Choosy cats choose...?
April 17, 2017 10:34 AM   Subscribe

My rotten cat, Toast, has decided to become finicky in his old age. My husband and I are pulling our hair out. Halp please.

So Toast is about 12 or thereabouts (we got him from my hair stylist, who found him on the street). We've had him for about six or seven years, and his health has always been perfect. About six months ago, he decided he wanted to slim down or something, who knows. So he started eating far less than usual and got painfully thin to the point where we could feel his ribs. He was also acting sort of listless and depressed. Of course, we took him to the vet, who did blood and urine tests and found that there wasn't a blessed thing wrong with him, except of course that he had lost three or four pounds. The vet prescribed an appetite stimulant, which did help some.

We changed up his food a couple of times, and the only thing he'll eat with any consistency is Fancy Feast, so we give him that most of the time. (Please, no lectures about giving him Fancy Feast. I am aware that it's not good for him, but I'd rather have him eating that than wasting away, which is what he was doing before.) He's now gained back a lot of the weight so that we can't feel his ribs anymore, and he's not listless the way he was when he was barely eating anything, but he's still much skinnier than he was before.

What happens, though, is that we get a Fancy Feast flavor that he likes and he'll eat it for a couple of days; on, say, the third day, he'll just reject it. It's weird because he'll act like he's starving and run to the kitchen after us, but when we put the bowl down, no dice. He looks at us with his eyes practically brimming with tears (seriously, I'm exaggerating only slightly; if cats could cry, he would), and just walks away sadly and flops down on the couch. We'll then find another flavor he likes and he repeats the process -- eats it like a champ for a few days, and on the third or fourth day acts like we're offering him dry Cheerios or radishes or something.

The other weird behavioral thing is that when he does eat, he does that paw-scratching thing that cats do either in the litter box or when they've just barfed on the floor, as though he's trying to cover up his food. This is also new behavior for him.

My own theory, which is based on nothing really, is that since he's gotten older, his sense of smell has deteriorated so the food doesn't have any scent to him and therefore isn't really appetizing. As a result, we've tried to give him stuff that has a stronger smell, and that does seem to help a bit. We also tried not refrigerating any leftover portions because he seemed to prefer room temperature food to cold, but that seemed to make little if any difference. We also stopped feeding him in the same room where one of his litter boxes was -- again, not much difference. (The room is quite large, probably 100 square feet, and the litter box is on the opposite side of the room from the food.)

Has anyone ever dealt with a non-finicky cat suddenly becoming finicky? Any advice about how to get him to eat more consistently?

Thanks, you guys!
posted by holborne to Pets & Animals (34 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Once he rejects a food, is it Off The Table Forever or will he give it another try in a week or so?

For example... you feed him (and he eats) Fancy Feast Salmon for two days. On the third day he rejects it so you instead give him Fancy Feast Chicken. In another two days, will he eat the Salmon again?

If so, you might try rotating his diet so he never gets the same flavor more than 1-2 days in a row.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:53 AM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Um, and obligatory cat photos: here and here.
posted by holborne at 10:55 AM on April 17, 2017 [10 favorites]

According to some books and articles I've read on cat behavior (including most recently Cat Sense by John Bradshaw, which was a useful read), when left to their own devices and allowed to choose what they will eat, cats in the wild naturally seek variety in their diets to prevent nutritional deficiencies. Cats who have lived on the street, experience hunger, and had to hunt and scavenge for food that isn't nicely vitamin-fortified to meet all a cat's needs like commercial pet foods are can turn out to be especially variety-seeking as pets. Liking a food for a few days and then suddenly rejecting it is a common behavior among cats for this specific reason. So it may help to buy several flavors that your cat has liked in the past and rotate through them (so he's never eating the same flavor of food twice in a row).

Feral, stray and outdoor cats will bury food they can't finish or don't like to avoid the smell attracting other predators to their territory. So his new food burying behavior might just be a consequence of his new not-finishing-food behavior.
posted by BlueJae at 10:59 AM on April 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

Fancy Feast is the only thing our cats will eat consistently too, so I'm right there with you. Judgment free zone.

When we needed additional motivation the one thing that always worked for us was Fortiflora (Amazon link). It's a powdery supplement you sprinkle on food and it seems to be kitty crack, honestly. Our vet's office sells it as well, we first got it recommended there. Bonito flakes worked a few times too if you haven't tried that yet. Water from canned tuna, as well.

