My elderly cat can’t keep any food down. Help!

Before we begin this week’s column, we’d like to give a giant Happy Birthday purr to our great-great auntie cat, Asti, who just turned 19 yesterday. That’s like 92 in human years! Many happy returns, Asti — and Mama sends lots of petties your way, too.

Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

I have a 19-year-old female cat who is unable to keep anything down that she is fed. Over the last year, we’ve tried everything — soft food, soft food that is ground to gravy, special dietary food for elderly cats, feeding her small amounts at a time. Nothing seems to work. In the last week, she has thrown up everything we feed her. Any ideas? She’s wasting away.


Siouxsie: Connie, your cat needs to see a vet right away.

Thomas: If your cat was eating voraciously and still getting thinner, we’d suspect hyperthyroidism or diabetes, conditions that occur with some frequency in in older cats.

Dahlia: But since she’s not eating, that’s clearly not the issue.

Siouxsie: Geriatric cats are subject to a variety of conditions that can cause vomiting and inability to hold food down. Late-stage chronic renal failure can cause vomiting — but there would be many other signs of disease present before the vomiting began, most notably increased urination and thirst or a smell of ammonia on the breath.

Dahlia: We suspect that your cat has an obstruction of some kind. Obstructions can be caused by anything from severe constipation to cancer.

Siouxsie: As cats age, their muscles get weaker. They can also develop arthritis in the hips. This combination of weakness and pain can make it very difficult to assume the proper position for having a bowel movement. This can lead to chronic constipation.

Thomas: Chronic constipation can then lead to fecal impaction. An impacted stool is virtually impossible to pass because the sheer size of it can cause great pain. This condition is treated with laxatives, enemas, and possibly manual removal of the impacted feces. We can’t stress enough that treatment of fecal impaction must be done by a veterinarian! Enemas and removal of impacted feces require sedation and possibly even anesthesia.

Dahlia: Obstructions can be caused by foreign bodies such as large hairballs or a toy that was ingested. Again, this condition must be treated by a veterinarian, as an object that’s too big to pass and is causing the cat to vomit will need to be surgically removed.

Siouxsie: The worst case scenario is, of course, a tumor. We hate to say this, but most tumors found in elderly cats are malignant. If your cat does have a tumor that is easily treatable, you may choose to have your veterinarian surgically remove it. However, if your cat has a lot of tumors, has other serious illnesses along with the tumors, or won’t have a decent quality of life even with treatment, humane euthanasia may be the best option.

Thomas: Whatever is going on with your cat, you must take her to a veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment! It’s not fair to let her suffer. And rest assured, slow starvation absolutely is causing your cat to suffer.

Dahlia: When cats reach their senior years, generally defined as 10 or older, it’s more important than ever that they receive regular veterinary checkups. Some vets even recommend that geriatric cats visit the vet twice a year, because serious illnesses can develop very quickly.

Siouxsie: And when an old cat starts to have symptoms like vomiting, weight loss, excessive thirst, or changes in mood or temperament, it’s crucial that he or she see a vet as soon as possible. Many chronic illnesses can be treated in a way that allows a cat to enjoy a good quality of life for several more years.

Thomas: But if you wait too long, you’ll run out of options — even with treatable diseases. So we urge anyone who is a caretaker of an elderly cat to please, please make sure to get your cat regular veterinary checkups!

Dahlia: Mama says she uses the “rational human being” guideline for seeking veterinary care, which is: Assuming you had adequate health insurance coverage or could otherwise afford health care — if you were having the symptoms you’re seeing in your cat, would you seek medical attention? If the answer is yes, get your cat to the vet!

Siouxsie: And trust me, if you couldn’t keep any food down for weeks and weeks and weeks — you’d get to the doctor even if you knew there was no way you could afford it!

Thomas: We cats can’t tell you where it hurts, and we instinctively hide our pain, so we rely on our human caretakers to see when we’re ill and take us to the vet when we need it.

Dahlia: Good luck, Connie. We hope everything turns out OK.

  • Melissa

    Maybe you could try some jarred babyfood for a little while? I know she wouldn’t be getting the amount of nutrients that she needs, but it would at least be something in her belly. Either way though, you MUST get her to a vet to see what is the underlying cause! You wouldn’t want to suffer, as much as she probably is. without going to see your doctor… so please don’t put her through any more “treatments” without taking her to the vet right away!!

  • Aretha Penney

    My cat is over 10 years of age and she had tumors on the back of her tongue. I got them removed two years ago and now they are back. I took her to the vet last week and got blood drawn and a throat x-ray. They said that they have not spreaded to her throat and that she does not have cancer any where else, just on her tongue. They put her on steroids and now she cannot keep food down on her stomach at all. Not even water, so back to the vet this week costing more money because no one can tell me anything useful. Frustrated.

