I have no research to refer to in writing this except my own observations. To be a comfort eater you have to enjoy eating. You have to enjoy the taste of food. You don’t need an appetite, though. The idea is to make you feel better. Eating can be pleasurable by simply employing the sensation of taste.
The first question is, can cats enjoy the sensation of taste? There is no doubt to me that the common sense answer, that they do enjoy taste, is the correct one. My cat Charlie makes a gurgling/growling sound when he begins to eat his favorite food, usually human food such as chicken. There is a clear indication that he particularly likes the taste of chicken and ham.
Tasting food is about stimulating the senses. Domestic cats can have a life during which they are sometimes deprived of a range of stimuli. This could lead to a cat becoming bored. Being bored is an emotion and there are people who would argue that cats don’t feel that kind of emotion. I disagree through simple observation.
But do bored cats ask for food as a means of obtaining a sensory stimulation that is pleasurable? That is the big question because if they do then they are comfort eaters and can become obese. Cat obesity is a major health issue in the West.
My personal opinion based on observing Charlie is that a cat can become a comfort eater of sorts but there are other elements at play. One of them is routines and how we create routines.
A cat might want to comfort eat and ask for food. If we always respond by providing food we have set up a routine. Cats are very fond of routines. Then the matter is about a routine rather than comfort eating. The routine takes over. Sometimes is pays to apply a bit of tough love in a nice way to break routines that might be unhealthy.
For example, Charlie will have cat food preferences in cycles (he always likes human chicken and ham though). For a while he will prefer a certain type of cat food. Then he will get bored with it and prefer a different type, which indicates that cats do get bored. If I hold back a type of food he has become bored with and subsequently reintroduce it after about a week or so he will then like it again.
What I occasionally do is put down a food that he might be bored with as night food. He will initially reject it if he not hungry enough and return to it later on in the night when he is hungry and eat it.
This keeps his weight in check and indicates that he is a comfort eater (eating when not hungry and when he doesn’t need food). It also tells me that I can be susceptible to creating routines that makes it difficult to decide if it is me encouraging Charlie to eat or Charlie genuinely needing food.
Certain situations and behavioral patterns in our lives can give a signal to our cat that it is the time to provide food to our cat. A cat might respond by asking for food at those times as a conditioned response. That might give the impression that our cat is comfort eating when he is just engaging in a routine behavior that happens to include eating.
Here is a crude example. If Charlie is on my bed in the morning when I get up he will ask me to carry him to the kitchen for breakfast. I oblige – he has three legs so likes to be carried sometimes or I like to carry him!. The routine of me getting out of bed while he is on it can be a signal that the next step is to pick him up for a trip to the kitchen. It doesn’t always work that way but on occasions I have seem him respond like that. I sometimes leave him and he doesn’t mind (or my gut feeling is that he does not mind). This helps to break the routine behavior. If he still genuinely wants food he can walk there under his own steam.
My conclusion, which is open to debate, is that cats can engage in comfort eating but it is difficult to diagnose because sometimes, through routines and conditioned responses, we inadvertently encourage our cat to eat when he is not hungry. In short, comfort eating is masked by some other aspect of the human-cat relationship.
One of the original photos on Flickr