By Kate Hughes
There is nothing like a good meal enjoyed in the right atmosphere. Whether you’re fueling up with eggs over easy and a steaming cup of coffee as the sun rises or lingering over a romantic, candle-lit steak dinner, humans have turned dining atmospheres into an art. However, our dining quirks and preferences are nothing compared to those of cats.
Anyone who has ever cohabitated with a kitty knows that cats are very particular about what they eat, when they eat it, and how they eat it. But what is the impetus behind these unusual eating habits? According to Dr. Sarah Gorman, associate veterinarian at Boston Animal Hospital, eating behavior in cats is the combination of inherited and learned components. “It’s not just about what is natural for the cat to do with food, but also how that cat has been nurtured to react to feeding time,” she explains.
Dr. Ryane E. Englar, assistant professor and clinical education coordinator at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, concurs, adding that these habits could also encompass personal taste, which, like in people, differs from cat to cat. “There are certainly cats that are very preferential in their flavor choices,” she says. “Perhaps they only eat chicken, or only eat shrimp, or only eat mackerel.”
What Are 'Normal' Cat Eating Habits?
So what constitutes an unusual eating habit in cats? First, Gorman says that pet owners must understand what “normal” eating behavior entails. “If we look at wild populations of cats, we know they are solo hunters and, by design, solo eaters,” she explains. “While they will share their food, and commonly do with offspring or other cats, they would prefer to eat alone. Cats are also obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat meat to live.”
Gorman also notes that cats in the wild eat food right after they catch it, so food temperature is a critical factor when cats are deciding what to eat. “Cats are like Goldilocks. The food can't be too hot or too cold. They prefer it to be body temperature.”
Additionally, because cats’ eating habits are the result of a combination of natural and learned behaviors, Englar explains that exposure plays a large part in what cats will and will not eat as adults. “Experts say that a lot of what determines a cat’s eating habits involves what they saw their moms do and what they ate as a baby. There’s a big push in veterinary medicine to expose kittens to all different types of foods, textures, canned, wet, dry, semi-moist, so that they know when they’re young that food can take many forms,” she says. “So if a cat has only had canned food as a baby, then you switch her to dry food as an adult, there's a good chance that cat is just going to stare at it. She’ll be like, ‘I don't know what this is. This is cardboard.’”
Common Cat Food Quirks
Despite the pull of natural food behaviors, there are a plethora of food quirks that may affect your feline friends’ eating habits. Some cats scarf down their food, some play with their cat food before eating it, and other cats may prefer to nosh when they are completely alone.
Some behaviors, like gorging on meals, could have several contributing factors. Firstly, how are owners feeding their pets? “Are you only feeding one or two big meals a day? Are you feeding the cat warm canned food so they want to finish it all when the temperature is preferable,” Gorman asks. She also adds that the presence of other pets may encourage a cat to eat as much as he can as quickly as possible. “Other pets in the area can create a competitive stress, so a cat may want to hurry up and eat all the food before the other pets have a chance to steal it.”
If your cat is a gorger, Gorman recommends investing in either an automatic feeder that dispenses just a little bit of food a few times a day, or toys that allow cats to mimic hunting behavior they would display in the wild. Activity bowls that encourage foraging behavior can slow down how quickly your cat consumes the meal.
Playing with Their Food
If your cat knocks their kibble out of the bowl and across the room before eating, Fluffy is likely engaging his or her predatory instincts. “In the wild, a lot of a cat’s life—up to 12 hours a day—is spent hunting, so playing with their food is a way of being engaged in their environment,” Englar says. “So, seeing cats play with their food is actually a good thing. It keeps them active and prevents them from getting fat and lazy.”
Only Eating Alone
As Gorman says, cats often prefer to eat alone. However, some kitties take this to the extreme and will only eat if they are alone and the environment is free of distractions.
“While cats are predators, they are not at the top of the food chain. They always have in the back of their minds that they could be plucked off by another, larger predator,” Englar notes. “This awareness may drive cats to eat in quiet, eat alone, eat where it's calm, eat away from a threatening environment, or eat in a place of safety where they feel comfortable.” She adds that she’s even had clients whose cats refuse to eat if the dishwasher is on. “That extra noise is just too much—it makes them feel unsafe.”
If you have a cat who goes outdoors, you’re likely familiar with the phenomenon of that cat leaving you the corpses of not-so-lucky mice, moles, and other small animals. While some experts say this is your cat trying to teach you how to hunt, Englar thinks the reason is a little less anthropomorphic. “Cats don’t stop hunting when they’re full—they keep going. If they catch something and they’re not hungry, they may stash it somewhere to come back to later. It’s kind of like they’re saying ‘Hey, hold this for me. I'll be back.’”
Not Eating at All
If your cat suddenly stops eating altogether, Englar says, you should first take stock of any changes in her diet. “Cats get used to what is consistent, and consistency makes them feel safe. When we switch up their food, cats who are less confident can get worried and stressed, and then, that stress causes them to stop eating.” Englar notes that this can be particularly true in middle-aged cats, who may even find a change in their food downright alarming.
However, if your cat stops eating and nothing has changed in her food or environment, head to the vet as soon as possible to get her checked out, Englar recommends. “It’s the safest course of action to ensure nothing is seriously wrong,” she says.
Cats can develop a condition called fatty liver very quickly if they don’t eat within a few days, so time is of the essence. Even environmental changes or stresses that cause a cat to become inappetent can then lead to significant disease.