One of our completely healthy cats does the paw-scratching thing too. We stop feeding him that texture/flavor for a bit, then go back to it later and it's like he's forgotten all about his previous dislike. Cats are weird. If you can go back to a previously rejected food and just keep a rotation happening, you shouldn't have anything to worry about.
posted by erratic meatsack at 10:59 AM on April 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

I had the same problem with an older cat. Rotate the many flavors of Fancy Feast so he doesn't get the same flavor two meals in a row. I'd go Classic Beef Feast, Tuna and Cheddar, Chicken and Gravy, Classic Turkey and Giblets, another gravy one, etc.

The ones with cheddar were the most popular with my kitty -- that's the FF version of crack as far as I can tell.

Any of the ones with gravy will also work, even if your cat mostly licks up the gravy and leaves the chunks behind.

And have you had his teeth and mouth checked? Just make sure that he isn't avoiding food because something hurts in there.
posted by vickyverky at 11:12 AM on April 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Canned salmon was my go-to food in my cats declining days. However, Janie was 20 years old when she passed. Twelve barely seems to qualify as middle-aged.
posted by she's not there at 11:23 AM on April 17, 2017

Our 17 year old sometimes just doesn't eat all the portion size he used to (and some days he does) and I have not found a pattern to it. His teeth don't seem to be the cause of it (and, indeed, on days when he turns up his nose at the wet food, he'll pat the treat dispensing toy ball around for a long time, eating individual treats). If it worries me in a particular instance, I'll give him a little dish of turkey baby food (the sort that is just turkey or just chicken, no cereal), which our vet uses to test appetite when one of our cats is there for an emergency, and since he's never turned that down, I've never had to worry further.

But he is old and spends almost the entire day in bed (one days he does not play with the treat ball) and our vet did tell us to expect his appetite to decrease. She suggested adding tuna, or fish oil from the capsules, or very slightly warming wet food in the microwave to increase the pungency on days he just really seems less interested in eating.
posted by crush at 11:26 AM on April 17, 2017

I feed a rotation of Fancy Feast, a few other widely available big brands, and the occasional can or packet of Tiki Cat, which is a very high quality, and extraordinarily stinky food. (I realized what I was getting into when I tipped out one can and there was a sad fish head staring up at me. If he's losing his sense of smell a bit, this food might be a good option.) I'm not sure if I'm accidentally doing the "variety like you find in the wild technique" by accident, but it seems like a lot of people have done well rotating, so that he doesn't get the chance to turn his nose up at the usual thing.
posted by PussKillian at 11:27 AM on April 17, 2017

Cats are considered "senior" between 8 and 12 and "geriatric" after that, according to the chart at my vet's office.
posted by crush at 11:31 AM on April 17, 2017

If you're carnivores, and variety is the main issue with Toast, have you tried just putting a tiny bite of your (non-onion-containing) meat entree on top of his food (or separately) to see if that entices him?
posted by amtho at 11:37 AM on April 17, 2017

Our beloved 10 year-old picky eater enjoyed so few foods that we had to keep a spreadsheet. But he and his "brother" both love the newish brand "I and Love and You" - specifically the "Oh my Cod" flavor and the beef variety once in a while.

Nthing mixing it up every day. How about some tuna once in a while?
posted by getawaysticks at 11:42 AM on April 17, 2017

Our cats only seem to like food with a very strong smell, which usually means some kind of fishy flavor. We found out that Good Natured cat food from PetSmart in the salmon flavor is remarkably smelly, and sure enough they seem to really like it. We generally don't give them wet food of any kind because (a) we are the bosses and the food buyers and (b) it turns the litter box into a Boschian hellscape. They're relatively indifferent to wet food anyway, as well as canned tuna.
posted by Flexagon at 11:43 AM on April 17, 2017

I feed the same three or four foods in rotation, so my derpy picky 13 year old cat doesn't have the chance to get tired of it. I will sometimes mix in something higher fat (and tastier) with something more bland (like a duck variety with a chicken) to keep it pepped up for her. Older can't can't handle super fatty food very well, so it's important to cut the fatty food with something more bland.

