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How to Feed a Fussy Cat That Is Not Eating

Published date: 08 March 2024

The word ‘fussy’ is often associated with our feline friends. Many owners struggle with their cats rejecting their carefully chosen dinner.

Despite this connection the idea that cats are inherently ‘fussy’ isn’t quite true…

Our moggies are intelligent, complicated creatures and part of their complex nature is related to food and the environment around it. As much as it can be frustrating when your cat doesn’t eat their dinner, it is important to understand the way cats approach food to really understand their ‘fussy’ nature.

So, let’s take a deep dive into the world of cats and try and unpick the facts around fussiness.

Understanding Cat Senses

The first thing to understand about cats, is the way in which they process the world.

We rely strongly upon our sense of taste to help us understand what we are eating and whether we like it. Humans have approximately 3000-5000 taste buds and our tongues can detect salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami (savoury or meaty) tastes.

In comparison our cats only have around 470-500 taste buds. They also lack the ability to properly taste sweet ingredients. Due to this lack of tastebuds, cats do not rely upon their sense of taste to choose foods.

So, what do our cats use instead?

A Cats Sixth Sense

Our cats have a magical sixth sense, often referred to as ‘The Taste of Smell’.

Cats use their pheromone-detecting abilities to choose food. Inside the roof of a cat’s mouth is a sensory organ called the Jacobson’s Organ. This is used to pick up pheromones (chemical messages) in the environment.

When approaching food, cats will take in the smell using the Flehmen Response. This is when cats stick out their tongues and look a bit goofy! This allows for the scent of the food to hit their tongue. Then by running their tongue along the Jacobson’s organ, they can detect information about that food.

Cats can pick up on the fat and meat content of food before they even take a bite! Cats can also determine if a food is safe (although they certainly get better at this as they age!).

Natural high-meat-content diets are instinctively more appealing to cats’ senses, as this is what they are primed to search for in the wild. Pssst. Want to understand more about high-quality diets? Check out our Guide to Premium Pet Food.

Often when introducing new food, owners are disappointed their cats don’t immediately and gratefully gobble up the whole bowl. Keep in mind that Jacobson’s Organ is linked to the Amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions.

This means new and unfamiliar scents can initially trigger a negative or hesitant reaction from cats. Remember that cats are taking in information about food before they even take it into their mouth. So, the key to encouraging cats to try a new food is PATIENCE!

Grazing Not Guzzling

There is a reason why the phrase is ‘wolf it down’ and not ‘cat it down’.

Although some felines are guilty of being a bit greedy, did you know that cats are natural grazers not guzzlers?

Cats eating behaviour is often hugely misunderstood, leading to owners believing their cat is fussy. A cat’s stomach is slightly larger than a ping pong ball and can only hold around 1-2 tablespoons of food at any one time.

Whilst most dogs will happily gobble down a whole bowl of biscuits, quite simply cats don’t have space for all that food. If your cat takes only a couple of biscuits from their bowl, then walks away, this is the natural and normal way for cats to eat.

In the wild, cats can eat up to 18 times a day. So, the best way to describe cats eating behaviour is little and often.

Tips for Fussy Cats

Now we understand cats eating behaviour better, it’s time to better consider the environment around them.

  • Location – Cats need to feel safe when eating, so consider quiet places for their bowls. Often (much like their ancestors) cats prefer high or elevated places to eat from, so try popping their bowls up on a higher surface.
  • Cleanliness – Our feline friends are extremely hygienic, and they have an incredible sense of smell. Stale, dirty dishes are very unappealing to cats and can be off-putting. Ensure you clean their dishes daily (always use a pet safe cleaner) and keep their water fresh.
  • Material – Cheap flimsy plastic is easily scratched by a cat’s teeth, leading to bacteria buildup in the cuts. Plastic bowls get stale and smelly very quickly so are best avoided. The best materials are ceramic and tough melamine.
  • Scent – As discussed, our cats rely on their smell sense to detect food and are tuned in to fat and meat. By upping the temperature of food slightly, you can give cats a better smell from which to eat. Try microwaving dry food (splash a little bit of water in) for 5-10 seconds before serving. If your cat prefers a wet diet, make sure to not give this straight from the fridge, allow it to reach room temperature first.

Remember cats can get very poorly very quickly if they go long periods without eating. Consult a vet if your cat hasn’t eaten anything within a 24-hour period.

So, perhaps cats aren’t so picky after all… For more advice on which food is best for your cat, head over to your local Pets Corner and ask our Academy Trained Staff.

Do you want more feline-friendly advice? Why not read our 5 Tips for Happy Cats blog or find other cat content here.

Written by Lucy Marcham

Lucy teaches all aspects of the Pets Corner curriculum and specialises in animal nutrition, ensuring that our staff have the right knowledge and understanding of pet diets to assist customers with confidence and care.