Food Obsession in Cats


This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Katelyn Bailey BVSc (Hons)

Food obsession is a common and frustrating concern for many cat owners. While pets may become food obsessed for a variety of reasons, the end result is the same- a never-ending quest for their next meal, which can drive the rest of the household crazy! If you feel like you're living with your own personal Garfield, keep reading for some more information about food obsession and how it can be managed.

1. Signs your cat is food obsessed
2. What causes food obsession?
3. When to see a vet
4. How to manage food obsession
5. Further reading

Signs your cat is food obsessed

While it's perfectly normal and expected for a cat to enjoy food, some seem to make 'eating as much as possible' their life mission. Meowing at feeding time is a normal behaviour, however this should settle once your cat has been fed. In fact, many cats will have some downtime and take a nap after they've eaten. Crying that persists beyond feeding time could indicate hunger, a desire for attention, pain, boredom, or food obsession.

While each cat is different, these are some common signs that your kitty may have an obsession with food:

  • Hanging around the food bowl throughout the day
  • Increased vocalisation/begging for food
  • Scouting kitchen benches, tables and other areas for food and scraps
  • Following you around the house, especially during meal preparation
  • Never seeming to be full; always wanting more food even right after eating a meal
  • Food aggression and/or resource guarding
  • Eating very quickly
  • Indiscriminate eating

What causes food obsession?

Food obsession is very common in overweight and obese cats. Some of these cats may have a genetic predisposition to overeating while others become accustomed to chronic overfeeding and so seeking out more food becomes a habit. For some, even when feelings of hunger are sated, they simply enjoy eating so much that they will still want more. For others, they're unable to recognise the feeling of 'fullness', despite their diet meeting their daily nutritional needs.

Other reasons a cat may be food obsessed include:

  • Boredom/lack of enrichment (especially for indoor only cats)
  • Anxiety
  • Poor nutrition

Some cats can act like they're food obsessed but really just crave attention and affection. They may use the process of getting fed as a way to get attention from their owners.

It's important to also be aware that there are several medical conditions that can increase appetite or cause behavioural changes that mimic food obsession. Generally, but not always, these conditions are accompanied by other signs such as weight loss, diarrhoea or vomiting. For example:

When to see a vet

Cats are very adept at hiding signs of illness. Even subtle changes like an increase in appetite or vocalisation can indicate an underlying issue, so a visit to your veterinarian is a good first step. This is especially important if an obsession with food is unusual for your kitty or is accompanied by other changes like weight loss, vomiting, diarrhoea, increased drinking/urinating, or a poor quality coat. Likewise, if your cat is eating less of their food but still seems to be hungry all the time, this can be suggestive of dental disease, fussy eating or nausea and should be investigated.

Your veterinarian will be able to perform a full physical examination of your cat and may recommend further testing such as blood tests or abdominal ultrasound if they suspect an underlying medical cause.

How to manage food obsession

Food obsession that occurs as a result of an underlying medical condition will often resolve when the condition is treated. However, when food obsession is behavioural in origin or becomes a deeply rooted habit, it can be more difficult to manage. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that many food obsessed cats are overweight, so getting them to slim down can be challenging!

An effective management approach will depend on the root cause of your pet's food obsession. You may need to play around with a few different suggestions to find the ones that work best for you and your cat.

1. Assess your cat's current diet

Quality: While they're nutritionally complete and balanced, supermarket brands can be less filling, leading some cats to seek out more food despite being fed the recommended amount. It's worth switching your cat to a premium brand diet as these foods contain higher quality, more filling ingredients.

Formulation: Due to its moisture content, wet food tends to be more dense (and therefore more filling) than dry food. If your cat is on a dry food only diet, adding in some wet food can help them to feel fuller and has the added benefit of improving hydration. Keep in mind that too much wet food can have a negative impact on dental health, so for most cats it's recommended to feed a mix of dry and wet.

Quantity: A good rule of thumb is to follow the feeding guide for the particular food you're using. Most brands will have the recommended feeding amounts for different life stages available either on the packaging or online. Make sure you're meeting these daily recommendations to ensure your cat is getting the correct amount of food. Energy requirements vary depending on the life stage and activity level of your cat. Young, pregnant, lactating and very active cats will require more food and it can be easy to accidentally underfeed these groups.

Frequency of feeding: Many food obsessed cats respond better to multiple small, frequent meals throughout the day, as opposed to one or two larger meals. This helps to fulfil their natural 'grazing' feeding style and can increase feelings of satiety. These smaller meals can be fed using feeding mats and puzzle toys (more on this below).

