Cats get pretty excited around food. You can understand why - food is survival, and in their natural environment, cats spend hours each day in the pursuit of it.
“Domestic” cats, especially those that are meal-fed (as opposed to free-fed), can get pretty vocal and energetic around meal times and when they see their owner head toward the magical food cupboard!
But… there’s excited, and then there’s MANIACAL! Some owners report their cats go absolutely bananas around food – not just at the cat’s mealtimes, but at the owner’s as well. Incessantly trying to swipe food off a plate, jumping and clutching on to the owner’s arm when trying to put food in the bowl, loud vocalisation, and even hissing and aggression. Some owners that I’ve helped actually had to put their cats away when they ate because of the (aggressive) switch in the cat’s personality during cooking or eating.
Now, let’s get this straight. Food “obsession” is normal in an animal, especially one as wild or undomesticated as a cat. Being excited and vocal around mealtimes is normal. Though when this goes “next level”, we need to understand the reason why and look at solving it.
Let’s go through some reasons and solutions.
1. Rule out medical reasons
If this is a new behaviour, or a behaviour with a new cat, it’s important to get her assessed by a veterinarian. There are a few medical reasons that can underlie food obsession, or abnormal feeding behaviour. It’s likely that your vet will look at causes like parasites, hyperthyroidism, blood sugar issues/diabetes etc. All of these things can create a furry monster when it comes to food!
2. Make sure you’re feeding enough nutrients/calories
This is easily overlooked, yet it shouldn’t be. If you’re feeding a commercial pet food, she should be getting adequate nutrients. However pay careful attention to the amount you’re feeding her, even if she doesn’t look too skinny. I’ve had a few clients who weren’t aware they were feeding too little. Trying to behaviourally fix a “food obsession” issue, when the cat is physiologically starving is next to impossible!
3. Make sure you’re not letting the behaviour be reinforced, even accidentally
One of the golden rules of behavioural science is that a behaviour that is reinforced will continue.
Simple, but extra important to consider. If your cat jumps up on the table during dinner and your 5-year-old gives her some food, she will continue this behaviour. Even worse, if it only happens every now and again/randomly, the behaviour will get worse (this is known as variable reinforcement – same as poker machines). It’s really important to do everything in your power to never let her be reinforced again, even accidentally, when she is behaving inappropriately around food.
4. Make use of time out
If you’re trying to eat dinner, and the cat is persistently jumping on the table or couch and trying to swipe some food, gently pick her up and put her in a quiet room (make sure there’s water and a litter tray in there) until dinner is finished and washed up. Consistently doing this in response to the inappropriate behaviour (as long as she’s never reinforced – see previous point) will gradually improve the issue.
I will say that physically punishing a cat will create more problems, so please never do this. Instead, just gently putting her in a room will serve the same purpose.
5. Make sure other cats aren’t creating the problem
In a multi-cat household, many owners feed their cats from the same bowl/in the same space. Your cat may be having her food stolen by the other cats, and so becomes aggressive or territorial around food. Naturally, cats are solitary hunters and feeders, so actually should be fed apart (out of sight if possible) anyway. Forcing them to feed together will naturally create territorial tension in your household.
6. Make use of slow feeders and puzzle toys
Often, cats with food obsessive behaviours are “gobblers”. They eat their food with such vigour and force, and it’s gone in a few seconds. This can cause vomiting and other issues (which then create more hunger etc). Slow feeders (like a Lickimat) and puzzle toys are great for gobblers, forcing them to slow down their eating. They are also good for owners whose cats pester them at mealtimes, giving the owners and extended time of “peace” while the cat is busily (but slowly) eating.
7. Consider a timed/auto-feeder
Auto feeders can be great for owners whose cats relentlessly pester them around the cat’s mealtimes. Once the cat realises that it’s not the owner who is the “source” of the food, they stop becoming the target of the pestering/begging/aggression. Though check the auto-feeder on a daily basis to make sure it’s working – you don’t want it to malfunction without you realising and suddenly you have a starving cat on your hands!
So those are some ideas of what to do with a food obsessed cat. Please remember that some level of food obsession in normal, so don’t think that something is wrong because your cat vocalises and annoys you around their meal times – they are a semi-wild animal after all. Though if they take it to the next level and creates injury, fear or an inability to eat without relentless pestering, consider these solutions or contact a feline behaviourist.