By Dr. Becker
If you're like many people owned by a finicky cat, you're always on the lookout for new ways to entice fussy Fiona or Felix to eat. It seems some kitties never met a meal they didn't like, while others can be nearly impossible to please at dinnertime.
There are many potential reasons for a cat's lack of appetite, but one of the trendiest at the moment seems to be a phenomenon dubbed "whisker fatigue." This certainly isn't anything we learned about in vet school, and many in the veterinary community are asking, "Did pet bowl companies INVENT a feline malady?"
A Solution in Search of a Problem?
It seems a handful of enterprising pet product manufacturers are selling the "cure" for "whisker fatigue" in the form of a $20 to $40 food bowl that allows kitty to eat without his whiskers contacting the bowl, which they maintain is a source of stress. The New York Times published an article on the subject, stating:
"Whisker fatigue is a fairly new diagnosis, one that many (but not all) veterinarians take seriously. When cats have to stick their faces into deep bowls and their whiskers rub up against the sides, the experience can be stressful, prompting them to paw the food onto the floor, fight with other cats or grow apprehensive at mealtimes."1
The article helpfully links to a few of the fantastically expensive bowls, which appear to be wider and shallower than ordinary pet food bowls. What it doesn't do is cite much evidence that whisker fatigue is a real thing. However, another publication fact-checked the Times, and so did veterinary journal dvm360.
Consensus: 'Whisker Fatigue' Is Not a Diagnosis
Boston Magazine checked with Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and also the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). No one queried at Tufts had heard of whisker fatigue. Dr. Thomas Meyer, AVMA president, pointed out, "While a cat's whiskers are very sensitive, there is currently no evidence showing that whiskers rubbing against food bowls causes cats stress or discomfort."2
The magazine's reporter also searched the term whisker fatigue in a handful of veterinary journal databases and found no studies or papers on the subject. Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, a veterinarian who specializes in feline medicine, told dvm360 with regard to cats' whiskers:
"As sense organs with a high degree of specialized nerve endings that are quite sensitive, one could make the case for overstimulation of whiskers causing some unpleasantness. But, there is absolutely no data to support it as 'a thing.'"3
All the people interviewed by Boston Magazine of course agreed that any change in a cat's eating habits is cause for concern and should be investigated by a veterinarian. I absolutely agree with this, and I also wouldn't completely rule out the possibility that some kitties are annoyed by the sensation of their whiskers contacting their food bowl as they eat.
However, a case of "whisker fatigue" would be low on the list of things I'd consider first in a kitty patient who isn't eating well, and I would also not expect it to be the only reason for a cat's lack of appetite. When a kitty isn't feeling well or is stressed by his environment, small things like a whisker dragging on a food bowl will likely exacerbate his discomfort.
With that said, it's important to note there are some very small cat food bowls out there and some really big cats. I've personally witnessed kitties who appear to be hungry and excited to eat, but are hesitant to put their faces into their food bowls. One way to quickly assess if your cat may not like the bowl you're using is to put her food on a paper plate and see if her eating behavior appears more natural and uninhibited. Interestingly, many cats do appear to enjoy food more when served out of shallow, wide bowls.
Even Small Changes in Your Cat's Daily Routine Can Throw Her Appetite Off
One of the first signs of illness in cats is lack of interest in food. Sometimes a kitty will suddenly stop eating; other times it's a gradual or intermittent refusal to eat. The problem tends to snowball because the less a cat eats, the worse she feels and her appetite drops off even further.
This is a downward spiral you don't want your kitty to get caught in, so every effort should be made to encourage her to eat. The first thing to consider is whether there's been a change in her environment or routine. For cats, change equals stress, and a stressed kitty will often lose her appetite. Stressful events for a cat can include:
✓ A new member of the household, either two- or four-legged
✓ The sudden absence of a family member
✓ Moving to a new home
✓ A change in your daily schedule that has you home at different times or less often than your cat is used to
✓ Parties or lots of visitors
✓ Neighborhood cats that are visible to your cat or that he can hear or smell
Sometimes something as simple as changing the location of your cat's food bowl or litterbox can create stress. If you suspect a change is behind your cat's loss of appetite, if possible, return things to the "old normal" and see if the situation improves. Alternatively, keep kitty's "new normal" as consistent as possible and give her a few days to adjust.
Does He Have an Undiagnosed Disorder or Disease?
If a change in your cat's environment doesn't seem to be the problem, I strongly encourage you to make an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible. There are many health-related reasons that cause cats to lose interest in food.
If there's a disease process underlying his lack of appetite, the sooner you find out what it is and begin treating it, the better. In the meantime, you need to try other things to encourage your cat to eat to keep him nourished and to prevent feline hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease), which can develop rapidly in an anorexic cat.
After a short time without food or adequate daily calories — a few days at most — a cat's body will begin sending fat cells to the liver to convert to energy. That's where the problem begins, because cats' bodies don't metabolize fat efficiently.
Recommendations for Encouraging Your Cat to Eat
Helping a kitty who is refusing to eat stay nourished is an exercise in creativity, gentle prodding and patience. There are several things you can do to arouse your cat's appetite, for example:
✓ Warm her regular diet to bring out the aroma (cats respond to the smell of food more than the taste). Also elevate the bowl a bit so the smell of the food is closer to her nose.
✓ Offer her canned food with a strong smell or a sardine (packed in water).
✓ Offer new food from a flat surface (paper plate) in case she associates a bad memory or can detect contaminants leeching from her food bowl.
✓ Buy a small selection of different flavors and textures of canned cat food or home cooked meat or bone broth and see if one catches her interest.
✓ Entice her with species-appropriate "people food" she has enjoyed in the past, such as warm baked chicken or salmon.
✓ If she's addicted to dry food and refuses everything else, try adding warm water to the kibble, or add an aromatic enticement like tuna juice or chicken broth.
✓ Some older cats seem to have senior moments in which they wander away from their food after taking a few bites, then wander back in a bit and eat some more. If this sounds like your kitty, as long as she wanders back to her bowl and eats most or all of it, just leave her food down for her for a reasonable amount of time (not long enough for it to spoil) and let her eat at her own pace.
Try to make your cat's mealtime a pleasant experience for her. Make sure she's in a calm, quiet environment that is optimally comfortable. If you have more than one cat, feed them in separate spaces. If kitty's hesitant to eat from her bowl, try offering food from a clean paper plate or hand-feed her tiny amounts. (If she seems to prefer eating from a flat surface, you can consider buying a "whisker fatigue" bowl, or simply use a plate.)
You can also try putting small amounts of watered-down food into her mouth with a syringe, but only if she's willing. Force-feeding is very stressful for cats and the humans who attempt it often end up bitten or scratched. Be sure to pet kitty and praise her along the way, and no matter how worried or frustrated you may be feeling, try not to transmit your angst to your cat.
If All Else Fails
If despite your best efforts you can't get sufficient calories into your cat, alert your veterinarian, who may prescribe an appetite stimulant, a homeopathic remedy or a vitamin B12 injection. If your cat is losing weight from not eating, he is most likely sick and your veterinarian will need to determine what's causing his lack of appetite.
If he loses a significant amount of weight, your vet may recommend a feeding tube. This isn't pleasant to think about, but it's crucial that your kitty stays nourished until he's eating again on his own. Often a feeding tube is actually much less stressful for cat and owner, and is highly efficient in keeping kitty fed and hydrated (and medicated, if necessary).
It's important to understand that unlike dogs and humans, cats can't go for long without food. The consequences of poor nutrition in your cat will begin to negatively affect his organs within a matter of days.