Does your affectionate cat turn into an unfriendly and aggressive little monster during feeding time? The behavior is typical of food aggression, which is a form of aggressive behavior in cats. Although relatively uncommon in cats, it is still an important concern as the behavior can pose a risk to cat parents or other pets. The behavior is manifested as resource guarding and is seriously viewed as an important contributing factor to obesity, heart disease, liver problems, and other chronic health issues.
So how do you know if your furball is obsessed with food?
Signs of Food Aggression in Cats
Your cat may be obsessed with food if she displays the following behaviors during mealtimes:
- Guards the food bowl or its location.
- Terrorizes other household pets and even humans away from her food.
- Hisses, growls, or swats while eating.
- May attack when food is present.
- Keeps on meowing and pestering you when her food bowl is empty or during your mealtime.
- Always on the lookout for opportunities to steal food and surf counters.
- May eat through pet food packaging.
- May rummage through garbage bins for anything to eat.
- Spends a lot of time in the kitchen noisily begging for food.
Causes of Food Aggression in Cats
The causes of food aggression in cats can be varied and complex. These make it challenging to find ways to address and eliminate feline aggressive behavior in an appropriate manner. It’s important for cat parents to identify and understand the cause of their pet’s displays of aggressive behavior so a plan for successful intervention can be formulated.
Kittens that were weaned or separated from their mothers prematurely or have not been properly weaned have been observed to have a higher predisposition to food aggression. This is also true with cats that were abandoned while still very young.
Living outdoors can cause a cat’s survival instincts to go into overdrive. Food can be very scarce resulting in nutritional deprivation. The scarcity of resources also means they have to compete with other cats and animals for food and nourishment.
Stray or feral cats go hungry for days and when they’re adopted, their past experiences of being hungry continue to fuel their instincts to forage even when they’re well-fed. Thus, an adopted stray or feral cat may seem to be hungry all the time and will always be on the lookout for anything to eat.
Cats are very sensitive creatures which makes them vulnerable to various stressors. Hunger and stress can be a lethal combination that could easily turn into aggression. Some of the top stressors of cats include:
- Living in shelters
- Moving to a new home
- Introduction to a multi-cat household
- Changes in the household’s daily routine
By nature, cats are solitary predators. They prefer to hunt alone and eat alone. Even as pets, this instinct is still very strong. Being in close proximity with other cats, a cat will learn to guard and protect resources, particularly when there’s not enough food for all cats in the household. When cats are forced to compete for food, it can increase the likelihood of food aggression behaviors developing.
The inability to access food safely and eat privately can be important predisposing factors of food aggression. Being in a multi-cat household can predispose resource competition, more so when the cats are fed large quantities of food once or twice daily.
If your cat pesters you with her non-stop meowing because she’s hungry, giving in to your pet’s plea reinforces the behavior. Your cat will perceive the reinforcement as a ‘reward’ for his persistent vocalization and will keep on doing it every time she feels hungry.
Meal Feeding and Hunting Instincts
Even with domestication, cats still possess strong hunting instincts, traits that they have inherited from their wild ancestors. In the wild, cats spend time and energy going on hunting forays throughout the day.
Cats are natural grazers. According to Ingrid Johnson, a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (CCBC) and past co-chair of The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) Cat Division, “cats naturally graze and can attempt to eat 9 to 16 evenly sized meals throughout the course of a day.” It is her belief that feeding cats square meals can be frustrating for them and can lead to displaced aggression.
As pets, cats are subjected to their owner’s choice when it comes to the time and method of feeding. Most are fed two or three times a day. While they don’t need to hunt for their daily sustenance, as it is now the responsibility of the cat parent to provide for their pet’s basic needs, this can leave pet cats with less stimulation and activity that is normally associated with hunting and eating prey.
Also, the digestive system of cats is designed to process multiple small meals throughout the day instead of two or three big meals within a 24-hour period. Since food is only available at mealtimes, cats tend to learn to consume larger quantities of food during each meal because they realize that they can’t eat anytime they want.
Food aggression in cats can also be caused by an underlying health issue. Hyperthyroidism, which is common among senior cats, can cause an increase in the body metabolism making affected cats feel hungry all the time. Pain associated with periodontal disease can also make cats irritable and prone to displays of aggressive behavior while eating.
