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Why Does My Cat Lick Food But Not Eat? (Vet Answer)

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	Dr. Joanna Woodnutt Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Joanna Woodnutt

MRCVS, Veterinarian

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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You spend what feels like hours trying to pick a cat food that you think they will like—online shopping, reading reviews, maybe picking up a few tasty looking cans in the store, as well. Will they like dry or wet? Chunks, shreds, or pate? Large kibble or small?

But, you get home, and start to offer up all the new, tasty treats. Much to your dismay, your cat may sniff or lick their new food, without actually eating it. What drives this behavior? What does your cat not like about the new food? Or is something more going on?

Read on to learn more about what it means when your cat licks food, but does not eat it.

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Picking a Cat Food

woman with a push cart in grocery buying cat food
Image Credit: LADO, Shutterstock

There are a variety of factors to consider when choosing a cat food.

First, any medical considerations should be accommodated. This might mean various life stages (kitten, adult, senior), or breed-specific foods. Dietary intolerances, such as food allergies, are another consideration, as can be kidney disease.

For healthy cats, picking a food that is of high quality and from a reputable brand are strong primary considerations. Next, whether your cat will eat wet or dry food is important to consider, as both have potential benefits. For dry foods, things such as kibble size, shape, and flavors are important. For wet food, similarly, the composition of the food (chunks, gravy, pate, broth) matter, as do protein type and flavor. Cats are far more likely to lick a gravy-based wet food that has chunks, and leave behind the chunks. Possibly because it is easier, or possibly because they may not like what the chunks are made of!

Licking But Not Eating: Possible Causes

Cats might lick their food, but not eat it for a variety of reasons, including the following:

  • They don’t like the taste
  • They don’t like the texture
  • They don’t like the size of the meat chunks
  • They are nauseous (stomach upset, chronic kidney disease, pancreatitis, etc.)
  • They have gastrointestinal (GI) pain
  • They have dental pain or problems
  • They have facial pain or problems
  • They aren’t hungry
  • Neurological problems

Dry Food or Wet Food

The answer is: it depends. This is a tricky question that might not have an easy answer. Water content in food is hugely important for cats, and wet food has a higher water content. However, some cats may prefer dry food and refuse wet food altogether. There is annectdotal evidence that dry food may help with some dental issues, as well. For now, a combination of both wet and dry food is a good route to go with for your cat.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why did my cat stop eating a food they previously liked?

American shorthair cat eating at home
Image Credit: Apicha Bas, Shutterstock

Great question! Sometimes cats will stop eating a food they previously had no issues with. This can often be a sign of something more serious occurring. So, when in doubt, contact your vet.

More commonly, this can be associated with dental disease, which may cause pain or difficulty in chewing. Issues that cause GI upset or nausea can also cause a cat to loose their appetite, including chronic kidney disease, and pancreatitis. Other times, a cat may simply change their preference for their food.

My cat won’t eat wet food at all. Why is that?

Some cats have strong food preferences, and if they didn’t learn to like the texture of wet food in their formative kitten period, they may not like wet food as an adult. Sometimes, it is impossible to train them otherwise!

However, there are a few tips worth trying:
  • Microwave or heat the wet food slightly, so it is lukewarm. This will often improve the flavor and enhance the smell.
  • Kibble or dry food can moistened with water or cat milk, to a cereal consistency. This may slowly introduce the concept of different textures to a cat that is otherwise unfamiliar with them.

How long can canned food sit out if my cat doesn’t eat it right away?

The length of time that canned food can sit out depends on multiple factors, such as whether it is indoors or outdoors, the ambient temperature, and whether it is in direct sunlight or not, amongst others. As a rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t eat your own food after leaving it out for that period of time, it’s probably time to ditch the food and start fresh!

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Conclusion

A variety of reasons can cause cats to lick their food but not eat it. While it may simply be a matter of their food preference, such behavior can sometimes can be indicative of more serious medical issues. So, if ever in doubt, don’t hesitate to reach out to your veterinarian for medical help.

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Featured Image Credit: mik ulyannikov, Shutterstock

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