Are we stressing our cats out?

August 29, 2020

Eating issues in cats—whether too much or too little—may have a behavioral cause. Here’s why, and what to do about it.

When a cat stops eating, or its appetite tapers off, it is reasonable to look for a medical explanation. But according to Sarah Heath, BVSc, DECAWBM, CCAB, MRCVS, owner of Behavioural Referrals Veterinary Practice in Chester, England, we should remember that the underlying issue could be behavioral.

At the Fetch dvm360 virtual conference this morning, Dr. Heath advised attendees that abnormal eating patterns like hyporexia, anorexia, and overeating are sometimes triggered by anxiety—even in a cat that isn’t exhibiting any other signs of stress. Consequently, obesity and weight loss can both be perpetuated by emotional triggers that shouldn’t be ignored. Fortunately, there are practical ways to manage and prevent these issues.

Simply recognizing important food-related feline behavior is the first step. Behavioral and environmental factors can influence appetite in both directions, Heath cautioned. Often, miscommunication or misunderstanding between a cat and its owner can perpetuate abnormal eating behaviors. Veterinarians can help by educating clients about normal feeding behaviors in cats.

Cats are natural-born nibblers

“Cats are physiologically designed to take in small amounts of food on frequent occasions throughout the day,” Dr. Heath said. This may surprise some pet owners, who may believe it’s normal for a cat to sit at a bowl and eat until the bowl is empty. But cats normally prefer to graze or nibble. They eat a few mouthfuls of food and walk away, intending to return later to eat a little more. However, some pet owners misinterpret walking away from the food as a sign of illness, or possibly as an indication that the cat doesn’t like that particular food anymore. So, the owner may purchase a different food that’s more palatable, which sometimes means higher in fat. Initially, the cat may eat the new food happily. But eventually, it might return to his normal behavior of nibbling, which triggers the owner to change the food again, and the cycle continues. Many cats are unfairly labeled as “fussy eaters” because of this scenario, Heath said.

Some owners respond to this situation by becoming more actively involved in the feeding process and encouraging the cat to eat. This can backfire, however, as the owner’s interference can contribute to stress, which causes the cat to develop a negative association with eating and more “fussiness.”

In contrast, some cats respond to this feeding regimen by sitting at the bowl and overeating, which contributes to obesity. Dr. Heath reminded attendees that obesity is sometimes perceived as being cute, or perhaps a sign of being well cared for, and that pet owners don’t always recognize it as an illness.

And we veterinarians may have our own biases, she explained. “When we think about a cat that is hyporexic or anorexic, we obviously will be looking for an underlying medical cause, whereas, perhaps, when weight is put on, we don’t think of it in medical terms quite as quickly.” Veterinarians have an important role in educating pet owners about obesity, and identifying pitfalls that contribute to it.

Cats aren’t social eaters

Humans usually like to eat in groups, so some pet owners assume that cats do, too. Although pet owners commonly feed multiple cats in the same location (or in close proximity), cats normally prefer to eat alone. In fact, some cats may become hyporexic in response to the anxiety associated with being forced to eat in a group. Even cats that are socially compatible at other times still probably prefer to eat alone. When cats are forced to eat in a group, this creates tension, as the cat endures (and suppresses) stress to gain access to food, which is a critically important resource. This pattern can create frustration that gets displayed at other times. It can also create a negative association with food, which contributes to hyorexia and anorexia.

The opposite can also happen, Dr. Heath said. Some cats, if they become anxious that the food bowl will be removed, or that other cats will eat the food, respond by overeating. “Satiation control is when you know you’re full, and you no longer need to eat. For a cat, if you are faced with food in a controlled way, you get to a point where you override satiation control and are more likely to continue eating.” This, of course, contributes to obesity and to behaviors like overeating and regurgitating.

Cats also don’t naturally eat every meal in the same location. In the wild, this could invite attention from other predators. Instead, cats are more likely to take their small meal to a new, secure location and eat it there.