Psychogenic Abnormal Feeding Behavior (PAFB)
In this case, the cat’s over-obsession with food could be caused by an underlying mental or psychogenic problem. The causes of PAFB have not been fully established but many experts believe that it could be linked to stress early on in the life of the cat, or a learning disorder.
A case involving an 8-month old cat with a presumptive diagnosis of psychogenic abnormal feeding behavior was successfully treated with a regimen that aimed at reducing the cat’s exposure to stressors coupled with desensitization to food and counter-conditioning to feeding. The case study which was conducted by Mongillo, et al. (2012) is considered as the first characterization of the clinical aspects of PAFB including the efficacy of treatment.
How to Manage Food Aggression in Cats
If your cat is suddenly exhibiting food aggression, it is highly recommended to have your pet checked by a veterinarian to make sure that the abnormal behavior is not fueled by a medical problem. But if your pet’s behavior is brought about by an underlying health issue, early diagnosis and proper medical intervention are very important to prevent the behavior from becoming deeply rooted and more complicated to address.
If your pet is given a clean bill of health, here are some measures you can undertake to manage or eliminate the problem:
Don’t tolerate begging at the table. Just watching you eat can make your furball hungry, too. Offering food, even once, can teach her that with begging, she can expect to get food all the time. Keep your cat away from the dinner table during mealtime by confining him in a room.
Instead of food, lavish your cat with attention. Some cat parents are guilty of giving food or treats when their cats pester them. You may not be aware of it but your cat is ‘training’ you. While it’s a quick way to satisfy and divert a cat’s attention, giving in to your cat is actually reinforcing the behavior, which means that she expects to be fed on demand. Giving more attention to your cat with regular interactions and opportunities for play are better ways to provide positive reinforcement as well as physical and mental stimulation.
Reinforce desired behavior and ignore the bad. If your cat keeps on begging for food and you yell at her to stop, that is reinforcement. Any attention from you, positive or not, reinforces your cat’s behavior and encourages her to continue with it. Be consistent in ignoring undesirable behaviors and be quick to reward good ones. For example, when your kitty acts calm while she is near the food bowl, lavish her with praise so she will know that you are pleased with her behavior.
If your cat growls while eating, give her space during mealtime. Fill her food bowl in a different room before placing it in the feeding area. Only then will you allow your cat to approach and eat. While she’s eating, stay away and make sure that no pets or humans go near the area where the cat is eating. Eating without being interrupted or threatened can make mealtimes less stressful for your cat.
Feed your pets separately. If you have a multi-pet household, feeding each pet in different rooms can reduce stress during mealtime. Sharing the space can fuel competition, resource guarding, and increase displays of aggressive behaviors. If you practice free-feeding (ad libitum feeding), placing feeders in other areas of the house can diminish the tendency to guard or become aggressive around the food bowl.
Give smaller meals, multiple times a day. To mimic the natural hunting behavior of cats, divide your pet’s daily food ration into 5 or more portions fed at regular intervals throughout the 24-hour period.
Location, location, location. Place your pet’s water and food bowls in a spot where there is less household traffic, away from the litter box, noisy appliances, bright lights, and other things that can distract a cat while eating. When eating, a cat likes to have a wide field of vision so she can keep track of what is happening around her.
Food Puzzles. Encourage your cat’s exploratory behavior and increase physical and mental stimulation with food puzzles. These food-dispensing toys encourage scavenging and allow cats to eat small meals throughout the day from various locations in the house.
Diet modification. When buying cat food, don’t compromise quality with quantity. Be sure that you’re feeding premium quality cat food that is appropriate for your pet’s life stage. Steer clear of generic brands; they may be cheaper but they tend to have substantial amounts of fillers, artificial coloring, and other non-essential ingredients. With premium cat food, you are sure that your cat is consuming a complete and balanced diet.
Dietary supplementation. There have been studies on dietary supplementation to reduce anxiety and aggression in cats. The results of one study on Tryptophan supplementation showed a positive effect in reducing the frequency of stress-related behaviors and decreasing anxiety signals in cats.
Minimize stressors. Identify potential stressors in your cat’s immediate environment and limit exposure to them.
Food aggression in cats can be manifested in a range of complex behaviors. Knowledge and understanding of potential triggers and causes will enable cat parents to find appropriate measures to alter their cat’s behavioral response to food.