  • Rhonda L. Hakim

    Take your cat to the vet if he/she is vomitting for 2-3 days, or if you know he/she has not been eating for 2-3 days.

    My 7 y.o. male cat Jo-Jo was eating and then throwing up. I chalked it up to him eating to much in one sitting. He was an unusually large 22 lb cat with huge paws and a rather long body with long legs. I always asked my vet if he was overweight but he always told me his weight was right for his large structure. I figured his size made him want to eat more and that he was getting to much in one sitting.

    Sometime this week he stopped eating. I’m not srue when because I hae 2 female cats 4 & 18 y.o. and its not always easy to notice when 1 out of 3 cats stops eating.

    My male cat had to be put down ysterday. If a cat stops eating they get a disease called Hepatic Lipidosis which is a liver disease. When the cat starves itself the liver starts pulling fat in to convert to energy, but because cats liver cannot output the fats energy as fast as it is pulling it in, the cats liver ends up getting blocked.

    I was told if caught early enough and if it is the sole cause of the cats illness it is 80-90% curable but if there is an underlying cause like cancer then it will most likely be terminal.

    Originally I was going to do an Ultrasound so that I would know how to proceed but he just went down to quickly. In 2 days he lost his sight and was looking pretty bad and huffing when he breathed. He was being tube fed and originally his body was processing food and he was eliminating fine but then everything started to just shut down and he threw up a whole days worth of feeding. We had to put him down.

    I never herd of Hepatic Lipidosis (Fatty Liver Disease) but now I am watching my 4 y.o. female cat Babe was Jo’s mate. These 2 cuddled and played 24/7. Baby was a ferrel kitten I rescued. Half long hair siamese and very wild. Jo showed her how to be civil and domestic. She is still a bit wild & some of her behavior may just be the siamese. However, now she is not eating, and I know that she is really greiving him. I am trying to get her to eat but it is scary knowing what not eating can do to a cat.

  • LovingYourPet

    Had something similar recently with my eldest, Meg. Very useful resource yet again. Cheers.

  • Tina

    Yes, take her to the vet and have her fully checked over. But also fully remember that she is 19 y. o. We care for our pets deeply but there is rarely any doubt that we will usually out live them. Also, keep in mind that veterinary medicine is much like the human medicine industry. It is costly with many tests, sometimes biased, and can often be drawn out beyond reason. Is going to the Vet or a Doctor always your number one course of action? Of Course! But use common sense with both.
    I had my Siamese put down a couple months ago. He had developed diabetes a few years before and we had been living well around that. He got his meds twice a day like clockwork and soft ground chicken mixed with canned cat food to eat. Never fed a diabetic cat regular dry cat food (vet or not) as they are mostly corn filler. But the disease finally took its toll on the body if not the mind. I’m sure that my vet thought I was the coldest bitch on Earth when I said to him ‘no I will not prolong this’ and scheduled the euthanasia. So, we had a week to come to terms during which Singin was able to indulge his long denied ice-cream addiction.
    Now I have a situation that is identical to yours. Sassy is a 18 y.o. female shorthair that is unable to keep her food down no matter what I try. There is no excess urination, no hairballs, no constipation. She eats moderately on a schedule. There are no unusual lumps or bumps. Her mind is great but the body is failing. And when she goes for her check-ups, tests, pokes and prods the Vet says that “She is an old cat.” Then charges my CC.
    Soon I will have to make a choice with her as well. But then I knew that someday I would have to. Again, it may sound callous and cold, the decision will be made with common sense. I have seen to many friends and family that have prolonged their pets beyond reason. They thought they were being kind. The Vets said ‘it’s the right thing to do’. Is it?

  • jane

    The very FIRST time your cat does not eat for 2 days, immediately go to see your vet. When I went on vacation for 4 days and had someone watch my pets, I was told Dilly wasn’t eating.I took him to the vets , not thinking too much of it and my vet told me I got there in the knick of time. For 4 years after that , he often had lesser problems due to it but then it happened again. He was tube fed for a few months before he went downhill within 24 hours. ( fatty liver )
    It doesn’t SOUND that severe if your cat doesn’t eat for 2 days but it is VERY serious.I have 5 other cats which I now sit down on the floor during their feeding time and watch to make sure each one is eating and eating their own food.
    It was such unnecessary suffering because of lack of knowledge… and I miss Dilly dearly

  • Jackie Lee Smith

    I have a 17 year old Siamese. I tried every expensive food and treatment for her continued vomiting. After much research, I read an article about blue green algae and a very expensive supplement formulated for cats. Instead of paying $90 for this, I purchased a furturebiotics product called Vital Green, containing blue green algae. 365 pills for around $12 at Drug Emporium. Within one day of giving her this pill by mouth, she stopped throwing up and she eats normally now instead of eating, throwing up, then wanting to eat again. A frustrating routine. Now I crush a pill in the mortar and mix it into her food. Her food now is very inexpensive also. Chicken livers with a vitamin supplement, which I cook down and serve to her pate style.

