The Truth About Cats and Their Nighttime Eating Habits

Typical Eating Habits of Cats

Cats are naturally crepuscular, meaning most active at dawn and dusk. In the wild, cats eat between 8-16 small meals per day (cite Domestic cats usually eat 2-3 larger meals per day, grazing on food throughout the day and night (cite Cats prefer to eat frequent, small meals rather than one or two large meals. This stems from their evolutionary history as solitary hunters. Multiple smaller meals allow cats to maximize their hunting success. Domestic cats retain this tendency to nibble, even when food is available all day.

Why Cats Eat Small Meals

Cats typically eat small, frequent meals throughout the day and night rather than eating just one or two large meals. There are several reasons for this natural feeding behavior:

Cats have small stomachs relative to their body size, so they can only eat a limited amount of food at one time before feeling full. Their stomachs empty quickly and digestive processes work fast. This means cats need to refill their stomachs often to get adequate nutrition. According to the International Cat Care group, cats’ stomachs are only 30-50ml in volume and empty in about 4-6 hours (source).

Cats have a faster metabolism than many mammals, burning calories quickly. They need frequent meals to continually fuel their energy needs and maintain their weight. Burges Pet Care notes cats’ high metabolism stems from being predators designed for hunting prey (source).

In the wild, cats would hunt small rodents and other prey multiple times per day. Their bodies evolved to digest numerous small meals rather than a large one. Domestic cats retain this natural instinct to seek out food at intervals throughout the day and night.

Health Risks of Missing Meals

Missing meals can be dangerous for cats and lead to several health risks. One major risk is hypoglycemia, which is low blood sugar. Cats need to eat frequently to maintain steady glucose levels. If a cat goes too long without eating, blood sugar can drop dangerously low. Symptoms of hypoglycemia include lethargy, uncoordination, trembling, and seizures. If left untreated, it can be fatal (1).

Another potential problem is hepatic lipidosis, also known as fatty liver disease. This occurs when fat builds up in the liver from rapid weight loss or poor nutrition. Hepatic lipidosis causes nausea, diarrhea, jaundice, and can lead to liver failure. It often develops in cats who stop eating due to other illnesses. Encouraging eating is crucial to prevent and treat this condition (2).

Missing meals also leads to dehydration. Cats get much of their water from food. An inadequately fed cat will become dehydrated more quickly. Dehydration causes elevated heart rate, fever, weakness, and thick saliva. It can damage organs like the kidneys if severe (3).

Finally, not eating results in weight loss. Cats’ energy needs are high, and their body fat is low. They cannot afford to lose weight rapidly. Just a 10% weight loss can be dangerous. Starvation and muscle wasting occur if inadequate nutrition persists (4).




How Long Can a Healthy Cat Go Without Eating?

A healthy cat can typically go without food for 12-24 hours without major health concerns as long as they have access to water. Cats have evolved to eat small frequent meals and their bodies are adapted for short periods of fasting. However, going longer than 24 hours without food can put stress on a cat’s body.

After about 48 hours without eating, the risk of developing hepatic lipidosis, also known as fatty liver disease, starts to increase significantly. Hepatic lipidosis is a potentially life-threatening condition where fat builds up in the liver due to starvation. It can develop in as little as 2 days without food.

Going 3-4 days without nutrients from food and water can become life threatening for a cat. Their body will start breaking down fat and muscle tissue for energy which can lead to liver and kidney failure. Severe dehydration can also occur after a couple of days without water which can be fatal.

While healthy adult cats may survive a week or slightly longer with no food but access to water, their health will deteriorate rapidly. Any underlying illness also increases the risks associated with not eating. Continuing to monitor your cat and seeking prompt veterinary care is critical the longer your cat goes without food.

Signs Your Cat is Hungry

There are several behaviors that can indicate your cat is feeling hungry or nutritionally deprived. Some of the most common signs include:

Meowing or crying – Hungry cats may meow, cry or make other vocalizations to get your attention around mealtimes. The sounds are usually urgent and persistent.

Following you around – A hungry cat may start following you from room to room, rubbing against your legs, or staring at you intently around mealtimes. This signals they are ready to eat.

Chewing or licking non-food items – Cats may try to satisfy hunger pangs by chewing on or licking non-edible items like plastic, wool, houseplants or even drywall. This is a sign they need more appropriate foods.

Increased activity – Some cats may become more active, restless or insistent when hungry. They may paw at you, jump on counters or become hyperactive.

