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How To Nurse A Starving Cat Back To Being Healthy

Nicole Cosgrove

Things always happen when you least expect them to and finding a stray cat in need is no different. We have all been there, running out the door with groceries, kids, and a million things to do, and right in front of us is a lost little one with all the signs that they need help.

Providing care to a struggling animal is a wonderful way to bring joy to your new friend as well as yourself. This article is useful if you have a hungry cat in front of you that needs some TLC. Maybe you run a shelter, perhaps you visited a shelter and took home a neglected kitty, you’ve found a stray kitty, or know someone who has. Either way, this article addresses all those hungry cats that may need your help to regain their strength. Cats have become domesticated with humans, and even though they are expert hunters, if they live in an urban area, food may be scarce so starving cats can be a common sight.

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1. The first steps to take when you find a stray cat

Stray cat in an alley
Image Credit: ACS-Aleister, Pixabay

We’ll get into the details down below, but first, here are some key steps to get your kitty feeling safe right off the bat. If you’ve got a frightened stray cat in your arms and don’t know what to do, read on!

  • Wherever you have found the cat, bring them to a safe place, that may be a car or nearby building. They may try to run away out of fear, so be prepared.
  • Put a blanket/jumper/towel or something similar around them as they are likely to be scared, cold, panicked, or maybe all those things combined (avoid this if you are in a hot climate). If they are injured, unable to walk, or very weak, call a vet ASAP.
  • Begin soothing your new friend, either out loud or in whatever communication you feel is best, assuring them that they are safe now and that everything will be alright. This may be through soft strokes or whispers, in order to help them understand that you are not a predator. It’s a universal language to hear that you are loved, and it will go a long way to nursing them back to health.
  • Get them fresh water as soon as you can. If you must, use a syringe (which may be necessary if it’s a kitten) and let them take as much or as little as they need. Water is essential and takes priority over food in the beginning.
  • Once they have calmed down a bit, and you’ve had a chance to assess their age, you can figure out what nourishment is best to offer them. If you see that the cat is at least a few months old, you can offer a bit of cooked chicken, turkey, or fish and make it into a broth. If that’s not available, go to the pet store and get some high-quality, high-protein wet food, preferably as natural as possible. If you have found a very small kitten, you’ll need to buy milk replacement kitten formula at the store.
  • Slowly offer the lost feline small portions of food in frequent intervals. Note: Do not let them eat as much as they want, as this can cause refeeding syndrome, described in detail below.
  • By this point, you may have already got your cellphone out to call your vet, but if you have not, now is probably a good time. A checkup is required as you don’t know anything about this creature, and they may have serious medical conditions.
  • Well done! You may have just saved a life.

2. Assess the cat’s condition

Woman checking out a stray cat
Image Credit: sandryriveraa, Pixabay

Shelter medicine is a huge field and there is constantly new research coming out about how to deal with rescue animals. There are many factors to take into consideration when treating a stray cat, so correct treatment is highly specific. The primary diagnosis, of course, should be made by a vet. But if you are the one who found the kitty, you will have to do a rough assessment to ensure their survival. The first question to ask is: “Is this cat malnourished or completely emaciated?” and you will normally be able to figure this out just by looking at them.

Body Condition Guide for Cats is a great guide that can show you what to expect in a healthy cat and offer a better idea of how thin your cat actually is. Obviously, as stated in the emergency steps, if the kitty is completely lethargic, unable to move, and/or skin and bones, call an emergency vet as soon as you can.  Any cat that is slightly better than this still probably falls into the emaciated category, which requires possibly round-the-clock care and monitoring. A malnourished cat is usually in a little better state and can start having a high-calorie intake perhaps immediately. Cats will know what they need, and if your kitty has a good appetite when food is presented, then hopefully their tummy isn’t too unwell from hunger. Lack of appetite indicates some underlying issues and force-feeding is absolutely not an option. IV fluids with veterinary care may be the only option until their strength is built up.


3. Rehydrate

Domestic cat drinking water
Image Credit: AleksandarMilutinovic, Shutterstock

Before you give the cat any food, provide fresh clean water. If they won’t take it, try a syringe to get the fluids into their mouth. Otherwise, it’s time to see the vet, as hydration is crucial to their survival. There are clear signs of dehydration, such as loose skin, and it can almost be assumed that if your cat is malnourished, they are dehydrated as well. Electrolytes should be included in the syringe in extreme cases. Cat solutions are available at the pet supply store. If you cannot get these quickly, use human rehydration sachets as they will work just the same.


4. Slowly and gently provide nourishment to your new friend

cat eating outdoors
Image Credit: Capri23auto, Pixabay

The two distinct categories of emaciated and malnourished cats require slightly different care, however, if you are slow in offering high-fat and high-protein meals with almost no carbohydrates, your new friend should improve. You may think that you should squeeze in as much food as possible into these poor creatures, but this should be avoided due to refeeding syndrome. Refeeding syndrome is a condition where metabolic imbalances occur due to starvation. For starving, unwell cats, cooked wet food made from fish, turkey, or chicken must be their staple for at least a week. The ideal is to make a fish or poultry broth and serve it about 4-6 mini-meals a day. Then, slowly, some canned wet food can be introduced, but only if it’s completely natural and preferably cooked with raw foods being added bit by bit.  Some canned fish such as tuna or sardines may be given in small doses as these are high-calorie and nutritious. Progress is cat-specific, but once you get the green light from your vet, then you can introduce some dry food.

Malnourished cats are still in danger from refeeding syndrome, so again, little by little is the protocol. Any wet food will offer nourishment to their sensitive bellies but cooked meats and broths are preferred.


5. Give vitamin supplements

Veterinarian-gives-a-pill-to-a-cat_Piskova-Photo_shutterstock
Credit: Piskova Photo, Shutterstock

After a few days of stable eating, introducing a full spectrum of essential vitamins and minerals is a good idea. Building up the cat’s store of healthy fats and amino acids may take time and supplements will speed this up. Brewer’s yeast is a wonderful addition as are omega oils such as cod liver oil for those cats that didn’t have proper nourishment for a prolonged period.


6. Long-term food plan and care

sphynx cat eating_borisenkoket_Shutterstock
Image Credit: borisenkoket, Shutterstock

It may take your new friend quite a long time to recover from the trauma of being neglected/without proper nourishment and you will get a sense when they are coming around. Usually, when you rescue a cat, each week as they become more comfortable, new aspects of their personality appear. This is very beautiful to witness, and the little and often feeding will support this substantially. Eventually, you can reduce the food to normal levels and stop the vitamins.  When the time is right and the cat has reached an appropriate weight, be sure to wean them off of a high-calorie diet so they stay healthy.


Featured Image Credit: Krakenimages, Shutterstock

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.