat demonstrates, by what she brings home for dinner – vole, mouse, or sparrow – what cats are supposed to eat.
A cat’s innate fear of eating something that is “not food” (even if we humans know it is food), is a biological advantage that can save her life. Neophobia prevents a cat from eating things that could make her sick or kill her.
Just because you have put delicious duck pâte in your cat’s bowl, does not mean your cat recognizes duck pâte as food. For very neophobic cats who have never seen duck pâte before, you might as well have served him marbles or paper clips. To him, it doesn’t look or smell like food is supposed to look or smell.
If you are raising a cat from kittenhood, it’s worthwhile to expose your kittens to different flavors and formulations of food while they are still young and open-minded. When I foster kittens, I like to offer a variety of kitten foods, being careful to transition between types slowly, so as not to cause stomach upset.
Cats care about the nutritional content of food
Cats don’t really “care” about the nutritional value of their food, the way health-conscious humans do.
But one study showed that cats will, over time, choose foods that give them the optimal balance of protein to fat.
The study allowed cats to choose from foods that were flavored like fish (their favorite), rabbit (their second favorite), and orange (yuck). The foods were formulated with widely different ratios of protein to fat, and some were even made with plant proteins.
Naturally, cats gravitated to the flavors they liked best at first. But then, over time, they managed their consumption of the foods so that they were all ultimately taking in the same ratio of protein to fat (1 to 0.43).
They even willingly ate plant protein and orange-flavored food to ensure that they were getting the right macronutrients.
This study demonstrates, to me, how driven by biology a cat’s appetite really is. Cats don’t necessarily eat what they enjoy. They eat what they instinctively know they need to eat to thrive.
Cats lack the ability to taste sweetness
Nearly every mammal on the planet, including humans, has two genes that produce the proteins that give us the ability to taste sweet things.
Cats have these two genes, too, but one of them is broken. Researchers took DNA samples from six cats, including a tiger and a cheetah, and found the useless gene. An animal needs both genes to be working to be able to taste sweetness.
So, what happened to cats?
Cats are “ultra-carnivores.” They eat meat, meat, and more meat. Somewhere along the line, that sweet gene accidentally mutated. But cats probably didn’t notice. They weren’t eating sweet things, so the mutation didn’t affect their survival. The broken gene stuck around.
Why is this important to the discussion of pickiness in cats?
The ability to taste sugar is a pretty big deal when it comes to neophobia. One study showed that Rhesus monkeys, who are wary about trying new non-sweet foods, easily overcame their hesitancy if that new food was sweet.
Most mammals are born to seek out sweet foods. A sweet taste in food indicates the presence of sugars, a good source of calories. We’re driven by millions of years of evolution to seek out and try sweet things. In humans, this obsession with sweets has been compared to addiction.
But not for cats.
Cats easily discern bitterness
Cats have at least seven different kinds of bitter taste receptors. Taste receptors are proteins that send a signal to the brain when certain substances touch the receptor. Without taste receptors, we wouldn’t be able to experience the sense of taste.
Researchers were surprised that cats have bitter taste receptors. Afterall, bitterness is associated with plants, and cats don’t eat plants. Bitter taste receptors are supposed to protect animals from eating poisonous plants. At least that’s what the scientists thought, before they met cats.
To make matters even more interesting, cats don’t just have bitter taste receptors on their tongues. They’re everywhere! In their noses, upper respiratory tracts, and probably in their guts, too. Cats find bitter things extremely yucky.
Taste is kind of a security guard at the entrance to the body. Taste tells the cat, “Sure, let this thing inside,” or “Danger! Don’t eat that!”
The existence of so many bitter taste receptors suggests that cats are built to reject food that has a flavor that isn’t exactly right.
Are you sure your cat is being finicky?
Sometimes, what seems like finicky behavior to a human is perfectly normal eating behavior for a cat.
Ask yourself these three questions before deciding whether your cat is truly being finicky:
- Does your cat eat every day?
- Is your cat’s weight stable?
- Does your cat have an appropriate amount of energy for her age?
If you can answer “yes” to all three questions, your cat is probably eating the way she should be eating.
Maybe there is another reason your cat isn’t eatingSometimes cats don’t eat the way we think they should, but the reason has nothing to do with pickiness.
