If you ask the average person what the difference is between a cat and a dog, they are likely to respond “cats don’t need people – dogs do.”
While this may be the image cats tend to project, it couldn’t be more opposite from the truth.
Cats do need and rely on their people just like dogs do. A cat needs to have ready, daily access to fresh water, and food to stay healthy.
Because some people think cats are so self-reliant, they may think it is just fine to leave a cat for a weekend or even a much longer period of time on their own. But this is very dangerous!
In this article, we tell you exactly what you need to know about how long a cat can safely go without food and water before health issues or even death may occur.
How Long Can a Cat Go Without Food
The answer to this question is different depending on the cat’s age, life stage, weight, and overall health. In certain rare and very extreme cases, a cat can go without food for anywhere from 10 to 14 days and still have some chance of surviving.
But as PetMD explains, even fasting for 24 to 36 hours can set in motion far more serious health issues that may or may resolve even with expert care.
And as Feline Nutrition explains, fasting for longer than just two or three days may cause irreversible organ damage or failure.
How Long Can a Cat Go Without Food?
As this heartbreaking short news story video highlights, cats can be remarkably resilient in many ways, but they need to eat and drink regularly just like all animals do.
Even though many people see cats as self-reliant and independent, a pet cat will become dependent on their people for food just like a pet dog or any companion animal.
How Long Can a Very Young Kitten Go Without Food?
Earlier we mentioned that the amount of time a cat can safely go without eating will depend on the age of the cat, the life stage, and overall health.
Kittens have a much lower tolerance for going without food than adult cats.
Because there are feral cat populations in so many places around the world, it is not uncommon to find abandoned or orphaned kittens who need emergency care.
It is not easy to become a surrogate mom to newborn kittens. Kittens that are younger than four weeks old usually cannot even regulate their own body temperature and they are not eating on their own yet.
This means they need warmth and special formula food that is like the milk they would have had from their mother cat.
As Lucky Cat Adoptions explains, a kitten that will not nurse after a six to seven-hour period should be considered an emergency case.
A kitten that has missed two feedings is in critical danger and always requires professional veterinary care.
There are other special considerations for feeding very young kittens as well:
- Kittens should be fed when their body temperature is warm.
- Kittens should never be fed on their backs as this may cause aspiration.
- Kittens need special kitten formula, not cow’s milk (they cannot digest this).
- Kittens need formula until they are weaning age (around three to four weeks old).
- Kittens typically stop feeding on their own when they are full.
- Kittens older than four weeks can start eating some solid food.
Always consult a trained and experienced feline rehabilitation expert or a feline veterinarian for help re-feeding kittens who won’t eat or any orphaned or abandoned kittens you find.
How Long Can an Older Kitten Go Without Food?
If you do find an orphaned kitten or juvenile cat, it is important to identify the approximate age to know how best to feed them.
But it isn’t always easy to figure out how old a young cat is, as Alley Cat Allies rescue charity highlights.
Weight can be a helpful indicator, but a juvenile cat that has not eaten for a while may be very underweight.
The Humane Society of Broward County offers the following general guidelines for feeding juvenile cats (older kittens):
One week or younger
When kittens are newborns, they cannot survive for more than two hours safely without the opportunity to nurse.
These very young kittens can easily go into hypoglycemic shock and die if they miss even one feeding!
Two to four weeks
As you just learned in the previous section here, very young kittens are still reliant on their mother cat’s milk (or a suitable replacement kitten formula). They need to nurse every three to four hours.
Hypoglycemic shock is still a big risk at this very young age.
Six to seven hours without food – about the average overnight period – is the absolute most a young kitten can safely go without food without the risk of organ failure and death.
Five to seven weeks
After the age of four weeks, and between four and six weeks in general, kittens that are with their mother cat will be going through the weaning process.
Weaning is when a young kitten transitions away from nursing (mother’s milk) and towards eating solid food.
Starting at five weeks old, or as soon as the kittens are primarily eating solid food, they can safely go for five to six hours without food. Hypoglycemic shock is still a big risk.
Eight to 10 weeks
Starting at around eight weeks of age, kittens should be eating solid food on their own.
These older kittens may be able to survive 12 to 24 hours without food before low blood sugar and liver damage becomes a health risk.
How Long Can An Adult Cat Go Without Food?
As Pet Life Today’s veterinary team explains, there may be times when even a pampered pet cat will simply refuse to eat.
Unfortunately, this situation can quickly become urgent. If an adult cat that has previously been healthy suddenly refuses to eat, you can’t afford to wait more than 24 to 36 hours before intervening.
