by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Cats generally work on the principle ‘Eat to Live’, so why do some cats have an obsession with food? What constitutes an obsession as opposed to a learned behaviour or habit?
An obsession is often accompanied by aggression, likewise a food obsession; however some behaviours may also include a level of aggression.
Some typical behaviours that may indicate a food obsession include:
- Always acting hungry, constantly looking for food.
- Gobbling all available food immediately it becomes available.
- Eating fast and vomiting immediately.
- Counter-surfing and stealing any food, even breaking into cupboards and boxes.
- Change in eating habits to eating food that was previously rejected
- Begging with a level of aggression if no food is forthcoming
- Not sleeping through the night unless food is available.
- Otherwise unexplained ‘bad’ behaviour.
While some of these behaviours will be exhibited by most cats a few times, habitual offenders may have a genuine problem. Any change in behaviour that does not have a reasonable and rational explanation should warrant a check-up with your vet.
Food obsession causes can be broadly divided into 3 main categories: Medical issues which need the intervention of a vet, behavioural issues which may be remedied with a behaviour-modification plan, and psychological issues which need special care and treatment.
- Parasites including fleas, ticks, worms, mites, and any other being that is living off your cat consume most of the food that is eaten, leaving nothing of value to nourish or feed the cat.
- Diabetes results in the inability to balance blood sugar; while most cats will loose their appetite there are those that eat endlessly.
- While hyperthyroidism is usually seen in older cats it can strike any cat; the inability to control thyroid hormone production results in an increased appetite while the cat loses weight.
- Certain medications may trigger a spell of over-eating; this should cease when the course is complete, but can become a new behaviour pattern.
- Any infection, inflammation, or injury that prevents nutrient absorption; these stop food and nutrients from being absorbed.
- Cancerous tumours in the digestive system can absorb nutrients from the food so they are not available to the cat.
- Trauma in the area of the brain that controls satiety results in no ‘full’ message being generated.
- Other medical issues are rarer, but can be a trigger for excessive hunger or fuelling the need to eat.
- Poor nutrition in early kittenhood may lead to some organs not fully functioning in the food processing and absorption areas, leaving cats short of proper nutrition.
- Insufficient food and/or insufficient nutrition, while not directly a medical issue, does affect the body and behaviour. Cats need good quality protein, minimum carbohydrate and fats, and essential minerals an other nutrients to keep them mentally and physically healthy.
- Aggression towards other cats and people, especially around food resources.
- Demanding food at night, not being able to sleep through without a meal.
- Begging for food is a learned behaviour, often to gain attention, and food may or may not be the actual motivation.
- In cold weather cats will eat more to keep themselves warm. Cats that live outdoors typically eat more than indoor cats as they have to be alert and may supplement their food with caught prey.
- Pregnant cats eat to build up reserves in order to feed their kittens. After weaning the mothers should return to a normal eating pattern.
- Over-eating is a self-soothing behaviour for bored, lonely or depressed cats.
- Stress is a factor in eating disorders; a stressed cats needs more energy to cope with the situations and needs to be fully alert mentally and physically capable of defending or caring for itself.
- Competition amongst cats for food, possibly related to domination of territory, that causes one cat to have the need to eat everything in order to starve out the other cats out.
- Food anxiety as a result of previous starving experience, referred to as psychogenic abnormal feeding behavior, is a psychological addiction to food that could be associated with stress in early life. Some symptoms include a bottomless appetite and food related aggression towards people and other animals.
More on this subject in Part 2 next week.