I adore Rusty, my spirited, young orange tabby — except at mealtime.
He transforms into a demanding, pushy, feed-me-now feline bully who has no qualms about attempting to push away my other cats, Mikey and Casey, from their food bowls and even trying to swipe kibble from my dogs’ bowls.
His mealtime mayhem caused Mikey and Casey to attempt to chow down quickly and, as a consequence, they vomited their meals, occasionally refused to eat and deposited runny stools in the litter boxes. So, to achieve calmness at mealtime, I now prepare all of my pets’ food bowls in the laundry room off the kitchen and with the door closed.
I bring out Rusty’s bowl first, and he excitedly follows me into the hallway bathroom where I place down his bowl and close the door. Next, I place food bowls for Casey and Mikey on two cat trees in the living room with them looking in opposite directions. Finally, I space out the bowls for my three dogs on the kitchen floor. After my pets have finished their meals at their own paces (and in peace!), I pick up and clean their bowls and open the door to let Rusty out.
Related: Make Mealtime Fun for Cats
Rusty’s antics are far from unique. Actions and attitudes at mealtimes can trigger stress-induced medical conditions or spur on unwanted behaviors in cats.
“Indoor cats can easily become stressed with any changes in their environment, such as a new pet addition, a change in the owner’s schedule or a change in feeding schedules,” says Dr. Jessica Herman, a veterinarian with Fuzzy Pet Health with a practice in Shelbyville, Kentucky. “Feeding cats is more than simply filling the food bowl once or twice daily. Feeding cats should be considered a part of their environmental enrichment.”
Stress at mealtimes can cause some cats to:
✤ Lose their appetites
✤ Gorge their food quickly
✤ Eliminate outside the litter boxes
✤ Claw couches
✤ Overgroom to the point of creating red, bald spots on their coats
✤ Fight with other pets in the home.
Medically, mealtime stress can cause such ailments as:
✤ Urinary tract infections
✤ Feline idiopathic cystitis
✤ Weakened immune systems
✤ Skin diseases
Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant who operates The Cat Coach based in northern California, advises people to start thinking more like their cats at mealtime.
“While some people may enjoy gathering around a table, having large plates full of food and eating a big meal together, cats are solitary eaters who do not want to eat together and certainly do not like sharing food from one bowl,” she says. “They are hunters who prefer eating several small meals a day to being fed once or twice a day.”
Dr. Elizabeth Bales, a Camden, New Jersey-based veterinarian says that a cat’s stomach is about the size of a ping-pong ball. That’s why she is a fan of food puzzles, mini meals and even hiding food in a room for a cat to sniff out and find.
“Hunting multiple small portions throughout the day can eliminate what we call the ‘scarf-and-barf’ syndrome in cats,” says Dr. Bales, who is also the inventor of the Doc & Phoebe’s Indoor Hunting Feeder for Cats. “Cats want to hunt, catch, play, eat, groom and sleep — it’s what is known as the seeking circuit. But giving them one big meal a day denies them of this seeking circuit. In nature, cats spend about 80% of their waking hours hunting for food. ”
The type of food and its texture can also cause behavior issues in some cats.
“Cats are textural eaters, meaning they often prefer a certain texture to their food,” Dr. Herman says. “Changing from a loaf-type food to shreds may cause aversion to your cat’s food and cause him to skip meals. Some cats prefer kibble, and some prefer wet food. With a bit of trial and error, you will learn your cat’s specific preference.”
Place the water bowl far from the food bowl — and definitely far from the litter box.
“No creature likes to eat or drink near their toilet,” says Dr. Bales. “Cats prefer to drink in a separate location from where they eat; if possible, provide water sources in different locations of the house for them. Some cats like water dripping from a faucet while others enjoy water flavored with tuna juice or low-salt chicken broth. Make sure no onions or garlic are in the broth’s list of ingredients.”
Certified cat behavior consultant Marilyn treats her cats to homemade chicken broth frozen in an ice cube tray in bowls far apart from each other.
“Cats can grieve over the loss of favorite people, cats and dogs they were closely bonded to,” Marilyn says. “Some will deeply grieve to the point of not eating after the loss. Stressful situations, such as remodeling, family conflicts and being rehomed can also cause cats to stop eating.”
Cats need steady food intake, so consult your vet if your cat does not eat for 24 hours. Kitty may need an appetite stimulant and a thorough exam.
Bottom line: Act like a pet detective to pick up subtle clues that may be causing changes in your cat’s eating habits and behavior in general.
“Cats are subtle,” Marilyn says. “Sometimes, the only indicator of a serious problem is how they approach their food. Your cat’s behavior around food can tell you a lot about their physical, emotional and psychological health.”
Featured Image: Photo: Lightspruch | Getty Images