Why Do Cats Stop Eating?
As the previous section here highlights, sometimes cats have access to food but will simply stop eating.
As the Cat Vet explains, these are some of the most commonly reported reasons why a cat may suddenly stop eating.
Illness, injury or disease
Illness, injury, or disease is the first factor you should consider when your cat suddenly stops eating. Illness, injury, or disease can range from mouth ulcers to problems with pests like fleas or ticks.
Pain is a common trigger for cats to stop eating, whether it is a visible physical cut or bruise or feelings of nausea or fever that are less easy to spot.
As any cat owner knows, cats can become very stressed by changes to the home environment or their daily routine.
A move to a new location, the addition (or absence) of a family member or another family pet, or even a change in their food or feeding schedule can trigger refusal to eat or drink.
When a cat’s owner becomes very stressed out, this can also increase stress in the cat and lead to a refusal of food.
When a cat starts getting older, changes in hormones and body chemistry can cause changes in joints, appetite, activity level, and digestion.
These aches and pains can inhibit a cat’s desire to eat and drink, which then leads to additional aches and pains from issues like constipation, dehydration, and physical stiffness.
What Happens When a Cat Goes Without Food?
There are several things that can begin to happen quickly when a cat goes without food, as PetMD points out.
The simplest explanation for feline hypoglycemia is low blood sugar, according to the Pet Health Network.
Common warning signs and symptoms of hypoglycemia include these:
- Loss of appetite.
- Twitching muscles.
- Lethargy and fatigue.
- Uncoordinated movement and trembling.
Hypoglycemia can occur incredibly swiftly in young kittens – within a couple of hours. In adult cats, it can occur within 24 to 36 hours of not eating.
Hepatic lipidosis is a type of feline fatty liver disease. It is caused when a cat stops taking in nutrition and the body begins harvesting fat from the body’s fat stores.
Common symptoms and warning signs of hepatic lipidosis include the following:
- Anorexia (a refusal to eat with subsequent weight loss).
- Lethargy and fatigue.
- Jaundice (yellow coloring in eyes and skin).
- Changes in behavior.
- Vomiting or diarrhea.
When a cat’s body starts using its own fat stores for fuel, this causes fat molecules to pour into the liver for processing and overload it.
As Blue Pearl Vet Hospital explains, hepatic lipidosis that is left untreated can quickly cause liver failure and death.
Dehydration may not seem to be so severe as the other two health issues we just mentioned. But unaddressed feline dehydration can quickly lead to kidney damage and kidney failure.
As the Preventative Vet points out, it is not the easiest task to identify when a cat is becoming dehydrated.
In fact, wild felines take in the majority of their water from the food they eat. Domestic cats still rely on their food for moisture, sometimes to their own detriment.
These are some common warning signs of feline dehydration:
- Loose or sagging skin.
- Appetite loss.
- Sticky gums.
- Eyes that appear sunken.
- Rapid heartbeat.
- Vomiting or diarrhea.
- Less peeing.
When a cat gets dehydrated, it may be due to an underlying undiagnosed health issue such as thyroid problems or kidney problems.
As VCA Animal Hospitals explains, feline constipation can lead to bowel obstruction in short order if left unaddressed.
The less water a cat takes in, the more likely constipation is to occur.
When a cat becomes constipated, you may notice the following symptoms and warning signs:
- Straining to pass feces.
- Blood or small amounts of liquid waste coming out.
- Lack of appetite.
- Hunching over.
- Tight or hard abdomen.
How to Get a Cat to Start Eating Again
As you now understand, there are so many reasons why a cat may stop eating. One reason is that the cat doesn’t have any food to eat! This is commonly the case with feral cats or abandoned kittens.
But there may also be other reasons why a cat that has plenty of food may stop eating on their own.
Just because a cat can go without food for a short period of time without serious health effects does not mean they should. There are simply too many serious and potentially fatal health issues that can quickly occur if your cat refuses to eat.
When a cat suddenly stops eating, there is no reason to think they will just suddenly start eating again without intervention from you or your feline veterinarian. It is important to find out what is causing your cat not to eat and treat that issue.
Because cats are so good at hiding symptoms of weakness, pain, or illness, you may want to take your cat to your feline veterinarian right away rather than trying to self-diagnose the reason for your cat’s lack of interest in food.
If an underlying health issue is causing the lack of appetite, it will likely not return until that health issue is diagnosed and treated properly.
The bottom line is that a kitten cannot go for more than a few hours without eating and an adult cat should never go longer than 24 hours without eating.