So long story short: rotate the food, don't wear him out on one thing over a few days. Toss in a wild card every now and then (like plain old tuna, whatever) to keep him eating.
posted by Medieval Maven at 12:03 PM on April 17, 2017

We feed a freeze-dried raw diet (Primal), which Penelope treats as if it's candy. It comes in a variety of flavors, which would make it easy to change it up every few days.
posted by Lexica at 12:11 PM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

My cat is also 12 and needs to eat wet food to help increase his water intake. I switched him to Weruva's BFF pouches. They're all mixed with tuna, so they've got a strong smell. They're also very liquid, which is good for my cat because even though the vet says his teeth look good, I've noticed that he doesn't crunch that much any more. I feed four flavors (pink, green, purple, and blue) and rotate them daily. He generally eats the entire pouch in one sitting -- something he's never done with his wet food until this one.
posted by gladly at 12:16 PM on April 17, 2017

Our cats seem to be very into texture, and have very firmly indicated by repeated sniffy refusal that they DO NOT LIKE smooth-textured wet foods: "paté", "loaf", and also "chunks" if the chunks are obviously recombined mush. But even with their favored foods we have to rotate between brands and flavors regularly.

Two of our three do the paw-scratching "gotta cover this bowl up now" thing when they've finished eating; it seems to be instinctual as BlueJae noted. They've pretty much trained us to recognize it as an "I'm done, you can take this away now" signal.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:20 PM on April 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

My cat got increasingly finicky about flavours of wet cat food, gradually refusing all the stronger flavours (no fishy tastes, no beef, no duck), and unpredictably ignoring all the others.

Now he gets a combination of dry food and boiled chicken, and has been happy on that for months. I simmer a whole chicken, then let it cool in the stock and strip and shred all the meat. A large chicken will give me seven or eight portions which I freeze in bags. This actually works out cheaper than wet food pouches, and since I let the chicken cool in the stock the meat is very soft and moist. (I also strain the stock and use it for soups, so we both win).
posted by Azara at 12:20 PM on April 17, 2017

We're encountering this with our "senior" cat - one thing we're finding is that she is much pickier with wet food than with dry. Do you ever feed your kitty kibble?

I know it is not generally recommended to get a non-kibble kitty hooked on it, but if you can get your kitty to eat a very high-quality, grain-free dry food, that might be preferable to a frustrating rotation of accepted/rejected Fancy Feast. In our case we feed both - a small helping of kibble in the morning, and wet food at night. She takes or leaves the wet food but ALWAYS eats the dry.

**DISCLAIMER IANAVet, but my vet has signed off on this for our cranky furlady.**

As far as the wet food goes, we have had the most success with only serving room-temp or even slightly warmed food, but I see you've already tried that.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:22 PM on April 17, 2017

This may be out of left field, but I notice Toast is somewhat wall-eyed. Have you had his vision checked in a while?
posted by Hermione Granger at 12:45 PM on April 17, 2017

So I am biased here because I work in veterinary medicine, and I work in a sub-specialty where I see a lot of sick cats, but if I were you I'd be concerned about such a dramatic decrease in weight combined with decreased appetite and I'd want to consult a veterinarian who was boarded in internal medicine to see if an abdominal ultrasound or additional specific blood work might be indicated. Three pounds is A LOT of weight for a cat to drop, and he's also lethargic and requires an appetite stimulant - that just concerns me. But I see a lot of sick cats every day, so I usually expect the worst when I hear lethargy and hyporexia so this could just be my personal baggage here.
posted by OsoMeaty at 1:01 PM on April 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

Our very spoiled senior kitty eats the senior science diet dry food (once Mr. Meat bought the blue kind, OH DEARS). She also gets one can a day of fancy feast. The flavor is alternated every day - not just the can (so, say, tuna + cheddar, plain tuna, tuna + gravy), but also the protein type (tuna, salmon, turkey, beef, etc). Her favorites are the trays and the packets that have lots of gravy. She also likes the sheba perfection portions. If there have been a few days where she doesn't eat a ton, I give her a tray or a gravy packet.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 1:04 PM on April 17, 2017

Also: how are his poops? A condition like IBD won't turn up on a blood test, necessarily, but it might well account for that "I'm so hungry, but I shall not eat" behavior.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:09 PM on April 17, 2017

Toast looks delightfully judgmental! Give him scritches for us!

