Compared to many other pets, it is sometimes said that cats do not need a lot of looking after. However, in reality, cat owners still need to do quite a lot to keep their pet healthy and the food is one of the most obvious things that must be provided. Owners may occasionally encounter issues in this area, with their cat refusing to eat at all, and this can then lead to panic and concern about how long this can go on for before taking action.
So how long can a cat go without food? The exact time differs depending on the cat and its age, but the basic guideline is that cats can survive for around two weeks, as long as they are still drinking water. However, they can only survive for a few days without water, so hydration is essential.
With that being said, the answer to this question becomes more complicated, because some cats do not drink water very often and obtain much of their fluid through food. Cats may refuse to eat for a variety of reasons and sometimes the issue will resolve itself. Yet, as I will cover later on, it can also be indicative of serious health concerns and you need to be vigilant and take your cat to the vets if the problem does not resolve quickly.
How Long Can Cats Survive Without Food?
Generally, it is accepted that cats can survive for a period of around two weeks without any food, but this is only a general rule. In reality, the exact length of time a cat can survive will depend on a range of factors. For example, an adult cat will survive longer than a kitten, and a young adult will survive for longer than a much older cat. Of course, it also depends on how well nourished the cat was before food intake ended as well.
The two-week estimate assumes that the cat is still drinking water. Indeed, water is much more critical for a cat, because the onset of dehydration occurs much quicker than starvation, leading to organ failure. Most cats can only survive for a few days without any fluid intake and irreversible damage to organs might occur even quicker than that. Therefore, if a cat has to go without either food or drink for a short time, a lack of food is preferable.
What makes this equation slightly more complicated is the fact that many cats do not drink a lot of water on a day-to-day basis. Instead, they take in a lot of their fluid from the food they eat. When this food consumption stops, unless it is replaced by increased water consumption, a cat may actually survive less than the two weeks without food. This is why it is important not to actually wait for anything like the two week period before seeking help.
It is important to stress that while many cats can survive a couple of weeks without food, assuming they are drinking water, it is far from recommended. Cats are obligate carnivores and require protein from food even more than we do. The longer a cat goes without food, the more likely it is to run into health problems, even if it does survive. These problems can range from minor, short-term issues, through to serious liver damage.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, food withdrawal can actually be more of a problem for a cat that was overweight before food consumption stopped. Moreover, if your cat has other health problems to contend with, it may last significantly less than two weeks without food, even if he or she is still drinking water regularly. In particular, conditions like diabetes, vomiting and diarrhoea can all exacerbate the problem and speed up starvation.
Similarly, if your cat is vomiting or has diarrhoea, problems associated with a lack of fluid intake can also be made worse, meaning it may survive less than two or three days without water.
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Why Might Your Cat Refuse to Eat Food?
If your cat is refusing to eat food, it is understandable that you might panic. However, there are a number of possible explanations. Initially, it may be nothing to worry about. Cats can be very fussy with food and can get bored easily. Therefore, it is not completely unusual for a cat to go a day or two without food, even if it usually eats every day. Nevertheless, it is important to be vigilant and to look out for other signs of concern.
One reason why your cat might suddenly stop eating is if it is in some kind of discomfort. This can be especially common if the cat is experiencing dental pain or pain in other parts of its body. It can also be the result of stress and can be particularly likely in situations where there has been a major change to the household. Examples of this might include the introduction of a new pet, or if you have moved house recently.
Unfortunately, a loss of appetite can also be a sign that your cat has much more serious health problems. Some of the conditions that you should be especially aware of include kidney disease, diabetes and cancer. Cats are naturally very good at hiding poor health, so it is not unusual for a loss of appetite to be the first sign that cat owners notice of ill-health, even if a cat has been ill for a while. If you are concerned, take your cat to the vets as soon as possible.
Finally, your cat might also stop eating if it has accidentally ingested something it should not have, such as a small item you might have left lying around the house. Again, if you think this is a real possibility, seek veterinary advice.
What to Do If Your Cat Refuses to Eat
Cats refusing to eat is a fairly common problem, and in my experience, there are things that can be done to encourage your cat. If the loss of appetite has been a short-term problem, it may be worth trying some of these tips before booking an appointment at the vets. Again, if you have concerns that the loss of appetite might be linked to a health problem, bypass this step and seek professional medical advice as soon as you can.
The most basic tip to try a different type of cat food. Cats are notoriously fussy and can stop eating out of pure boredom with what they are being fed. This is particularly likely if you tend to feed your cat dry cat food. As a first step, try to feed your cat a different brand of cat food and see if that resolves the problem.
Failing that, the next step might be to try something a little more tempting. Tuna is usually a safe bet here, and it is best to buy tins of tuna in brine, rather than tuna in oil. Not only can a tin of tuna help your cat to start eating again, it is a healthy option, full of nutrients, and can also provide it with additional fluids quickly.
Heating up food can sometimes help to tempt a cat into eating. If you are using wet cat food, this can be achieved by adding a small amount of warm water to the food, or by microwaving it for a few seconds. It may also be worth putting wet and dry cat food in a rotation for a while so that your cat is getting a mixture of foods.
When Should You Take a Cat to the Vets?
At this point, you are likely wondering: when should I stop trying to solve the problem myself and call the vets? The simple answer to this question is you should book an appointment as soon as you become worried that the loss of appetite is unusual. Again, a cat going a day or two is not especially uncommon, but it is generally worth seeking medical advice if it extends beyond the two day mark, even if your cat is drinking normally.
There are certain symptoms which might indicate illnesses or other health conditions and if you observe these along with a loss of appetite, it is important to book an appointment with your vet immediately. These symptoms include:
- Yellowing of the whites of the eyes;
- Eyes that appear sunken;
- Vomiting or diarrhoea;
- Extremely rapid weight loss.
If your cat is not drinking or eating, you should treat it as an emergency much sooner. Do not allow your cat to reach two days without water. You should also try to take steps to provide your cat with any fluids you possibly can. The best option here is to fill a syringe with water, gently open your cat’s mouth, and slowly ease the water into his or her mouth with the syringe. Again, the juice from a tuna tin can might also tempt your cat.
You should also seek medical advice if your cat appears to be physically weak as a result of either lack of food or lack of water, regardless of how long the problem has been going on. Ultimately, it is better safe than sorry, so if you have any doubts at all, book an appointment and discuss the problem with a professional.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.