Snacking on houseplants – Hungry cats may nibble on houseplant leaves or grass. While not optimal, this allows them to eat something fibrous and satisfy hunger temporarily (

If your cat is exhibiting multiple signs of hunger outside of mealtimes, it likely needs more food intake. Make sure to monitor portions and feed a complete cat food diet.

Tips If Your Cat Misses a Meal

If your cat skips a meal occasionally, there are some things you can try at home to encourage eating:

Leave food out overnight – Cats are natural grazers and may nibble at food throughout the night. Leave a small portion of wet or dry food out to see if your cat eats during its normal active times. Make sure to discard any uneaten wet food in the morning.

Split meals into smaller portions – Try dividing your cat’s daily food into more frequent, smaller meals. This allows more opportunities for them to eat.

Try different food textures – Offer a mix of wet food, dry food, and meat-flavored human baby food to appeal to different tastes and textures.

Use appetite stimulants – Catnip, tuna juice, or nutritional gel supplements can help stimulate appetite. Check with your vet before using.

Visit the vet if skipping multiple meals – If your cat hasn’t eaten for 24 hours or more, or misses several meals in a row, consult your veterinarian. They can check for underlying illness and provide supportive care.

When to Seek Veterinary Care

As natural hunters, cats are wired to hide signs of illness and distress. However, a cat refusing to eat for more than 48 hours is an emergency situation requiring veterinary care (source). Prolonged lack of nutrition can lead to liver damage and life-threatening complications. If your cat hasn’t eaten in over 48 hours, contact your vet right away.

You should also seek prompt veterinary care if your cat seems lethargic, withdrawn, or ill while not eating. Significant vomiting or diarrhea accompanying loss of appetite likewise warrants a vet visit. Cats can become dehydrated and unwell rapidly when not eating or drinking. If your cat refuses food for more than 2 days, do not wait – call your vet without delay. The sooner the underlying issue is diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome will be for your cat.

How to Get Your Cat to Eat

If your cat is refusing their normal food, there are several tricks you can try to entice them to eat again:

Offer smelly, flavorsome wet food like fish or chicken, which cats often find more appetizing than dry kibble. According to ICatCare, strong-smelling foods can encourage a cat to start eating again.

Warm up the food slightly to make the aromas more appealing. Cold food straight from the fridge is less enticing. A UnderTheWeather article recommends heating up canned cat food for 10-15 seconds in the microwave.

Hand feed your cat or sprinkle tasty treats like freeze-dried chicken on top of their meals. The interactive feeding can pique their interest, according to Preventive Vet.

Distract your cat with playtime right before meals to stimulate their appetite. Chase toys like feathers on a string are ideal.

Move your cat’s food bowls to a new location in the house. Sometimes a simple change in environment is all it takes to renew interest.

Preventing Eating Problems

There are several steps cat owners can take to prevent eating problems in their feline companions:

Feed cats on a consistent schedule rather than free-feeding. Feeding at the same times each day creates a routine and reduces begging behaviors. Separate cats in multi-cat households during mealtimes to reduce competition and anxiety. Use puzzle feeders or food dispensing toys to slow down fast eaters. These provide mental stimulation while preventing gorging. Always provide fresh, clean drinking water. Change water daily and use fountain dispensers if your cat prefers flowing water. Monitor your cat’s weight and overall health during annual vet visits. Sudden changes may indicate an underlying issue requiring attention.

With some planning and care, cat owners can prevent disruptions to their cat’s eating habits. This promotes good nutrition and healthy weights.

When to Allow Fasting

Healthy adult cats can occasionally fast for up to 24 hours from time to time without issue. However, kittens and ill cats should never be intentionally fasted as they have greater nutritional needs. The only time cats should be fasted without a direct veterinary recommendation is if they are healthy adults and miss a meal on their own. Even then, steps should be taken to encourage eating again within 12-24 hours.

Cats should only be fasted for an extended period of time under the guidance of a veterinarian. This is typically done prior to anesthesia, certain diagnostic tests like bloodwork, or sometimes treatments. According to experts, fasting for too long can lead to liver damage or other health complications in cats, so any medically advised fasting should be carefully monitored by a vet. Most recommend feeding again within 24 hours.

While fasting or intermittent fasting can have health benefits for humans, it is not recommended for cats, especially on any regular schedule. Per veterinarians, cats do not tolerate fasting or radical diet changes well compared to some other species. Any major dietary adjustments should only be made under a vet’s supervision.1

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