Living with an anorexic cat

Since I’m on the topic of cats (see last post), I thought I’d continue with another post about them. I am writing this not just to tell Lucy’s story, but in the hope that it will help other cat owners whose cats are losing weight for no apparent reason.

Lucy on her first day with us

Lucy, our cat, was a skinny little thing from the time we first fetched her from the local animal shelter. With a long thin body and long thin legs she reminded me of a young horse. As she grew up her build stayed the same and as she came to us like that, we assumed it was normal for her. She’d trot through the house at high-speed (like the fast trot of a jackal), coming in one window and leaving through another on the opposite side of the house. For the first two years we barely saw her inside the house during the day. Unlike other cats I’ve had Lucy would pick up weight during the summer months, only to get really thin during the winter. Imagine a cat with a leopard build in summer, versus a cat who slinks around like a cheetah during the winter. As she was eating normally, we didn’t worry too much. Besides we had enough problems with Lucy getting injured – whether due to her own accident prone nature, or because she got into a lot of cat fights. Lucy also felt the cold, and as soon as winter was here would spend hours stretch out in front of a heater, or curled up on a nice warm lap.

Leopard (Photo by Ed Glickman via Wikimedia Commons)

Cheetah (Photo by Rob Qld via Wikimedia Commons)







Towards the end of her third winter with us Lucy stopped eating. She didn’t appear to be sick – was still running around like a mad thing and would come when we put down food for her. But then she’d just stand looking at the food – at the most taking a mouthful – before turning away. Our local vets tested for all kinds of feline diseases include thyroid problems. Every time there was a new test, I would scare myself silly by reading up about it on the Internet, and learning of the worst case scenarios. Her initial diagnosis was “anorexic – with no known cause”. The local vets kept her going by giving her an appetite stimulant, while they tried to figure out what was wrong. Several weeks went by, and our vets had reached the end of all the testing they were able to do locally. Eventually, with Lucy getting dangerously thin, and her vital organs being in danger of being compromised, Willie did a “mercy dash” down to Cape Town with her. She spent a couple of days in an animal clinic there, being examined by three veterinary specialists. Within a day they had diagnosed and started treating her for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). And thankfully, Lucy started to respond to the treatment. We still had some weeks of hand-feeding her to coax her to eat, but the worst was over, and she started to gain weight again.

A short description of IBD from WebMD which now also has a “pet health” section!

There are three bowel problems in cats characterized by chronic and protracted diarrhea, sporadic vomiting, malabsorption and, in long-standing cases, weight loss, anemia, and malnutrition. Together, these are classified as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Some affected cats show clinical signs in a cyclical pattern, while others are constantly in discomfort.

All of these diseases are immune-mediated reactions of the gastrointestinal system to food, bacteria, or parasite antigens. These reactions get out of control, with large numbers of inflammatory cells collecting along the gastrointestinal tract and interfering with digestion and absorption. These syndromes can be managed but are seldom cured . . . continue reading . . .

Click on the link above to read the rest of the article which details all the possible symptoms, how a diagnosis is made, and also what treatments are available. If your cat is diagnosed with this, I would strongly recommend listening to professional veterinary advice versus communicating with other lay people via the Internet. I found that people giving advice on the pet forums, although well-intentioned, seemed to give conflicting advice and often just scared each other with horror stories. While it is true that the disease can only be managed and not cured, and some cats just continue to decline, a lot can be helped.

Lucy during her anorexic phase: eyes huge in a thin face, spine and ribs prominent, thin stick-like legs.

Of course when you don't have any body fat, you can do this . . . Lucy folding herself literally in half.

Lucy was lucky. Being a young, otherwise healthy cat, she responded to a relatively short course of medication (antibiotics and prednisone), together with a complete change of diet. The veterinary specialists felt that given her medical history, the animal proteins usually found in cat food – beef, chicken, lamb – were the cause of her problems. Lucy is now on a staple diet of “prescription diet” dried food (made from venison), supplemented by fish.

It is a constant battle though, and I have to weigh her about once a month to see that her weight hasn’t started dropping again. When it does, she sometimes needs to go back on medication for a couple of weeks. The fact that she still has flare-ups towards the end of each winter are puzzling. IBD is not supposed to be triggered by weather conditions. But maybe her immunity is lower then, or maybe there is something else going on environmentally which we are not aware of?

