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Changes in Cats’ Eating Habits Could Signal Problems

Cats who don't eat, eat too quickly, or guard food may have emotional, mental, or medical trouble.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Sep 23rd 2016


Your cat’s behavior around food can tell you a lot about her physical, emotional and psychological health. Cats are subtle; it’s usually hard to tell when they’re feeling under the weather or anxious. Sometimes the only indicator of a serious problem is how they approach their food. Cats who stop eating or reduce their intake may be sick, in pain, grieving, stressed, or depressed. Kitties who guard their food, become aggressive, or eat too fast might have medical problems or may be stressed and insecure.

Cats are subtle, it’s hard to tell when they aren’t feeling well

Cats are subtle, it’s hard to tell when they aren’t feeling well. Photo by Shutterstock

Although there are many situations that will cause kitties to change their eating habits, here are four common ones:

Medical problems

Know thy kitty! Refusing to eat can be one of many symptoms that she has a medical problem such as painful dental disease, stomach issues, parasites, or cancer. When cats stop eating, it’s time to pay attention and seek help from a veterinarian. It is also not unusual for cats who are newly vaccinated to be off their food for a day. Don’t let your kitty go without eating for more than 24 hours. After a couple of days without eating, they can develop a serious and potentially fatal liver disease called feline hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease).

Cats need to be examined by a veterinarian if they stop eating.

Cats need to be examined by a veterinarian if they stop eating. Photo by Shutterstock

Resource challenges

Some cat lovers aren’t aware of how the placement of food bowls can affect eating habits. Although kitties are social and generally do well hanging out together, they are solitary hunters. Typically, mature cats prefer to dine alone.

In multicat households, not enough food bowls and their being placed too close to each other can stress cats, often leading to intercat squabbles, resource guarding, and sometimes not eating. Kitties who seem to inhale their food may be doing so in order to keep the other cats from eating it. You may have heard cats growling and vocalizing while they’re munching. These little ones are proclaiming to the other residents that there’s no negotiating — they better keep their distance. Either the dishes are too close to each other or there aren’t enough of them.

Each cat in the household needs her own feeding station. Even if your cats are best buds and have no problems eating in the same room, put distance between the dishes, placing them on opposite sides of the space or in different rooms. Kitties who have relationship issues need to eat in separate rooms. Depending on their rapport or lack thereof, you may have to close the doors during meals.

Each cat needs her own feeding station that are placed in separate locations.

Each cat needs her own feeding station in a separate location from others. Photo by Shutterstock

Survival eating

Strays, ferals, and other kitties with a history of scraping by on whatever they scrounged or caught often eat as if every meal may be their last. They are survival eating—gulping every morsel down as quickly as possible. You can help these little ones have a more relaxed approach to food by changing how you feed them while encouraging them to feel safe and secure.

In multipet households, it matters where these food-crazed kitties are fed. They need to eat alone where they can feel safe, without worrying about others competing for their meals. Rooms with doors are perfect solutions.

Cats with food obsessions shouldn’t be free-fed, nor should they be fed only a couple of times a day. Instead, following the recommended daily food allowances, give them six or more meals throughout the day on a schedule — feed them small portions of good quality food every few hours. Even with busy schedules that take you away from your kitties, you can feed them multiple times throughout the day. There are timed automatic feeders available that have ice packs that keep the food fresh.

The way the food is delivered can also keep cats from inhaling their meals. Slow their consumption down by putting food and treats into puzzle feeders such as the Nina Ottoson Tornado or the Stimulo Interactive Feeder for canned food. If you don’t want to buy a puzzle feeder, use muffin or cupcake tins and put small amounts of food in each cup.

Encourage them to work for their food with treasure hunts. Place treats and other healthy cat food around the room, on cat trees, in toys, on shelves, in boxes, and other creative places.

Puzzle feeders can slow down feeding frenzies.

Puzzle feeders can slow down and stop feeding frenzies. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

Grief, depression, and stress

It’s heartbreaking to see a kitty grieve and become depressed. Cats can grieve over the loss of favorite people, cats, dogs, and other animals they were closely bonded to. Some will deeply grieve to the point of not eating after the loss. Stressful situations such as household changes, remodeling, family conflicts, and being rehomed can also cause cats to stop eating.

Take it seriously. If your cat doesn’t eat for 24 hours, have your veterinarian check her out. The vet may give her an appetite stimulant. Meantime, here are some measures you can take that may jump start her appetite. Start by offering her fresh foods that have a strong smell, such as tuna, other appealing fish, or a one-protein baby food that doesn’t contain garlic or other spices. Warming the food will also increase the smell, making it a little more palatable. Some kitties will start eating when they can lick the food off of a finger, others will snack when their food bowls are moved to where they are hanging out. Treats that the cat normally adores or a new flavor of cat food may also do the trick.

Simultaneously, keep things status quo. Cats don’t do well with change, so keep a consistent schedule, doing activities she normally enjoys at the same times every day. If she likes to be brushed, then groom her every day at the same times. Meals should also be served on a schedule, and make room in your busy schedule for quality cuddle times (if she’s a cuddler). Clicker training can also help cats get through their grief.

Letting a cat lick the food off your finger can jump start her appetite. Photo by Shutterstock

Letting a cat lick the food off your finger can jump start her appetite. Photo by Shutterstock

It is important to monitor your cat’s eating habits and be alert to any changes — they may indicate she has a medical issue or emotional angst, or that she is stressed.

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Do you have 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, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site and Skype consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques. 

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods.  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.