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Just Like Humans, Cats Can Develop Eating Disorders

These tips will help cats whose eating habits have been affected by factors such as stress or anxiety.

 |  Nov 7th 2013  |   42 Contributions


People are not the only ones who can be afflicted with eating disorders -- other animals, including cats, can be too. Behavior such as overeating, not eating enough, and chewing and swallowing non-food items are examples of eating disorders that can affect cats. And, there are those kitties who, as soon as food is within viewing distance, act as if they will never have the chance to eat again. They inhale as much food in as short of a time span as possible.

As a cat owner, you should take eating disorders seriously. They can cause health problems and shorten cat lives. Obesity often leads to heart problems, diabetes, and arthritis as well as other health issues. Hepatic Lipidosis (fatty liver disease) is another potentially fatal disease that can develop when obese cats drop weight quickly and when cats stop eating. Kitties who ingest non-food items, such as fabric, can end up with dangerous intestinal blockages.

Although medical issues can cause eating disorders, so can emotional turmoil. A study recently conducted by the Western University of Health Sciences in California and written up in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior finds that cats and dogs with eating disorders often are emotional eaters. Stress, anxieties, boredom, and depression are a few factors that can lead to eating issues. Sometimes a cat’s history can be at the root of the problem as well. Daniele, one of our Catster readers, recently adopted Bikini, a stray cat who has an eating disorder.

Meet Bikini, a cat with an eating disorder. Photo by Daniele

Bikini’s story

Bikini is a survivor. She lived in the woods, scraping by on whatever she could scrounge or catch. A month before Daniele adopted her, she was found by a co-worker. Although she spent time petting and socializing with Bikini, the co-worker left the little cat in the woods and never fed her. Someone at work told her that the cat would stop hunting if she was fed. Thankfully, Daniele came to the rescue. Bikini became the fourth member of her three-cat household.

Daniele noticed Bikini’s food obsession immediately. She ate everything in sight, inhaling all food within grabbing distance. Her appetite was not limited to cat food. She chewed through and ate a bag of granola and then started on the fiber cookies. She would ravenously eat large amounts of food and then throw up. Within a couple of months, Bikini had gained four pounds.

Daniele did everything right. She took her new little companion to the vet for a checkup, and Bikini was given a healthy report card. The kitty was then gradually introduced to the other feline-household members.

Bikini ate as if every meal were her last. That is the reality of living in the woods. In order to survive, Bikini had to scarf down everything that resembled food -- she never knew when an opportunity for a meal would present itself again. Although the behavior worked perfectly in the woods and kept her alive, it does not work in her new home where she does not have to scrounge and hunt for every morsel of food.

Cats with eating disorders often eat too much too fast. Fat cat with an empty food bowl by Shutterstock

From the woods into the lap of luxury

Bikini has to adjust to a whole new lifestyle. Survival eating works in the woods, but not in a home where food is always available. In order for Bikini to live a healthy, long life, her eating habits have to change. Daniele can help Bikini through four steps.

1. Slow it down!

The old habit of inhaling food has to end. Instead of putting Bikini’s meals into bowls, Daniele needs to find creative ways to feed her. Puzzle feeders are perfect for this. Daniele can purchase or make them. A couple of my favorites include the Nina Ottosson Tornado and puzzle boxes. The Stimulo, another puzzle-type feeder, works well for canned food. Daniele can be creative and make her own. It is easy! She can convert muffin and cupcake pans into puzzle feeders by putting small amounts of food into each cup. Bought or handmade, puzzle feeders will force Bikini to take her time and eat slower.

The author's cat Maulee is searching for treats

2. Lunch is served -- again and again

Daniele needs to adjust Bikini’s feeding schedule. Instead of free feeding or feeding her only a couple of times a day, she should divide the cat’s food into smaller portions and feed her six to seven meals a day. Keeping to a schedule is important. A schedule will help the little one adjust to having regular meals every day. She will soon realize that she does not have to be on high alert for food. Timed auto feeders for canned and dry food work well. Daniele can time them to deliver food on a set schedule.

3. Work for vittles

Bikini is used to working for her meals. Although she no longer has to hunt for every morsel of nourishment, she still needs to exercise the little predator inside her. Daniele should set aside a portion of her meals for treasure hunts and treat rolls. Treasure hunts are fun! Small amounts of dry cat food or treats are placed on cat trees, on shelves, in puzzle toys, and in other creative places. Bikini will have to hunt and search for the food. Treat rolls are effective too. Treats or regular cat food are rolled on the floor or down stairs for Bikini to chase and catch.

Asia, the author's cat, is in the middle of a treasure hunt

4. Alone time

Although the four cats are coexisting without major issues, until Bikini’s behavior changes, she needs to be fed in a separate room -- with the door closed. Otherwise, meals will morph into feeding frenzies for Bikini and a lack of food for the other three. Out of habit, the little voracious eater will inhale her food and then chow down on the other cat’s meals.

One cat eats, the other does not. Two kittens at a food bowl by Shutterstock

Bikini’s world has changed for the better. If Daniele had not rescued her, most likely she would not have survived the winter. Thank you Daniele for saving this little one's life.

Follow Marilyn, The Cat Coach on Facebook!

Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior issues through force free methods that include clicker training, environmental changes and other behavior modification techniques. Marilyn is big on education -- she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.

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