My cat, Victoria, is going bonkers. I just changed the type of canned food I’m giving her and she obviously loves it. After she’s eaten a meal she simultaneously meows and licks her lips, producing an odd, garbled sound. It seems to me that she is saying, "Wow, can I tell you… that was goooood!"
There is a downside to all her excitement. She has become a pest. I started feeding the new food in the kitchen so I’d have easy access to utensils, the dishwasher, etc. This lasted all of two days because every time I walked toward the kitchen she’d chase after me while howling, "Mrrow, Mrrow, Mrrow" as loudly as she could. Feline meals have been moved to the laundry room to restore some peace and quiet to the household.
While Vicky’s reaction is perhaps excessive, it’s not abnormal. (I’ve acted in a similar manner around chocolate cake.) Some cats, however, do go completely overboard in response to food.
A few years ago, I had a feline patient that was on the verge of losing a good home because of his behavior at meal times. Whenever his owners prepared food, he would jump on the counter and stick his nose and paws into their business. When they pushed him off, he’d jump right back up. He made a similar pest of himself around the dining room table and would more or less attack his owners (not viciously but maniacally) when his food bowls were filled.
The cat was otherwise healthy, so we solved the problem by never, ever feeding the cat in the kitchen or dining room (previously the owners had been sneaking him tidbits), leaving a high quality dry food out at all times in the basement (the cat really wanted to be around his owners so would dash up and down the stairs, thereby getting a good amount of exercise), and locking the cat in the basement with a meal of canned food when the owners prepared and ate their own food.
I recently saw a report of a cat that was diagnosed with "psychogenic abnormal feeding behavior." The eight-month-old male Siamese cat was acting a lot like my patient did, but even more so. The authors stated that he had a ravenous appetite, was eating non-food items, has food-related aggressiveness, and was excessively soliciting attention from his owners. The cat’s blood work and urinalysis were essentially normal, so the doctors assumed the underlying problem was psychological rather than physical (that’s what psychogenic means) and successfully treated it as such. They reduced the cat’s exposure to stress, instituted environmental enrichment (e.g., scheduled playtime), and began a behavioral modification program that included food desensitization and counter conditioning (e.g., rewarding good behavior and not punishing the bad).
I need to emphasize that the first step in evaluating a food-obsessed cat is a complete medical work up. Diseases like hyperthyroidism and diabetes mellitus, which can be associated with a ravenous appetite and altered behavior, are certainly more common than "psychogenic abnormal feeding behaviors." But once a cat receives a clean bill of health, it’s good to know that management changes and behavioral modification can help these cats and their owners.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Today's blog post was originally published in March 2013.
Image: Plume Photography / Shutterstock