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Ever Heard of "Affection Eating"? Understanding It Could Save Your Cat's Life

If your cat isn't eating, it may not be as simple as dubbing her "picky." Here are five tips for navigating the complicated relationship between cats and food.

 |  Mar 25th 2013  |   6 Contributions


Did you know that the way to a cat's stomach is through her heart? Understanding "affection eating" –- also known as  "attention eating" -- can help you bond with your cat. It can even save her life.

A few years ago, my cat, Luna, started having trouble breathing. I took her to a specialist, who put her under anesthesia, and inserted a tube down her throat to examine her lungs. While she was asleep, the vet also pulled two decaying canine teeth. The doctor assured me she’d recover -- and told me I needed to get her eating again as soon as possible.

The better you feed your cat, the better chance she will have a healthy, long life. Cat at dinner table by Shutterstock

I put wet food in her usual spot. She walked away from it. I stuck the dish in her hiding place under the living room. She ignored it. Finally I put the dish next to my bed. I shut Luna in and the other cats out. She ran under the bed and I went to sleep.

When I woke up in the morning, my sweet girl was an arm’s length away, eating as usual. The crisis had passed! Without knowing it, I’d stumbled onto the powerful connection cats make between love and food.

Here are some facts on cats and eating, along with some tips on getting a cat to eat:

1. Cats are not dogs: DO pet while eating

If you grew up around dogs you were probably told, “Don’t bother the dog while he’s eating!” Many dogs guard their food jealously, so this is good general advice for canines. The advice does not extend to cats. Unlike dogs, many cats enjoy being stroked or petted while they eat. Understanding that can help cat owners and shelter volunteers care for a feline friend.

Shy or frightened cats may let you approach them at mealtimes. Cat and bowl by Shutterstock

2. Make friends over a nosh

Dilara Perry is a founder of Feline Minds, a San Francisco Bay Area cat behavior consulting service. She says that mealtime represents an opportunity to build a relationship with a “difficult” cat. A shy cat may allow you to approach while she’s eating. If a cat tends to get overstimulated –- for example, if he bites or scratches when you pet him –- you might be able to desensitize him to touch by incrementally increasing petting time while he eats.

3. Why cats stop eating

Cats can be finicky. Sometimes they will suddenly reject food they would eat previously. However, if the cat won’t eat anything you offer for more than 24 hours, something other than being picky is probably going on. She may have a serious medical condition that causes a loss of appetite. She might have a non-urgent medical condition, such as a toothache, that makes eating painful.

Try different flavors and varieties if your cat doesn't seem hungry. Gray cat eating from can by Shutterstock

A cat who is on medication or who has been recently vaccinated may be having a reaction to the medication. Or the cat may be suffering some kind of psychological stress: Cats may stop eating during boarding, after a household move, or after being placed in a shelter or new family.

4. Quick response is essential

It’s important to get a cat who won’t eat to the veterinarian to diagnose the problem and get the cat eating again. In the absence of food, the cat’s liver begins to break down stored fat for fuel. A cat’s liver is not designed to process large quantities of fat. Once the amount of fat traveling to the liver exceeds the liver’s capacity to process it, the fat gets stored in the liver cells, leading to a condition known as feline hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease.

Some cats are so scared that you may want to try hand-feeding them. Woman giving treat to cat by Shutterstock

Symptoms include frequent vomiting, jaundice, and severe weight loss. Untreated, the disease can lead to death from malnutrition, liver failure, or other organ failure. If the cat cannot be coaxed to eat, veterinarians may insert a feeding tube, an intervention that is painful for the cat.

5. “Emotional eating” can be a lifesaver

Getting a cat to eat can take commitment. Kathleen McGarr is a longtime volunteer at the San Francisco SPCA and ACC. She specializes in working with cats with behavior problems. She says, “Imagine a nine-year-old cat who has lived her entire life with the same person suddenly finding herself in a strange environment. She’s bombarded with the smells and sounds of other animals, confined to a small space, must endure loud noises like the slamming of metal cage doors, and experiences a flow of unknown people.”

When a cat stops eating in that situation, she advises people caring for the cat to build trust through consistent interaction, taking cues from the cat’s responses. Force-feeding can backfire; the cat may come to associate food with the uncomfortable handling.

Tempt your cat with delicious morsels. Cat with sushi by Shutterstock

McGarr remembers one cat who stopped eating after being separated from her litter. While visiting the cat, she explains, “I took one piece of kibble from her dish and dropped it on the floor to get her interested in checking it out. After some staring and sniffing, she ate it. I did it again. I got her to eat 32 pieces and that was a triumph.”

Things to remember about cats and food:

  • If your cat doesn’t eat her meal, try a different kind of food, and then offer affection while she is eating.
  • If your cat needs to lose weight, get guidance from your veterinarian. Overweight cats are at increased risk for fatty liver disease; drastic calorie restriction is dangerous. 
  • If you leave your cat in the care of a sitter, have the sitter monitor whether the cat consumes normal meals. 
  • If your cat is shy or resists handling, try giving her affection while she eats. Go slowly; add no more than a minute or two each time.
  • Consult a veterinarian if your cat does not eat for more than 24 hours.

Read more on cats and eating:

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