  • Jamie

    I am worried for my cat now that this may be his last week with us. He is 14 or 15, a bigger cat (20+ lbs). Last summer he became diabetic. I did some research and changed his diet from the expensive “weight control” dry food the vet had been recommending to just plain old Friskies from the can (which has a low glycemic index). I was able to wean Harvey off insulin within 3 months and he even shed a few pounds and became more energetic than he had been in years. Last week he began vomiting frequently and stopped eating. After 4 days I took him to the emergency vet (which ran me $800). His bloodwork looked good, so they kept him overnight and gave IV fluids and an anti-emetic med, and managed to get one feeding into him that he kept down. I brought him home yesterday morning and he has not taken in a drop of food/water yet. I squeezed one ml of kitten formula into him by syringe, seconds later he vomited 10ml of yellow bile. He still has energy enough to walk around the house and jump over the baby gate, but I know he can’t hold out for much longer. This will be day 6 without food (minus the one feeding by the vet). The vet has not mentioned euthanasia yet, only suggesting more IV fluids (inpatient stay) and an ultrasound. Meanwhile, my heart is breaking for this poor animal……

  • pattycupcake

    thanks, jackie lee smith, for your helpful comments. i will be sure to try the super blue green algae, as well as aloe vera juice, which i have also read about.

    i really appreciate this site where cat owners can go to share advice and useful tips. i’m crossing my fingers that this new remedy will help my sweet calliope!

  • anna

    my son’s cat who is in iraq, for his 3rd tour, is 20, she been throwing up every other day, her stool is dry and big, i changed her food to canned fancy feast, she eats well but shes not getting better, i have noticed now she is loosing muscle mass, and she seems slow moving, im sooo afraid” I cant loos her” i feel she is my connection to my son” it wold kill me’ if some thing happen to her”

  • anna

    as soon as i get payed im taking my sons cat to the vets. oh god im sooo scared” I have a week heart” my dr’s have put me on medication’ I don’t think i could handle this” if they tell me bad news”

  • kentuckywoman2

    We have an 17 yr old cat with the same problem. She eats, then throws up – sometimes in massive quantities, then eats again and the cycle repeats. Sometimes she’ll go a day or so without eating, but then her appetite will return. She is not constipated, neither does she have diarrhea. She doesn’t throw up hairballs, either, but mostly just the canned cat food (doesn’t matter what brand or variety or texture) and lots of saliva. She’s been to the vet recently and had a full blood workup – no thyroid problems, no diabetes, and no tumors that we can feel. She’s an indoor cat but does like to get outside when we open the door and then she’ll go and chew on grass, which of course, makes her vomit even more. I just walked into my son’s room and it looks like vomit armeggedon – there’s huge amounts all over the bed, sheets and floor. And it’s very “wet”. I just don’t know what to do anymore. I’ve called the vet and she doesn’t seem very concerned – just said “she’s old.” I’m not sure what to do – find another vet? Poor cat is just wasting away.

  • Toni

    I am very concerned about my baby Merlin. At this moment he is staying overnight at the vet’s. He just turned 8 years old today. Less than a month ago he was rushed to the ER from bleeding from the mouth to find out that he had advance periodontal disease and had to have 12 teeth extracted because ended up with a fever of 104 and an infection. This was July 5th. I switched him from dry to wet cat food because it was easier for him to chew. He was fine for a week and a half after surgery. Then he was loosing some weight but still in good shape. I noticed last week that when he came up in my lap I could literally feel his bones on his spine, ribs and hip. I have 3 cats so from what I saw he was eating so was wondering if he’s eating why can I feel his bones. I called the vet right away when I felt that and she had me bring him in. They did a senior panel on his bloodwork which came back normal and sent him home with a dewormer because even though he is an indoor cat he escaped and was missing for 2 and 1/2 weeks but that was 2 years ago and didn’t think he could have worms but she said it was a precaution. So then the last four days he kept throwing up his entire food and not keeping anything down. They had me bring him back for x-rays today, both survey and barium, and nothing showed up as far as an obstruction, cancer mass or ulcers. All they found was an extremely tiny kidney stone which they said shouldn’t have caused the weight loss. I forgot to mention he lost 3 lbs in less than a month. He is a blue point siamese and went from 9 lbs to 6 lbs. They are at a loss of what it could be and so am I. They ruled out psychological because his siblings bullied him a bit after his surgery but we tried things to rule it out. Can someone recommend anything else to try looking for with him? I am extremely worried and he is my mama’s boy that I love to death and can’t loose him.