Cats normally spend significant time pursuing prey

It’s no secret that cats are predators. In a natural environment, cats might spend 6 to 8 hours a day stalking and otherwise pursuing food. They’d also normally be hunting alone. In contrast, pet cats are often fed in groups, as noted above, and they’re commonly fed twice daily. This removes their opportunity to graze and encourages them to take in a larger volume of food than they should. “The feline digestive system isn’t designed to take in 50% of the daily food ration in one sitting,” Dr. Heath explained. Some cats overeat and regurgitate in response to this altered feeding practice.

Solutions: Work to reduce stress and encourage normal appetite

“Weight loss and obesity are both disease processes that can be influenced by behavioral and dietary factors,” Dr. Heath said. The simple steps outlined below can help promote a healthier emotional environment for cats at home and at the veterinary practice.

At-home advice for pet owners

  • Weigh or measure food, and deliver it in a variety of ways that give the cat more control over food acquisition. Use food puzzles, hunting feeders, or other novel methods that encourage the cat to actively look for food, which supports hunting behavior. It also promotes calorie burning for overweight cats.
  • In a multicat home, feed cats separately if possible. Establishing multiple feeding stations provides immediate and solitary access to food. Using a microchip feeder that releases food when the cat approaches (wearing the tag/collar) can also help. Multiple feeding stations also work for single-cat homes. Food puzzles or regular bowls/saucers containing small amounts of food can be placed in different spots around the house to help satisfy the cat’s natural desire to not eat all the food in the same location. It also allows the cat to spend time searching for food, and to be in control of food intake.
  • When possible, feed smaller, frequent meals throughout the day, instead of two larger meals.
  • Feed cats from an elevated location. Cats tend to feel safer at higher elevations, because they can see what’s around them. Feeding stations can be placed on top of elevated platforms, in hideaways, or in/on cat towers, which encourages the cat to jump up to the food. These platforms should only be large enough for one cat, which satisfies the feline urge to dine alone.
  • When deciding where to put feeding stations, consider human activity, noise levels, lack of privacy, visual threats (eg, being able to look through a window and see another cat outside), and other factors that make one location less desirable than another. Over time, this can help reduce stress.
  • For overweight cats, encourage climbing and provide access to vertical spaces. Encourage clients to play with cats regularly, which stimulates positive emotions and provides an outlet for predatory behavior.
  • Warm the food slightly to make it more fragrant and desirable.
  • Use synthetic pheromones to help reduce stress. Diffusers or sprays are available.

Tips for veterinary practices

Medical issues reduce a cat’s motivation to eat. So, during hospitalization, it’s more important than ever to create a safe environment that doesn’t adversely affect the cat’s emotional state:

  • Provide a covered box, feline fort, or other location in the cage that allows the cat to hide.
  • Place food bowls toward the rear of the cage or inside of cat hideouts, so the cat has privacy while trying to eat.
  • Feed on an ad-libitum basis, if possible. This allows cats to eat when they want to—likely during quiet times.
  • Don’t change the cat’s food while in the hospital. If a cat has been diagnosed recently with kidney disease or diabetes, for example, it’s natural to want to change the diet as soon as possible. However, the hospital setting is stressful, and the cat doesn’t feel well. So, changing the diet at that time creates a negative association with food that may develop into a food aversion. It’s best to feed the cat the diet it’s used to getting at home, and allow the owner to wean the cat onto the new diet at home after the stress level has receded.
  • Don’t be afraid of feeding tubes. Dr. Heath noted, “Placing a feeding tube is something we should consider sooner rather than later, rather than trying to get into a battle with the cat to get him to eat. Once the cat is in a better state emotionally, it’s easier to try to re-introduce feeding.”
  • Synthetic pheromones can help reduce stress.

Dr. Todd-Jenkins received her VMD degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She is a medical writer and has remained in clinical practice for over 20 years. She is a member of the American Medical Writers Association and One Health Initiative.