Why Cats Lick Their Food But Don’t Eat

It’s pretty common for cats to lick their food without eating it, especially with regards to wet food.

This behavior is usually harmless and may indicate a lack of appetite, or that your cat dislikes the meal you’ve presented to him.

Reasons Why Your Cat is Licking Food and Not Eating

While not generally a cause for concern, if your cat is licking the gravy or jelly and rejecting the food, there may be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

Here’s more information about most of the potential reasons why cats lick food but don’t eat.

Potential Reasons

  • Not Hungry
  • Fussy Eater
  • Dirty Food Bowl
  • Food is Too Cold
  • Dehydration
  • Unsuitable Feeding Location
  • Unsuitable Food Bowl Shape
  • Dental Problems

Not Hungry

The most obvious reason why a cat licks food without eating is that he’s simply not hungry.

Although the food may be of great appeal, if he’s been fed treats or is getting his chow from another source, chances are he’ll turn his nose up at his dinner.

Unlike dogs, cats don’t tend to eat to the point of nausea or vomiting. When they’re full up, they stop.

Try to ensure that your pet gets no more than two meals a day around twelve hours apart. This should be more than sufficient nourishment.

It’s worth bearing in mind that there are all kinds of reasons why you cat may lack appetite, some of which are not the result of being fully nourished.

These include stress, stomach upset, a recent vaccination or a change in diet.

If you’re concerned that your cat’s indifference to his food may be because any of the issues mentioned above, consult your vet.

Fussy Eater

Just like us, our feline friends develop gastronomic preferences.

As an owner, you’re going to get a good idea of what your cat likes and dislikes over time.

You may find that if you deviate from his preferred dishes, he may start rejecting his food.

But given that your cat is actually licking the gravy/jelly while leaving the rest of the meal, his dissatisfaction probably isn’t because of the flavour.

It may be more to do with actual texture and/or size of the meat chunks.

So if you’ve made any recent changes, consider moving back to his favourite food.

Remember to establish a feeding routine as well. Free or inconsistent feeding can result in food rejection.

Dirty Food Bowl

Some cats take exception to being served food on dirty plates and turn down their meal as a result.

The odour from a previous meal might be offensive or confusing to your cat.

Therefore, be sure to clean the feeding dishes at least once a day.

Food Is Too Cold

Wet food tends to lose its aroma if left in the fridge for too long. Felines don’t usually eat what they can’t smell, so you may find that your cat refuses his dinner.

To get around this, try warming his chilled food in a microwave for a couple of seconds. You’ll only need to get it up to room temperature.

With any luck, this will tempt your cat to indulge in his dinner.


Cats sometimes lick their food when they’re dehydrated. If they’ve no water or their water bowl has become contaminated, they may lick their wet food to get the fluids they need.

The obvious solution here is to ensure that your cat’s water bowl is fully replenished, clean, accessible and free of contaminates.

Unsuitable Feeding Location

As covered in our post about food and water bowl placement for cats, choosing the right feeding location for your cat is vital.

You should select a permanent, low-traffic location in your house that allows your cat to eat peacefully and without interruption.

Busy and loud environments are going to put your cat on edge, potentially causing him to reject or leave his food uneaten.

Keep in mind that an anxious cat with one eye on his escape route is going to be thinking more about fleeing than feeding.

Food dishes should also be kept well away from litter trays as well as water bowls.

In the wild, cats learn to eat, drink and defecate in separate areas, presumably to confuse predators.

Unsuitable Food Bowl Shape

Cats really don’t like their whiskers touching the sides of their water or food bowls.

After all, whiskers are highly sensitive antennae that allow felines to interpret and navigate their world.

Unfortunately though, it’s not possible for cats to turn these antennae off.

Stimuli continue to be transmitted from all manner of objects, among them feeding bowls.

Bowls or dishes that are too high or narrow might therefore come into contact with your cat’s whiskers and cause over-stimulation.

This can result in whisker fatigue which in turn may result in your cat licking and then rejecting his food.

The best solution is to choose a flat, wide feeding bowl that allows your cat plenty of room to eat.

Dental Problems

Mouth pain brought about by issues such as periodontitis or gingivitis may cause felines to reject their food due to the pain of chewing.

As an alternative, the cat may lick his food instead in an effort to get some sort of nourishment.

What to Do If Your Cat Only Licks His Food

First of all, consider the type of food you’re giving him. Is it a new product or brand? If so, consider reinstating the previous food.

Remember that your cat may prefer a certain texture of food, be it shredded meats or meat chunks. Your cat may also prefer jelly over gravy or vice versa.

Also ensure that his dish is clean before adding fresh food. Food that’s been stored in the fridge should also be heated up to room temperature.

Then check that the water bowl is clean and fully replenished. The actual licking may be caused by dehydration.

Your next option is to change his feeding location. This is kind of a last resort though.

Changing bowl locations can be stressful for cats and should only be performed if you’re absolutely sure that the feeding environment is not quite right.

Once you’ve made some or all of these changes, observe your cat’s feeding habits carefully.

Should the behaviour continue for more than 48 hours it may indicate an underlying health problem. So you’ll need to contact your vet for professional guidance.

Recommended Steps

  • Change to New or Previous Cat Food Brand
  • Ensure Food Dish is Clean
  • Warm Fridge-Stored Food to Room Temperature
  • Ensure Water Bowl is Accessible, Clean and Full
  • Change Feeding Location
  • Change Feeding Bowl
  • Consult Vet

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