Sometimes there is something “wrong” – with the cat, the bowl, or the household – that absolutely needs to be addressed.
Sometimes there is nothing wrong at all and we cat guardians just have to adjust our expectations and chill.
Let’s discuss the times when cat “pickiness” isn’t really pickiness at all.
When your cat is sick
Has your cat always been a good eater, but suddenly seems disinterested in what’s in her dish? This is a red flag.
A cat who suddenly stops eating could be quite sick. Cats may be predators, but they’re prey animals, too. Prey animals are very good at hiding illness so they don't call attention to themselves. By the time a cat has stopped eating, she may have been sick for a while.
(Read: How do you know if your cat is sick?)
A cat who doesn’t eat for even a day or two is at risk for a very serious, life-threatening condition called hepatic lipidosis.
While you are calling your vet to make an appointment (don’t wait), read this post on hepatic lipidosis so you can understand what you could be up against.
But know that even a mild upper respiratory infection, for example, can cause a cat to lose her appetite. If a cat can’t smell her food due to a kitty cold, she won’t be enticed by food.
Dental problems could also cause a cat to refuse food. Sore teeth or aching gums could make eating too uncomfortable.
A hairball could make a cat’s belly feel not quite right. Read this post about cats and hairballs for suggestions, if you think this might be your cat’s problem.
But call the vet first.
When your cat isn’t hungry
If you free-feed your cat and then expect him to come running when you put the expensive wet food in his bowl…then your problem is probably not pickiness.
If you give lots of treats, your cat might not be hungry for supper. Read this post about how much to feed your cat, including how many treat calories your cat should be limited to each day.
If your cat is an outdoor cat, it’s possible that someone else is feeding him, or that he’s helping himself to a supper of local rodents.
Cats do need to be hungry in order to eat.
When your cat only eats a tiny bit and walks away
Left to their own devices, cats will hunt, kill, and eat eight to 12 mice every 24 hours. A mouse has about 30 calories.
At home, 30 calories are 10-15 pieces of kibble, or three or four bites of wet food. In a perfect world, you’d feed your cat a mouse-sized portion of food eight times or more a day.
Just because you’d like to sit down with a 12 oz porterhouse steak with a giant baked potato and a scoop of sour cream, doesn’t mean that’s how cats eat.
When your cat doesn’t like the bowl or its placement
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Sometimes it’s not the food that keeps a cat from eating like she should.
It’s possible your cat doesn’t like the bowl you put the food in or where you put the bowl:
When the real problem is whisker stress. At the base of each of a cat’s whiskers is an important sensing organ. The idea behind whisker stress is that too much stimulation of the whiskers is irritating, and a cat would rather avoid eating or drinking than have her whiskers rub against the side of the bowl.
There are bowl products on the market that are shallower to address this concern. You can try this one by Dr. Catsby if you think this may be your cat’s problem.
In the meanwhile, read all about whiskers if you want to know more about it.
When your cat thinks you bought the wrong bowl. Not all cat bowls were created equal. Plastic can harbor bacteria and retain odors. Ceramic, if it’s chipped or grazed, can also become a breeding ground for bacteria.
In this post about the kind of food or water dish you should buy for your cat, I discuss the various types of bowls and the pluses and minuses of each.
You can try an American-made stainless steel bowl set by Americat, or even feed your cat out of an American-made glass mini pie plate, like this one by Anchor Hocking.
When your cat would like you to move his bowl. Your idea of the “right” location for the food bowls (in the kitchen, right next to the water bowl, on a cute little mat) is probably not your cat’s idea of the right place for the food bowl.
Your cat needs her food dish in a “safe” location – her definition, not yours. She needs to be able to eat out of her own bowl, not one she shares with her housemates.
She needs privacy and quiet (not next to the washing machine, for example), but she also needs to be able to see all the comings and goings around her. She doesn’t want to get ambushed by your toddler or your German shepherd.
And your cat doesn’t want his food dish to be right next to his water bowl, or his litter box for that matter. Read this post about why cats are so fussy about drinking water for more information about bowl placement.
Some cats feel safer when you put their dishes up on a counter. For elderly cats, who might experience pain jumping up that high, the converse might be true. Try putting the dish back on the floor.