Lucy during a current more chubby phase - more leopard, than cheetah-like.

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Categories: Random


I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at and (my photoblog)


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36 Comments on “Living with an anorexic cat”

  1. June 7, 2011 at 2:47 pm #

    Ah, what a sweet kitty! My cat Tashi suffered from extreme anorexia toward the end of her 18 year life, but she turned out to have contracted feline aids. She actually lived a long while with the disease and got to be fairly old given her illness. But I struggled for years to maintain her weight!

    • June 8, 2011 at 7:15 am #

      Feline AIDS was one of the first things they tested Lucy for – thankfully she never had it. It is difficult dealing with an animal that can’t maintain their weight isn’t it? Before Lucy was diagnosed the vets were telling me to be careful that she didn’t get too chubby. Since then they’re only too happy if she is weighing a bit more than usual.

      18 years old is good going for a healthy cat, let alone one that is sick and anorexic. Tashi must have been one tough little cat!

  2. June 7, 2011 at 7:40 pm #

    Oh! Poor, sweet Lucy. I’m glad she’s better, and that she has such loving owners to take care of her.

    • June 8, 2011 at 7:19 am #

      Thanks! If Willie hadn’t driven her down to Cape Town, she wouldn’t have survived. Despite his tough guy attitude he’s a really softy when it comes to our pets!

  3. June 7, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    PS: I’ve just linked to your blog from the “Cult of Otis” Facebook page. I think Otis needs to know about kitties with anorexia!

  4. June 7, 2011 at 8:30 pm #

    I’m glad you found the source of poor Lucy’s problems!

  5. June 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm #

    My Aussie, Copper, suffers from something similar. Food changes have helped. But, finding a vet who is interested in pursuing an answer has been hard. Because, “Aussies aren’t supposed to have food allergies or many health problems”, as said one vet who breeds them.

    It’s been very frustrating for us. But, we’re making due.

    I hope Lucy continues to do well!

    • June 8, 2011 at 7:43 am #

      Sorry to hear about Copper, and also that your local vets haven’t been helpful. That must be so frustrating! Could you ask your nearest veterinary school to recommend somebody close to you?

      Lucy was also not an expected candidate for IBD, since she was so young when it started. Luckily our local vets (we live in a smaller city), when they had completed all the tests they could do, referred her to veterinary specialists in one of the bigger cities. And importantly followed the course of treatment recommended by the veterinary specialists.

  6. June 7, 2011 at 11:46 pm #

    AAHHH poor little thing….. good thing she has ya’ll to take care of her! I love the picture of her mad with her ears laid back!

    • June 8, 2011 at 7:45 am #

      You can really see that she’s miffed at me in that photo, can’t you?! At the time she had hurt her leg, and we were keeping her indoors to keep her quiet and give it a chance to heal. That was not what she wanted though, and she let us know it in no uncertain terms!

  7. June 8, 2011 at 2:24 am #

    I just loooove lucy,
    What a doll.
    She’s the sort of cat that Picasso would have painted.
    So glad she’s healthy now.

  8. jacquelincangro
    June 8, 2011 at 3:11 am #

    Wow! What a story. I’m so glad that Lucy is better and her condition can be managed successfully. I know how dangerous it is to look up symptoms on Web MD or any of the other pet sites. It’s so scary. Reggie has an immune mediated illness also and had to be treated with prednisone. He was weaned off of it after about 6 months and did not have a relapse. But still, I keep a watchful eye out.

    • June 8, 2011 at 7:50 am #

      Glad to hear that Reggie is healthy now. Prednisone is nasty stuff, but it works like charm with Lucy. They rarely keep her on it for longer than 3 weeks at a time though. Last year although she lost weight again over the winter, they didn’t have to put her on medication at all. I’m hoping that this year will be the same.

      I wonder if these immune related diseases in pets are on the increase, or whether people are just more aware of them now?

