Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Holiday 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.
I will never forget the first time I saw a case of feline food aggression. I was fostering two 8-week-old sibling kittens, when a 7-week-old kitten came along also in need of fostering. After about an hour of introductions and growling, the three became fast friends — until their first meal together.
Because kittens are used to “communal” dining, I put out one large plate of canned kitten food for the three of them to share. But the smallest and newest kitten of the group, 7-week-old Peanut, wasn’t about to share his large plate of deliciousness with anyone. He waded into the plate, head down, gobbling the food while growling ferociously to protect his booty and keep it all to himself.
The other two kittens, Boo-Boo and Pinky, were bewildered by Peanut’s attitude, and they were not quite sure what to do. Offering a second plate of food solved the problem, and Peanut eventually grew out of his gluttony stage and learned to share.
No doubt you were smiling as you pictured three tiny specks of fur haggling over a plate of cat food. And while this was a comical and harmless incident, food aggression between cats, while rare, can cause some serious fights.
Kittens and cats who were abandoned at a young age or who were separated from their mothers too young and never properly weaned have a predisposition to become food aggressive. This was the case with Peanut: He was separated from his mother and brought to the rescue much too young. I am certain he was not fully weaned or ready to be away from his mom.
Food aggression also can occur in cats who are forced to live outdoors and forage for scarce bits of food or those who underwent the stress of shelter living.
More commonly, being the new cat in a multi-cat household or dealing with new cats in the home can bring out the feline instinct to defend and claim territory, including food. Improper feeding, such as doling out tiny portions and feeding only once per day, can also trigger a cat’s drive to claim and protect food sources through aggressive means. In nature, cats hunt and eat many small meals throughout the day, so feeding only once a day might upset this natural tendency.
Medical issues also could be the cause of food aggression, so have a “suddenly” food-aggressive cat checked by a veterinarian to be sure there are no medical problems driving the behavior.
Signs of food aggression
Some signs of food aggression are so subtle you might miss them or not realize them for what they are. Guarding the food bowls, or the room in which they reside, is a common intimidation tactic displayed by cats who want to protect and claim the food. Pushing other cats away from the plate and/or food bowl swapping is another such tactic, although friendly cats often go back and forth to one another’s bowls as well.
Both tactics are seen mostly in dominant alpha cats. An insecure cat will emit a deep guttural growl to warn other cats to stay away from his food, especially if an alpha cat in the household is bullying him.
Jumping onto the dinner table to get a human’s food is another display of food aggression, albeit a subtler one. Teach your cat that jumping up on the dinner table and taking food from your plate is unacceptable behavior; otherwise, you might never have company come over for dinner again.
Seriously, though, resist the urge to feed your cat from the table, or you might never get him to stop claiming your dinner plate as his own.
How to solve the problem
There are simple ways to control and resolve the problem, but they require some consistency and dedication.
The obvious solution is to separate the cats at mealtime. However, if you free feed all day, this might not be a practical answer. In this case, add another feeder in a separate room to diminish the tendency toward guarding or aggression around the food dish.
When you feed your cats canned food, use a separate bowl for each cat and place them far apart in the same room. Supervise each mealtime until the cats are eating from their own plates without incident on a regular basis.
Mutual play exercises with a special yummy treat as a reward also will help diminish aggression around food. Play with your cats with a wand-type toy or feather stick, making sure there is no aggression during the playtime. At the end of the session, and only if there was no fighting, give them each a special yummy treat and lots of praise. They will begin to anticipate these fun sessions — and the treat at the end — and let down their guard.
Time and patience will reward you with a household of well-adjusted kitties who know there is no reason to feel anxious about mealtime and who trust that there always will be more than enough food to go around.
Read about more tips:
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About the author: Rita Reimers’ cat behavior counseling sessions have helped many kitties remain happy in their forever homes. Visit her website, the Cat Analyst, to learn more about her services and to read her cat behavior blog. Rita is also owner/ CEO of Just For Cats Pet Sitting. Connect with Rita on Facebook and Twitter.