Have you tried just plain ground chuck, fresh and bloody? I've seen cats go for it when they turned up their noses at everything else.
posted by orrnyereg at 1:13 PM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

This scenario sounds very similar to what my mom's cat (Sadie) is going through. Sadie is also an elderly cat (13), but in overall very good health. Her teeth are in great condition and she has no health issues, but she stopped eating and was losing weight. We thought she was being a diva and just wanted new food, so we kept feeding her new food, only to have her turn her nose up at it. This went on for quite a while and she kept losing weight. My mom decided to take Sadie to the vet and it was discovered that she had a thyroid problem. Long story short, Sadie is now on an appetite stimulator to put the weight back on and to keep her eating. Without the stimulator, she reverts back to not eating.

I agree with OsoMeaty, I think a trip to the vet is in order.
posted by ATX Peanut at 1:16 PM on April 17, 2017

Firstly, older cats are markedly less active than young ones, so he'll need fewer calories to maintain his weight than he used to need. If he eats less but doesn't lose weight, that's OK.

Secondly, there's very little wrong with the Fancy Feast "classics" line[1]. It's actually got a lot going for it--it's grain-free, very low in carbohydrates, doesn't use rice or tapioca or lentils or other random starch as filler, and it's extremely palatable. It's got meat by-products in it, which is not ideal, but they're also in lots of different brands of commercial cat food.

If he's willing to eat the same Fancy Feast flavor for a couple of days before turning up his cute little nose, I'm seconding the idea that you keep a variety on hand and just change it up every couple of days. Warming it up slightly will make it stinkier and might get him more interested, too.

[1] Their other varieties are a nutritional disaster, unfortunately, with > 30% carbohydrates.
posted by jesourie at 1:41 PM on April 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Also try putting some strong catnip (like Cosmic Catnip brand, or fresh picked if you have it) on / around the food, and rub it between your fingers so it releases more scent. I did this with my especially finicky cat when she got older. It works as an appetite stimulant and the smell is (of course) very attractive.
posted by ananci at 2:07 PM on April 17, 2017

I have seen cats flip out over nutritional yeast. There's also this product, which is powdered goat milk. I add it to my cat's dinner for the health benefits and he loves it. I actually got a cat to happily lick up Clavamox by making a paste/slurry concoction out of Pro Bloom, nutritional yeast, and the meds.

Check out Wild Calling food too. It's very high quality and comes in lots of different flavors.
posted by kitty teeth at 3:13 PM on April 17, 2017

After I put the wet food into my cats' bowls, I rinse the can out with a little hot water and mx the resulting gravy into the food. They seem to really enjoy it warmed up and a little more liquidy.
posted by bink at 7:02 PM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would make sure the vet checks for diabetes and thyroid issues as well as dental issues. Cats are dynamite at hiding pain. Twelve is also a pretty prime time for cancer to be showing up.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 8:56 PM on April 17, 2017

At the ASCPA the other day I overheard one of the volunteers recommend baby food for picky cats who need to gain weight. She said that meat based baby foods are delicious to cats and higher in calories than normal cat food is. You might give that a try.
posted by phoenixy at 9:31 PM on April 17, 2017

The shelter where we got our semiferal cat (see my profile pic) fed Fancy Feast classic wet food and said it wasn't that bad for being cheap. Our girl still likes it even though we try to get her to eat better quality Wellness and Natural l Choice most of the time. She does the same thing of liking a flavor for a day or two and then needing a change. Variety is the whole trick.
posted by spitbull at 4:33 AM on April 18, 2017

If you try meat-based baby food, CHECK THE INGREDIENTS. It's very difficult to find meat-based baby food that doesn't contain onions, but ONIONS ARE BAD FOR CATS.

I think I found Beech-Nut brand chicken had only chicken in it.
posted by amtho at 6:22 PM on April 20, 2017

Response by poster: Just a follow up: we've tried alternating his food much more often and that seems to have helped a lot. He's getting quite a bit plumper already. He's still a rotten cat, but at least he's not rotten plus too skinny anymore. We also tried some of the BFF food, some of which has been a hit (he seems to favor the chicken/turkey over the seafood flavors, go figure).

He's not wall-eyed, btw, and his vision is fine.

Thanks for your help, everyone!
posted by holborne at 7:51 AM on May 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

And a follow up to prove that cats are weird, our girl who only ate wet food if the flavor was changed almost daily for months on end had suddenly decided she only likes Natural Choice seafood flavor. She won't eat anything else now and she refuses all other flavors and brands.

My theory is that she is keeping us on our toes.
posted by spitbull at 1:18 PM on May 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

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