      • jacquelincangro
        June 12, 2011 at 6:13 pm #

        That’s an interesting question. My mom’s dog and my friends’s dog both have had immune related illnesses. My friend’s situation was the most serious as the dog’s immune system was attacking her own healthy red blood cells. It was touch and go for a while there, but she’s much better now. The prednisone ultimately helped, but like you said, it’s got some yucky side effects.

      • June 13, 2011 at 8:37 am #

        Some of the people on the “IBD cats” forum – as well as some vets – believe that modern pet foods are to blame for a lot of these problems. There were people on the forum who were feeding their cats raw diets, or specially formulated home-made cat foods. Although there the concern is that the animals may become malnourished.

  9. June 8, 2011 at 11:32 am #

    I’m glad Lucy is doing better — she looks great in that last photo. I wonder whether Lucy is catching and eating some kind of insect that’s more prevalent towards the end of winter.

    • June 8, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

      Thanks, yes Lucy is doing great at this stage. It’s winter here now and she’s still eating lots and maintaining her weight. Hopefully it will carry her through August/September when she usually starts getting sick.

      Not sure about any insects around at the end of winter. Or if Lucy would actually eat them. But there may be “bugs” of a different kind around then – thinking of bacteria.

  10. June 9, 2011 at 7:02 am #

    She’s such a soft kitty, it’s hard to think that she can get so ill. I didn’t realise that you had to take her to specialists to get her diagnosed – that’s scary. I really hope my vet would be inclined to refer us to a specialist or someone with more experience if Kieter gets ill and they don’t know what causes it. Got to love a vet who cares.

    Crossing fingers and holding thumbs that it doesn’t flare up again this year.

    • June 10, 2011 at 8:05 am #

      Poor Lucy was very skinny and her coat wasn’t as shiny or soft. A clear sign that she was undernourished.

      Yes, our local vets are great! And not above admitting when they don’t know what is wrong. If your local vet doesn’t take the initiative of referring you to a veterinary specialist, I’d ask him to.

  11. June 9, 2011 at 11:47 am #

    Oh, the angst these animals put us through! Poor, poor Lucy and poor, poor you. But what a lucky cat to have you as her person, one who would not give up, and finally found a good vet for her. Well done, and good luck for the future.

    • June 10, 2011 at 8:06 am #

      By the time this little scrap of a cat got sick, she’d really won us over. She’s got a lot of personality! 🙂 Thanks for the good wishes!

  12. June 23, 2011 at 7:06 am #

    Poor little Lucy! I had absolutely no idea cats could have IBD. She’s lucky to have ended up with a loving family who took the time to find the right dx.

    • June 23, 2011 at 8:20 am #

      Dogs get IBD too, by the way. Lucy is such a sweet little cat that we couldn’t not try and help her. Since that bad period, she’s bonded with us even more.

  13. July 2, 2011 at 6:51 pm #

    Lucky Lucy to have a family that will keep looking into a problem to find a solution.

    • July 2, 2011 at 7:12 pm #

      It was worth it – Lucy is a really sweet cat and has given us much joy and amusement in the years since she first got sick.

      Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment! 🙂

  14. July 1, 2012 at 6:07 am #

    I hope she is OK. I am currently dealing with an anorexic cat and it breaks my heart. He is having liver and diabetes problems and it is so sad but we are working on it!!

    • July 1, 2012 at 10:27 am #

      Hi Angie,

      Thanks for reading my post and leaving a comment! 🙂 You’re exactly the kind of person I wrote the post for.

      It is heartbreaking and nerve-wracking to have a cat who can’t maintain a healthy weight. What do the vets think is causing your cat’s anorexia? Is your cat on a special diet?

      Lucy is doing fine at the moment – weighs the most she has in years and is eating well. But her IBD usually flairs up towards September/October (which is the end of winter here in Southern Africa), so I’ll have to start watching her more carefully again then. I have to weigh Lucy regularly – although I can see immediately when she’s getting thinner again.

