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What Some Call “Finicky Eating” Could Be a Cat Behavioral Issue

Here are tips for making food times and locations more interesting and less intimidating for your cat.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Dec 16th 2016


Cats are frequently labeled “finicky eaters” when they refuse to eat or they tentatively sample the cuisine and turn tail and leave. Cat lovers will go to great lengths to encourage their little ones to eat — buying every flavor of cat food on the market, offering home cooked meals and hand feeding in their efforts to jump-start lost appetites. People do need to be concerned — loss of appetite can be serious. It can lead to a potentially fatal liver disease called hepatic lipidosis.

Cats who are off their chow for more than a few meals need to be checked out by a veterinarian. Although they occasionally will skip meals, be concerned when a kitty refuses to eat for 24 hours. There may be a serious medical problem that needs immediate attention.

Cat refusing to eat. Photo by Shutterstock

Cat refusing to eat. Photo by Shutterstock

There are other factors that can cause cats to boycott meals. Only after the vet has given the cat a clean bill of health, explore other reasons for the problem. Start by understanding cats’ natural and instinctual eating behaviors, and design meals timed around them.

Cats need to be examined by a veterinarian when they stop eating

Only after the cat has been examined by a veterinarian should you explore other reasons for not eating. Photo by Shutterstock

Increase the number of meals each day

A high number of cat owners feed their kitties only twice a day — morning and evening. Free-feeding dry food is also commonplace. Feline digestive systems aren’t designed to take in 50 percent of their food rations twice a day. Cats also don’t graze. They’ve evolved to take in small amounts of food at each repast — consuming multiple meals throughout the day, fasting in between.

Ailurophiles who daily spend hours away from their feline companions assume that two meals a day and free feeding are the only options they have. There are alternatives — cats can be fed multiple meals a day, with or without the help of their owners. Automatic timed feeders can be programmed to dispense food at specific times. Instead of 50 percent of the food being fed twice a day, program the feeders to serve 25 percent of the food four times a day or to distribute 20 percent at a time over five meals. At least one feeder has a recording feature, allowing you to record your calling the cat. Immediately before the food is served, it plays the recording. Many of these feeders have ice packs — perfect for wet food.

Automatic timed feeders can be programmed to dispense food at specific times. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

Automatic timed feeders can be programmed to dispense food at specific times. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

Feed in different places

Cat behavior is fascinating — these natural, instinctual feeding behaviors help the individual survive. Even the smallest detail such as where kitties eat makes a difference. Although they have favorite hunting areas, wild and feral cats won’t munch down repeatedly in the same place — doing so is an invitation to other predators who view them as dinner and for those intent on separating them from fresh catches. Eating in different spots reduces the risk of being found by hungry rivals and predators. Household kitty or wild cat, these instincts are strong.

If feeding areas don’t feel safe, our resident cats may opt to forego meals. There are many reasons why they sometimes feel insecure where their meals are served. These include: too many people and cats in the area, conflicts with other resident pets, recent animal additions, remodeling and household upsets.

Your cat needs to feel safe while she eats. If she’s off her vittles, mix it up, feed her in novel places such as on high shelves, cat trees, inside favorite boxes, on counters and in other rooms. Sometimes small changes, such as feeding her on a nearby stool or shelf, is all the encouragement she needs. Entice her to the new spots by letting her smell the food and leading her with it to the alternative dining area. Choose locations that are quiet — without activity and noise, and where other animals don’t hang out.

Feed cats in different locations. Photo by Shutterstock

Feed cats in different locations. Photo by Shutterstock

Your cat may need to eat alone

Sometimes well-meaning cat parents negatively impact eating habits by how and where they feed their cats. In multiple-cat households, they often place the food bowls next to each other, and sometimes the kitties are expected to share a communal bowl. Also, concerned cat owners may hover over their kitties, monitoring their eating habits.

Felines have a different relationship with food then people do. Humans share meals with each other. Eating is sometimes a social event — a way to connect with old friends and make new ones. It’s different for cats. Eating is purely functional. They hunt and eat alone. Adult kitties don’t willingly share their meals with other adults. Although cats are social, eating is a survival activity, not a social one. It’s stressful for felines to eat right next to each other, and they prefer noshing without an overseer.

Each cat in your household needs her own food bowl. Bowls should not be placed next to each other; instead put distance between them. Some kitties may eat only when they are fed in separate rooms. Additionally, don’t hover — cats, even those who are closely bonded with their people, may prefer to eat alone.

Cats don’t want to share their food—each cat needs her own food bowl. Photo by Shutterstock

Cats don’t want to share food — each cat needs her own food bowl. Photo by Shutterstock

Make meals challenging

It’s easy to forget that the sweet little ball of fur who you cuddle with is a highly skilled hunter. Although she doesn’t have to hunt for a living, she still has the same predatory instincts as her wild cousins. It isn’t natural for her entrées to be within easy reach whenever the mood hits her for a nosh. Meal times become boring — some cats overeat, others take a nibble or two and walk away.

Make mealtimes exciting and a little challenging — encourage your little hunter to work for a portion of her food. Stash food in puzzle feeders, ball-and-track toys, puzzle boxes, on perches, cat trees and in tunnels. Be creative. Play with her, using a pole toy, in a way that imitates the hunt. After the final catch, give her a sumptuous meal.

Although our household cats don’t have to hunt to survive, they still are predators. Photo by Shutterstock

Although our household cats don’t have to hunt to survive, they still are predators. Photo by Shutterstock

Entice them to eat with smell

Cats have a highly developed sense of smell. Often kitties who refuse food can be convinced to chow down by making the entrées more appealing with smell.

Encourage your reluctant cat to eat by mixing a little warm meat broth that is spice- and salt-free into her cat food. Sometimes a strong smelling food does the trick. Food temperature can be a factor as well. Some cats are turned off by food straight out of the refrigerator. It’s cold and it doesn’t have a strong smell. Warming it up slightly can help stimulate little noses and make the food tempting.

Warm the food makes it more palatable. Photo by Shutterstock

Warming the food makes it more palatable. Photo by Shutterstock

Pay attention when your cat loses her appetite — it can be serious. Although she’s probably not being finicky, there are either medical issues that need to be attended to that are causing her to forego meals or natural behaviors are dictating her response.

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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.