Ask Amy: Hungry Cat Begging

Help! My Cats are Screaming for Food!

Photo of Cat Eating a Meal of Canned Cat Food
Cat Eating a Meal of Canned Cat Food. photo © Getty Images / Michael Bodmann

Question: "How can I stop my cats screaming for food?"

Lynn writes "From the land of Cincinnati Screaming Cats" about her cats Moggie (age 7) and Gatto (age 6) who were adopted a year ago, and seen by the vet about six weeks ago. "They constantly stand by their bowls crying for food," she says.

The vet prescribed special food to address the cats' weight problem, and Lynn feeds wet food morning and evening, and leaves dry food out to get them through the night.

"They literally scream constantly unless all their bowls are full. They don't care whether its wet food or dry food, it just needs to be full, and the vet calls them "cruise ship eaters." How do I break these guys from believing that there must always be lots of food in their bowls 24 hours a day?"

Amy's Answer:

Cats' begging for food can be prompted by any number of things. Let's look at physical and emotional health, as well as traits of instinct to help figure out what's going on and find solutions. Think of this as the H.I.S.S. Test, which stands for health, instinct, stress, and symptom solvers.

H=Health

Healthy cats get hungry but illnesses such as diabetes or hyperthyroidism can create voracious appetites. Moggie and Gatto are the right age to be at risk for these diseases, but both were recently seen by the vet and deemed healthy.

I=Instinct

Since these kitties were adopted as adults, Lynn doesn't have a history of how they were raised.

Cats on their own as strays learn that food isn't always available and food becomes much more important. They're constantly "hunting" and looking for edible opportunities as a way to survive.

S=Stress

As with people, stress eating can be common especially in cats confined for long periods-as these kitties were at the shelter.

According to Lynn, the cats pudged up due to bottomless bowls and little exercise. They likely were bored and ate to fill their do-nothing hours of tedium. It may be that shelter staff addressed the cats' wails by keeping the bowls full, too, and now that their diet is restricted, the elevated stress and possibly hunger increases the yowls.

S=Symptom, Signs & Solutions

Cats don't continue a behavior unless there's a direct benefit to them. Moggie and Gatto perhaps first learned at the shelter how to manipulate humans to keep the bowl full, and Lynn must deal with the fallout. The situation worsened because food is restricted to slim them down. These two partners in cat-crime actually have Lynn wrapped firmly around their paws, and are controlling their human's behavior with the caterwauling. In other words, Lynn has been trained and unknowingly has rewarded the two kitties by giving in to the meow-demands.

This is a very common problem, especially in overweight cats. Owners are made to feel guilty of neglect-cats are brilliant actors (or con artists!), intent on making us believe we're starving them. Here's how to outsmart these Einstein cats.

  1. Measure the daily amount of food that's allowed (as outlined by your vet) so you don't accidentally over-indulge the cat kids. Then get rid of the single bowls. Instead, give these food-monsters a challenge by offering their wet food in the morning and evening on a half dozen plates hidden all over the house.
  1. The first day or so, show them each spot-in the regular location, but also on top of a table in the living room, under the bed, on a countertop, behind the door in the kitchen, and so on. Thereafter, let them hunt down the food themselves. The idea is to get them off their tubby tails and rather than just filling up the tank at the smorgasbord.
  2. For the dry food, invest in several puzzle toys. The cats have to manipulate these to shake out the kibble, again making them work for their food. That way it's not just food restriction but also exercise that gets them slimmed down, and the activity counters the boredom they're trying to relieve at the food bowl. There are some wonderful commercial products now available such as the Fun Kitty  or Egg-cercizer. You can also make a homemade puzzle toy by cutting holes in a plastic water bottle, and putting the dry food inside, or using a plastic container. Make sure to reserve enough of the dry food allotment so you can offer them a late night puzzle toy to get them through the hungry midnight hours.
  1. Finally, invest in some ear plugs and when they turn up the cat-calls, ignore them. They are not starving for food-they're begging for attention. By ignoring them, you stop rewarding the behavior and since they don't get results, eventually (and it will take time!) the cries will fade away

Fun Kitty:  Buy at Amazon
Egg-cercizer:  Buy at Amazon