  15. February 1, 2015 at 10:19 pm #

    Dear Lisa,
    First, let me thank you for putting this post on the Internet; yours was the first of many articles and blogs I read when my cat Basti literally traveled the same path: the first 18 months she was very active and ate, and then she stopped eating. Before her 2nd year, she was diagnosed with IBD and we too noticed that there were seemed to be certain things she couldn’t or wouldn’t eat, especially when winter came around. She has gotten so many meds, I can almost start my own pharmacy! She got Prednisone, proton pomp inhibitors, anti-nausea meds…
    Then I read something about vitamin B12. Last summer I asked my vet about it and she agreed to give it a try. Even though it’s not officially allowed in the Netherlands, my vet even allowed me to do the injections myself at home so I don’t have to go to the vet every three weeks. It has turned out to be almost a miracle: she now eats summer and winter, doesn’t jo-jo in her weight and with a very small amount of Prednisone every 5 days or so, she seems like an almost normal cat. She even eats several things he wouldn’t eat before we gave her the B12. I thought I’d let you know…perhaps giving her B12 shots might help Lucy as well..good luck with her, she a very beautiful cat.
    the Netherlands

    • February 2, 2015 at 7:11 am #

      Hi Petra!

      Thank you for your very interesting comment. I think it’s important for people to share their stories about what works for their IBD cats. What I find particularly interesting is that your cat also got sick around the 2 year mark (I was initially told only older cats get IBD) and that it flares up in winter (which made our vets initially consider a thyroid problem). We definitely see a decline in Lucy’s health during winter when her immunity is low.

      Lucy’s IBD is pretty much under control most of the year i.e. she only gets prednisone when the IBD flares up and our vet does give her B12 shots during that period.

      Our current issue with Lucy (it’s summer here in South Africa) is “kitty acne”. She’s been through an extended period of antibiotics and it still is not under control. Any tips would be welcome.

      Thanks for visiting my blog! 🙂


      • Petra
        February 11, 2015 at 11:06 am #

        Hi Lisa,
        I agree completely with all you’re saying. As far as age, it wasn’t until we did the laparoscopy that the vets were even willing to consider IBD because she was so young. But I’ve read so many stories now that I think there’s a different explanation. It’s not that cats don’t get IBD at a young age, it’s that IBD initially mimicks so many other diseases that it gets diagnosed at a much later age. Vets do not always comply with the hunches of owners and the diagnosis often takes long and is expensive. If the cat’s symptoms are mild (just diarrhea for example) I’ve read of people who accept that for years. And finally, cats are lousy when it comes to showing they’re sick. I think we’re ‘lucky’: Basti and Lucy’s symptoms were clear and serious, we are persistent people and we both had vets who were willing to listen and cooperate.
        As far as the feline acne, I’m so sorry! In my humble opinion, if the antibiotics don’t work, stop giving it to her because then it’s clearly not bacterial. Besides the obvious things like allergies to plastic feeding bowls, I’ve read that hormones or corticosteroids work much better if the problem is immune system related. The latter not being so farfetched considering she’s got IBD.
        Please forgive me if I sound snooty..I don’t know exactly what you’ve tried and I’m not a vet obviously but I know how frustrating an ill cat can be and would love to help. Thanks for posting on my blog and sorry for the long reply!

      • February 18, 2015 at 10:30 am #

        Hi Petra,

        No, I don’t think you sound snooty at all. I really value having somebody to “talk” to about this. I agree with a lot of what you’ve figured out over the years.

        Our vets certainly learnt through our experience with Lucy. Some of their other problem cases (which include several dogs) have now been diagnosed with IBD.

        About the feline acne: Well, the antibiotics did help to clear up the associated infection each time, but then she kept getting it again. I recently changed all her bowls to porcelain ones and that seems to be helping. I’m convinced that a lot of the infections and health problems Lucy has had over the years are due to her immune system being compromised.

        I’d like to keep in touch with you.

        Take care of your kitty!


  16. February 18, 2015 at 1:34 pm #

    Hi Lisa,

    Yes, I came to the same conclusion..I’d like to keep in touch with you as well. Besides being in the same boat, we seem to be kindred spirits as well :-). If you like, send me a regular email and we can continue the conversation. Don’t get me wrong, the blog is great but it means keeping the conversations relatively short. And I would love to swap more information. I suspect that Lucy is a little older than Basti so you may have already bumped into problems I’m still to encounter.

    Happy to hear that switching to porcelain helped. Hopefully, she’s stop having acne!

    Thanks for all the kind words!

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