Not everybody wants cats on the counter, however. If not, find a quiet spot, away from traffic, where your cat can eat in peace. See if he’s still “finicky” then.
Some things to do (and not do) if your cat won’t eat what you serve
Call the vet. This should be your first order of business, especially if your cat’s pickiness is something new.
Warm up the food. Cold foods do not give off as much enticing aroma as warm foods. Mouse-body temperature is ideal – about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Be sure to mix up heated food before serving to prevent dangerous hot spots.
Try wet food. If you usually serve dry food, try wet. It naturally has a stronger aroma. Read this post about the advantages and disadvantages of wet food and dry.
Stop changing flavors. You might like variety, but most cats are happiest eating the same thing every day. New flavors might force your cat to have to “decide” every day if this is something he wants to eat.
Transition to new foods s-l-o-w-l-y. Sometimes, we need to change what we feed our cats, like during the cat-food shortage of 2022, when your regular food went out of stock, or if your vet is recommending a switch to a prescription diet.
I include instructions for slow transitions in the above post, but you can also just put a tiny bit of the new food out next to the old food. Some cats will outright reject a new food offered by itself, but might be more adventurous, culinarily speaking, if their comfort food is standing by.
If you’ve switched foods too quickly and your cat is refusing to eat, start over. Bring out the old food again and start the transition process from scratch.
Look at the shape of your dry food. In one scientific study, researchers turned the same cat food into different dry shapes. Cats absolutely preferred to eat little disks than other shapes. The “X” shape was their second favorite. Maybe your cat doesn’t like the shape of the food you feed.
Check the consistency of your wet food. Cats seem to have individual preferences when it comes to the texture of their wet food. If your cat prefers pâte, don’t bother presenting him with food that comes in chunks or slices.
Stop free-feeding and eliminate treats. Your cat needs to be hungry in order to eat.
Play with your cat. Exercise can stimulate appetite in some cats. Plus, it’s fun.
Figure out if your cat is a social or solitary eater. Some cats only enjoy eating in the presence of their guardians. Other cats want to eat alone. Figure out whether your cat enjoys a dinner date or not.
Stop hiding medicine in food. Cats have a keen sense of smell and can detect that foreign substance you think you hid very well. Even after you stop putting medicine in the food your cat may associate that food with the weird odor and will refuse to eat it moving forward for all eternity.
Try a probiotic. Some cats are intensely attracted to FortiFlora, a healthy probiotic. Sprinkle a quarter of a package on your cat’s food.
But don’t get in the habit of adding other things to food. Aside from the probiotic I mentioned above, don’t get into the habit of adding other things to the food that make a cat difficult to feed in the long run.
If you start sprinkling parmesan cheese on top of your cat’s wet food, for example, he may become reluctant to eat the wet food without parmesan cheese in the future.
Try a new bowl. Switch to a “whisker-safe” bowl (see above), or try a bowl made of stainless steel or glass if your cat is currently eating out of plastic.
Move the bowl. See the section above for more information about bowl placement.
Don’t substitute human food. It may be tempting to feed cats what you eat, especially if they seem to enjoy it. But human food doesn’t contain the right nutrition for a cat. It’s missing essential nutrients and amino acids that a cat literally cannot live without.
Don’t leave wet food out all day. It’s hard to keep throwing away food that your cat doesn’t eat, but it’s unsafe to leave wet food out for more than two hours. Plus, wet food begins to lose its aroma the longer it hangs around.
Instead, put out only a tiny bit of food, as many times a day as you can. If your cat doesn’t eat it, you’re not wasting very much.
Don’t let your cat tough it out. You can’t be overly strict when it comes to cats and food. You can’t just assume a cat will “eat when he’s hungry” and walk away.
A cat can die from hepatic lipidosis if he doesn’t eat for even just a couple of days.
Call your vet if your cat is not eating and you’ve run out of ideas.
If there is one thing I want cat guardians to get out of this post, it's that cats who appear finicky to us are not trying to be frustrating.
They’re not being stubborn. They’re not being vindictive. They’re not trying to manipulate you.
So-called “picky” cats are performing behaviors that make sense to them, and that were programmed into their DNA eons ago.
Remember that these eating behaviors have worked for cats for millennia, and they’re the reason cats are still here for us to enjoy them.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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