How Long Can a Sick Cat Go without Eating and Drinking?
Cat Food and Hydration

How Long Can a Sick Cat Go without Eating and Drinking?

Healthy cats can survive for a week or more without food, and three days without water. However, a sick cat’s body is already weakened, and the effect will be magnified further by starvation or dehydration.

Encourage eating and hydration if your cat doesn’t eat for 24 hours and/or doesn’t drink for 12 hours. A sick cat should never go without food for more than 48 hours, or 24 hours without water.

Water helps the blood flow, and ensures internal organs continue to work optimally. Starvation and dehydration will magnify existing health concerns. Until your cat regains nutrition, it will not make a recovery.

How To Make a Sick Cat Eat and Drink

If your cat is unwell, you will need to take a hands-on approach to encourage eating and drinking. Do not simply lay down food and water and hope for the best. A sick cat is unlikely to eat of its own accord.

Inappetence is a generic symptom. Look out for these symptoms, which may shed more light on your cat’s health concerns:

Pawing at face, swelling around faceDental pain
Sneezing and streaming eyes or noseRespiratory tract infection
Chewing food then spitting it outSore throat
Hiding and reluctance to engageArthritis pain or stress
Rash and hives on skinSerious allergic reaction
Vomiting and swollen abdomenGastritis or intestinal blockage

This is not an exhaustive list of the health concerns that cause cats to lose their appetite. These are the most common reasons that a cat will not eat or drink, though. Consider whether these ailments could be at play. Here are some further reasons why your cat has stopped eating.

Encouraging Eating

There are several ways to convince a sick cat to eat. You need to make the idea of food more appealing than any discomfort it may cause.

Start by attempting to hand-feed your cat its usual meal. Cats enjoy the one-on-one attention that comes from hand-feeding. Do not make a habit of it. Some cats will expect this service every time.

Next, stimulate your cat’s sense of smell. While humans decide if food is appealing by sight, cats do so by scent. Even a sick cat will struggle to resist a strong-smelling meal.

Offer your cat a particularly strong-smelling fish, such as sardines. Alternatively, simply drizzle tuna juice over your cat’s regular food. If your cat prefers meat, use a feline-friendly gravy.

If this does not work, check that your cat can actually smell the food. It may have a blocked nose as a result of ill health. Run the hot taps in the bathroom and place your cat inside for a few minutes. The steam will clear a cat’s sinuses.

Consider heating up the food. This will release more scent and taste more appealing. Gently warm the food to a cat’s body temperature of around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid using a microwave for this.

dangers of cat not eating

Encouraging Drinking

Convincing a cat to drink can be more challenging. Most cats teeter on the brink of dehydration, even when healthy. Cats are also fussy about drinking water. As hydration is so important to sick cats, you must persevere. Tips to encourage the drinking of water include:

  • Leave water bowls throughout the house
  • Half-fill the bowls
  • Use a water purifier or mineral water
  • Add flavor the water (i.e. tuna juice)

A running water source may also tempt your cat into drinking. A water fountain is ideal. If you do not have one, leave a kitchen tap running. If your cat feels up to it, it will drink straight from this source. Even sick cats struggle to resist a running water source.

Cats can be offered water through a syringe, or intravenous fluids if necessary. This is not ideal, but it may be essential to your cat’s recovery.

What Happens When a Cat Does Not Eat?

A cat’s small body will not retain nutrients for long. If a cat is not eating, it is not obtaining protein. Protein acts as the building block to countless essential functions and reactions in a cat’s body.

A cat with diarrhea is at particular risk. Cats shed taurine through their waste. Taurine is not created organically in the feline body, so it must come through food. If a cat is not eating, it will experience taurine deficiency.  

Most importantly, food provides a cat with energy. If a cat is sick, it will be weak and lethargic. Without the energy provided by food and calories, the health of the cat will deteriorate further.

Malnutrition

If your cat is sick and stops eating, malnutrition becomes a possibility. This means that the cat is not obtaining sufficient nutrients from food. This will worsen the symptoms of an existing illness.

A malnourished cat will lose weight rapidly. Eventually, the cat will start to appear virtually skeletal. Physical symptoms of malnutrition include:

  • Muscular weakness
  • Dry, scaly skin
  • Lack of grooming
  • Lethargy
  • Swollen gums
  • Loss of coordination
  • Poor eyesight

The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery also lists a reduction in metabolic function, wound healing and immunosuppression as symptoms.

Malnutrition will also lead to organ failure in cats. Every ingredient in cat food is designed to keep a cat’s body working to capacity.

Hepatic Lipidosis

Arguably the biggest concern when a cat stops eating is hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver. When a cat stops eating, its body processes fat reserves to stay alive. Unfortunately, a cat’s body is not engineered for this. Your cat’s liver will struggle to process this fat.

The Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine surveyed 77 cats with hepatic lipidosis, finding that older cats are at higher risk. It is also connected to many feline illnesses, most of which list inappetence as a symptom. Warning signs of hepatic lipidosis include:

  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Muscular weakness
  • Inability to hold the head up
  • Drooling
  • Lethargy and depression
  • Jaundice (yellowing skin and eyes)

This issue needs to be caught early to be managed successfully. Even then, your cat will need aggressive treatment. Encouraging a sick cat to eat will minimize the risk of hepatic lipidosis.

cat won’t eat and throws up

What Happens When a Cat Does Not Drink?

Water is even more important to a sick cat than food. If a cat becomes dehydrated, its internal organs will suffer. This will become increasingly problematic for sick cats.

Dehydration

Dehydration is the most obvious concern when a cat does not drink. Dehydration is always dangerous in sick cats. Water helps blood flow around a cat’s body. This, in turn, keeps organs working appropriately.  

A sick cat may also be running a fever. This heightened body temperature will increase the need to hydrate. Sick cats may also experience vomiting and diarrhea. Both of these symptoms will purge a cat’s body of stored water.

Test your sick cat for dehydration by pinching the skin at the nape of its neck. Cat skin should be elastic and snap back into place. If the cat is dehydrated, the skin will slowly fall back into place.

Acute Kidney Failure

Among the biggest risks of dehydration in cats is acute renal failure. This condition occurs when a cat’s kidneys suddenly cease function. Thankfully, unlike chronic renal failure, this condition can be reversed.

Renal failure is linked to ischemia by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Ischemia occurs when an inadequate supply of blood reaches the internal organs. A lack of water intake can cause this.

If your cat is already feeling unwell, its body will struggle to process waste and toxins. This will give the kidneys more work to do. If these organs are not hydrated, they will struggle under the pressure being placed upon them. Symptoms of this concern include:

  • Vomiting and diarrhea (often containing blood)
  • Foul breath
  • Changes to frequency of urination
  • Seizures

Acute kidney failure requires immediate attention. Your cat will be placed on dialysis. This will place fluids into your cat’s body intravenously, kickstarting the kidneys again. This will also resolve your cat’s issues with dehydration.

Heart Failure

Dehydration will also have an impact on your cat’s heart. Dehydration makes a cat’s heart beat faster and harder. Senior cats will struggle with this, even if healthy, due to weaker hearts. If the cat has another health concern, this risk is greatly enhanced.