Can Cats Become Comfort Eaters?

Cats Eating
Cats Eating – genuinely hungry I think. Photos by AlishaV
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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

8 thoughts on “Can Cats Become Comfort Eaters?”

  1. Monty thinks he needs to eat every time he comes in from outside. Often I take him out when I know he’s hungry because when it’s time to come in I can call out “Treat!” and he will come running. So I have established a pattern. Monty comfort eats in a way because when I caught him he was feral and starving. He will overeat, but I think it comforts him to be able to eat any time he wants to and as much as he wants to. He still worries the food will run out, I think. He gets many small meals all throughout the day. I can’t give him much at a time. He eats very fast and will throw it back up unless he just has a little bit at a time. So I keep the portions small, but he gets breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, supper and night snack. But I don’t think his total intake is too much because these are all small meals. It’s probably not at all how cats eat in the wild, but it’s working for us, and I think his weight has actually gone down a little. Outside time is good for him in that it provides exercise and I think it decreases stress and reduces the need for comfort eating for him. Also, if he’s busy out there he usually isn’t thinking about food. Well, he’s probably always thinking about food, but he will choose outside time over food time to a certain extent, unless he’s actually very hungry.

    • Ruth I think you have an excellent system. Small and frequent (meaning more frequent than humans) is natural for a cat (small wild cat style diet) and to take him out first is nice because it delays eating a bit and burns off some calories.

      You can see how feeding routines are set up. These are fine as long as they don’t start to create feedings times that would not otherwise exist.

  2. This is probably true, that some cats are comfort eaters. I know for sure, I am a comfort “feeder”. It pleases me no end to feed the cats. And I love to give them variety. The full time outdoor cats are the most fun to feed. They come at odd times during the day as well as routine times.

    The heart beaker is my mostly indoor cat Bigfoot. He’s free to go out but for the most part chooses not to. And, he will eat nothing but dry cat food. It kills me! He eats good quality kibble, but I would so prefer he ate some real food. He refuses it, and has as long as I’ve known him which is now about 4 years. He is skinny too. He will only eat to survive. Not for pleasure or comfort. I assume he’s old (long in the tooth!) and I don’t expect him to change. Every cat is different. That’s why I love them.

    My newest old Tomcat Marvin is a comfort eater and I can see that he could over do it! Read about him here: Meet Marvin. He loves the attention, the variety and the company of humans. Go figure.

    You can read about my other cats by going to Bigfoot, Yellow cat, and get a small peek of Shadow under “outdoor heated kitty pad“.

    By the way Michael, I’ve re-read most of the articles on cat food this past week. Because of Marvin of course. PoC is invaluable.


    • I think the phrase you use, “Comfort Feeder” is very enlightening. What I particularly like is that you feed cats that need food, that need help. I agree that the most fun is feeding outdoor cats that are really hungry. Marvin seems to have gotten hold of dry cat food one way or another and got used to it.

  3. I agree, I think many indoor only cats eat out of boredom. Eating is pleasurable and also something to do.
    Our cats are and all have been over the 38 years we’ve shared our home with cats, fed on demand and we’ve had none with weight problems.
    Their freedom to go out during the day and lots to keep them happy indoors if the weather is bad means they don’t eat just for the sake of eating, they eat when they are hungry.
    We humans could learn a lesson from cats lol I’m never bored, in fact there are not enough hours in some days, but I do find myself eating snacks sometimes when I’m not hungry. I think it comforts me when I’m feeling helpless at all the abuse of animals, that’s my excuse anyway.
    Like Charlie our boyz sometimes go mad for a certain food then another time walk away, their faces saying ‘huh I’d rather starve than eat THAT again’
    So yes they get something different, we are just pushovers lol

    • Well, I totally respect your views and Marc’s. So, this is our little contribution to the debate. You can’t beat first hand experience. And this entire page is based on that.

      Cats can train us very slowly and without us realising it. We should be wary of it.

  4. I agree, and I certainly agree that it can grow out of boredon/sensory deprivation. I have never had an outdoor/indoor cat who over eats, but I have seen many indoor cats who are overweight. There is no question in my mind that with indoor cats one must replace the over eating with playtime. They sleep better, seem more satisfied and they burn energy and dont get overweight. Playtime is the key to a happy indoor life. An indor cat can never be 100% satisfied unless he or she is elderly I think. All young cats are curious and will gaze longingly out the window and try to get out the door at least a few times until they just give up. I totally agree with your theory about comfort eating. Probably they dont even find it that satisfying either.


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