2. Be firm

It can be hard to resist that Puss-in-Boots-like gaze but it's important to realise that your cat won't starve if they're eating their recommended daily intake of high quality food. These amounts are specially calculated so there's no need to feel guilty if your cat acts like it's not enough- you can rest assured that they are getting all they need. Resisting the urge to reinforce crying and begging will teach your cat that this behaviour will not be rewarded, so that over time they will perform the unwanted behaviour less and less. It's vital to be consistent with this approach, as intermittently giving in to your cat's crying will encourage them to increase the frequency of the behaviour even more.

3. Avoid triggers

AIf your cat's behaviour gets worse in response to certain triggers, such as during meal preparation, you can try moving them elsewhere during this time. For example, placing your cat in a quiet, separate room with some toys and/or puzzle feeders can help to redirect their attention and reduce their exposure to the known trigger.

Take an 'out of sight, out of mind' approach by hiding food, making sure to store it securely so those sharp teeth don't find their way into the bags!

If your cat associates you with food and constantly follows you around hoping for more, investing in an automatic feeder is a great option. This helps to take the focus off you being the one to provide the food and can help to reduce begging behaviour (just make sure your clever kitty doesn't figure out how to break into their feeder!).

4. Add volume to the diet

While this may sound counter-productive, a larger volume of food does not have to mean more calories! If your cat is particularly persistent you can try 'bulking up' the diet with some high-fibre, water-based vegetables. These will help your kitty to feel more full and as an added bonus are low in calories! Vegetables safe for cats include broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, zucchini and peas. Most vegetables are best served plain (no seasoning) and cooked (boiled or steamed) for easier digestion.

Always check with your veterinarian before adding any foods to your cat's diet especially if they are on a prescription or weight loss diet, or have a health condition.

5. Consider a prescription diet

Some prescription diets are especially formulated to increase feelings of fullness, with a special fibre blend and slower gastrointestinal transit time to help dampen food cravings. In most cases, they're also tailored to promote weight loss and so are a good option for overweight cats. Prescription diets must be recommended by your veterinarian to ensure they are suitable for your pet.

6. Encourage water intake

A common weight loss tip is to drink a glass of water before a meal or when you feel hungry. The idea behind this is that the water will make you feel fuller, so you'll eat less food. Just like us, the more water your kitty drinks, the more full they will feel. There are a few ways you can increase your cat's water intake, such as adding more wet food into the diet and encouraging drinking with the use of a water fountain. Many cats prefer running water over still water and will naturally drink more if a water fountain is provided.

7. Enrich the environment

Food obsession can stem from boredom and a lack of environmental enrichment. Indoor cats in particular need plenty of variety and the opportunity to perform natural behaviours like hunting, scratching and jumping. To fulfil their drive to hunt, you can try hiding kibble around the house for your cat to seek out. Cats love high places and watching the world go by outside their window so it's important to incorporate these features into their daily environment to provide the stimulation they crave. You may find your cat is much less interested in food when all of their biological urges have been adequately met.

8. Spend some quality time together

In some cases your kitty's meowing may not be caused by food obsession at all. A 'cuddle me' or 'play with me' meow can be misinterpreted as a cry for food. Sometimes your cat just wants a little extra love!

Encouraging play time and exercise helps to provide a distraction for truly food obsessed cats and also works great for attention-seeking cats. Try starting with two 10 minute play sessions per day. Ensure your cat has plenty of other toys to play with when you're not around- we recommend rotating toys every few days to keep things interesting!

The Curious Cat Box is a special hamper full of paw-fect toys and treats for your cat! Each Curious Cat Box is designed to be fun and highly interactive, containing a variety of the most popular and highly rated products from our range. The theme changes every 6 weeks, helping to keep your kitty's supply of treats and toys fun and fresh every time!

9. Prolong the joy by slowing down feeding time

Food obsessed cats LOVE to eat, so it makes sense that prolonging feeding time keeps them happy for longer and has the added bonus of increasing feelings of fullness, enrichment and exercise! This does not need to involve feeding more food, and can easily be achieved by dividing the daily ration into food puzzles, dispensers and mats. You can also toss your cat's kibble one at a time to slow down their eating, for example while watching TV.

Slow Feeder Bowls:

Interactive Feeders:

Feeding Mats:

10. Manage anxiety

While anxiety most often leads to a reduced appetite, some cats may respond by wanting to eat more. A sense of competition with other pets in the household commonly increases eating speed and desire for food. Cats that regularly have their food stolen and eaten by other pets may show begging behaviour due to hunger. For these reasons managing anxiety, especially in multi-cat households, is very important. Feeding your pets separately and using an anxiety supplement or calming product (such as Feliway) can reduce the sense of competition and help to restore harmony to the household.

Further reading

Tips to Help Your Cat Lose Weight

Which Human Foods Are Safe for Pets?

Cat Food: Wet vs Dry

Pet Obesity Facts

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