by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Why do some cats eat everything easily and others fuss over their food? If we look at the process of eating it covers more than just food.
A cat must feel relaxed and safe and be able to eat. Cats that have issues with their mouths, tongue, gums and teeth, nose, sinuses, throat, stomach, digestive system, vomiting, or general pain may not feel able to eat. These cats need to see a vet to resolve their issues and their owners given information on how and what to feed them. Even pain not directly associated with eating can be a cause, such as arthritis. Tiredness, stress, fear and aggression can also affect eating patterns.
Temporary fussiness may be as a result of already haven eaten, either at the neighbour or something found in the garden. The memory of pain associated with certain foods may be a deterrent to eating; this can be based on smell, looks, presentation, texture, the bowl or the place of eating. Many cats don’t like being watched when they eat.
There should be no pressure to eat now, such as specific short-term feeding times. The cat must have the desire to eat when food is presented.
The place where cats eat must be safe and secure from their perspective. Natural behaviour is for cats to eat separately; however our domestic cats learn to eat together or share in order to have quick and easy access to free food. The area around the feeding place can have an influence; strong smells, loud noises, air movement, hot or cold temperature, presence – or the perception of – threats, and the association with the place.
Disturbances include high traffic areas (or even any traffic), activity, noise, smells, proximity to entrance/exit points, presence or absence of other animals or family members. Some cats feel the need, for security reasons, to vary the place where they eat; not always eating in the same place. Very insecure cats can even refuse to eat if another cat has been in their special eating place.
Height plays a role too; high places are safer than lower ones if they can be easily reached.
There are no food bowls in nature. Cats learn to eat from bowls because that is how we feed them. Bowls should be washed in clean water and rinsed to remove any smell of chemicals or other foods, and thoroughly dried using a clean cloth.
Bowls should be wide enough to accommodate whiskers and have shallow or sloping sides to allow access to the food in the corners. While some cats will use their paws to get at inaccessible food, other will leave it. For older, injured or arthritic cats the bowl can be raised to make it easier to access.
The colour and texture of the bowl will play a role for some cats. Food in bowls that are similar in colour to the food, or shiny stainless steel, may not always be visible in some light conditions. Old, scratched plastic bowls tend to harbour bacteria which may have a smell and will interact with the food.
An alternative to using a bowl is to provide puzzle, or interactive, feeders. These will be discussed over the next few weeks.
The food presentation is important. Is it fresh, does it smell good to eat, is it appropriate, and how much is there? Cats have small stomachs (think of the size of a meal of a mouse) and are not designed to deal with toxins.
Cats have an incredible sense of smell and use this to determine if the food is good to eat. Any food that doesn’t look or smell right will immediately be rejected. Many cats will reject a meal that has any additives and/or medication as these alter the smell of the food and it may not register as edible. Soft or wet food that has been refrigerated will need to be warmed to be acceptable – mix a little hot water in to increase the liquid intake.
The texture of food plays a role too. Many cats like to chew; this is good exercise for the teeth and gums. Older cats may prefer softer food. Some like more gravy while others prefer dry and access to fresh water.
Flavour is a learned experience. Many flavourants contain chemicals which may be appealing to some cats; they can become addicted to these flavours and preservatives and refuse to eat anything else. This can cause a problem if the product becomes unavailable or the ingredients are changed.
The volume of food can be an issue; too much food can be overwhelming while too little will leave the cat hungry and with a poor association experience.
Boredom is factor in many cat behaviours. Cats are masters of manipulation; they know exactly how far to push to get what they want, and if this is the only way they can exercise their minds and gain attention it is worth pursuing.
In addition to boredom there are other emotional states that can influence the desire to eat; loneliness, grief, depression, anger, or fear. Fear is often characterised by the cat shutting down emotionally and physically, only doing the minimum needed to stay alive.
Is the so-called ‘fussy’ cat really fussy, or in pain, stressed, nervous, bored, fearful, or not hungry, or is there some element of the position or food bowl that makes him feel unsafe, or does he feel the food is not right to eat? There are many areas to consider before labelling a cat ‘fussy’.