How long can a domestic cat go without food?

Cat not eating. Veterinarians call this anorexia and there is a long list of reasons but there might be no apparent reason. There may be severe consequences. It might be life-threatening. Before a maximum three days without eating has arrived, the owner should take their cat to a veterinarian for urgent treatment
Cat not eating. Veterinarians call this anorexia and there is a long list of reasons but there might be no apparent reason. There may be severe consequences. It might be life-threatening. Before a maximum three days without eating has arrived, the owner should take their cat to a veterinarian for urgent treatment. Image: MikeB
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The question is meant to help cat owners who are aware that their cat has stopped eating for an unknown reason and the question enters their mind as to how long their cat can stop feeding until further problems arise.

It would be an unlikely scenario, however. And, it is difficult to find an answer from a thoroughly reliable source. I’m not saying that the pet food manufacturer, Whiskas, are unreliable but they do not provide a source of their information and they are ranked by Google as providing the best answer. They do say that although technically a cat can stop feeding for 1-2 weeks provided that they have a water supply, normally 3-4 days would start to present problems. They say that a cat would be unlikely to survive longer than three days without water or food.

I would like to add at this juncture that there have been several instances of cats trapped for an entire month. I remember a story about a domestic cat trapped in a shipping container for a month. They survived. It was presumed that the licked condensation from the walls of the container so they had some water but it was unclear where the water was coming from.

Nonetheless, they survived without feeling for 30 days, which might be exceptional. I have a book, The Welfare of Cats, with a section written by K. Sturgess and KJ Hu which states, wisely, I would say, that, “If a cat has not eaten for more than three days, it’s nutritional needs should be addressed as a matter of urgency.” There’s no mention about the availability or non-availability of drinking water.

And they are saying that you should take your cat to a veterinarian immediately or before those three days are up.

There are no Google Scholar research articles on this topic. Hillcrest Animal Hospital, supports the above information. They say that “Cats can survive for about two weeks without eating but only three days without drinking. The longer your cat goes without proper nutrition, however, the weaker they become, so it’s important to contact your vet if you suspect they haven’t eaten in a day or more.”

The Pet MD website makes a similar recommendation about a domestic cat not eating. They state that, “If your cat, for no apparent reason, fails to eat for 24-36 hours, even in the face of normal water consumption, an examination by a veterinarian is recommended.”

They add that life-threatening health problems can occur if a cat is “completely anorexic for a few days or partially anorexic for a few weeks”.

One illness comes to mind which arises out of a failure to eat and that is hepatic lipidosis. This is called fatty liver disease which can result in liver failure. A veterinary website states that, “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. The problem begins because cats’ bodies cannot metabolise fat efficiently and the liver starts to fail.”

Hepatic lipidosis causes weight loss amongst other symptoms such as jaundice and vomiting. Sadly, “even with intensive care, approximately 35% of cats with hepatic lipidosis pass away from the disease”.

Other websites confirm that cats can survive for about two weeks without food but only three days without water.

A veterinarian writing on the rover.com website, Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM, states that, “24-hours without food won’t cause permanent harm to a healthy adult cat”. However, if your cat hasn’t eaten for more than 24 hours you must see a veterinarian about the problem.

And she confirmed that if your cat has not eaten for three days the body will use the excessive fat and break it down into energy for their body to use. This can cause a buildup of fat in your cat’s liver. This is, as mentioned, hepatic lipidosis.

Veterinarians call it anorexia when a cat stops eating. There are of course numerous reasons why a domestic cat might stop eating. The list is too long to be set out here and anyway I am not a veterinarian. You will have to investigate the matter with the help of a veterinarian but even relatively silly things such as very poor oral health will contribute to a failure to eat. And poor oral health is very commonplace in middle-aged and elderly domestic cats.

Incidentally, hepatic lipidosis although often secondary to other health conditions, on occasions there might be no obvious primary cause. You will need veterinary intervention to provide early intensive fluid replacement and forced feeding to improve the chances of reversing the process. By that I mean reversing the process of anorexia which in cats means a sustained loss of appetite.

My reference book written by four veterinarians tells me that with proper veterinary intervention at an early stage – such as the placement of feeding tubes – has a 90% chance of success. However, if the cat does not receive quick aggressive intervention “the survival rate goes down to 10-15%”. A veterinarian may also prescribe appetite stimulants. See a veterinarian because it is a complicated area. It is beyond my pay grade!

The message is that a cat’s failure to eat for a few days can be life-threatening and requires urgent action beforehand.

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