Can and do domestic cats eat for pleasure?

Domestic cats can and do eat for pleasure like humans. That’s my conclusion. I will tackle the issue from two points of view: observing my cat and the science of overeating because of pleasure eating. I will talk about my cat first.

Simon's cat asking for food
Simon’s cat asking for food. Image from YouTube video.
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Observing my cat

Just this morning when I woke up before I prepared this article, my cat came up to me and asked for food. He was actually asking me for prawns. I know this because of a lifetime of living with him and the rhythms and habits we both get into when interacting. I also know this because when I gave him some standard cat food, he turned up his nose at it and started to play with a catnip toy instead; seeking pleasure.

He was not hungry. He simply wanted to enjoy eating prawns. He wanted his treat. After playing with his favorite toy, he went outside for a bit of fun. He was seeking fun, basically, and I couldn’t give it to him in the form of his favourite food (none left). He is now back on my lap while I write this in bed. He’s seeking more pleasure. He loves the warmth and the company; exactly the kind of things that people like too.

So, what is going on in the brain and my cat? Is it any different to overeating for pleasure, which happens so often with people?

Humans and the science behind overeating

The science on this is very complicated as usual. But we do know that humans overeat and they eat for pleasure. I do it myself. I know when I am doing it. We should only eat when we are hungry but the world’s obesity epidemic tells us that this simple rule does not apply. All the food that is sold at cinemas is pleasure food. When you watch television in your home you want to eat or drink something at the same time to add to the pleasure of the experience.

Perhaps it is better to forget the hard science and look at it from a commonsense standpoint. Eating nice food is a pleasurable experience. People seek pleasurable experiences for obvious reasons. If eating one mince pie makes you feel better you will want to eat another.

It is said that pleasure eating compared to hunger eating activates reward signals in the brain which when activated prompt people to eat more. Researchers believe that the brain’s reward mechanisms initiate the body’s response to pleasurable food. There appears to be two chemicals that do this namely ghrelin, which is a hormone and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).

My research indicates that both of these chemicals created by the human body (endogenous) are also present in animals. For example, one study: Ghrelin in domestic animals: distribution in stomach and its possible role, states that “Ghrelin, a novel growth-hormone-releasing acylated peptide, was recently isolated from rat and human stomachs.”

And 2-AG was first detected in the canine gut. It is an endocannabinoid. I’m going to state that both of these chemicals produced by the human body are also present in domestic cats

What does it mean to the human-cat relationship?

It means that people who live with cats have to both control their pleasure eating and the pleasure eating of their cat 😒. It is doubly difficult. A lot of people fail in this task which is why there is an obesity epidemic as described by veterinarians in the world domestic cat population (living mainly in developed countries) .

Cat meow-purring as he asks for something he likes and which he expects to receive. He reinforces his request by standing on his hind legs.
Cat meow-purring as he asks for something he likes and which he expects to receive. He reinforces his request by standing on his hind legs. Screenshot

It is partly driven by the increase in the number of full-time indoor cats and partly driven, arguably, by the increase in the amount of dry cat food provided to domestic cats which is unnaturally high in carbohydrates. There is a third possible factor which is that a domestic cat’s metabolism is reduced after spaying and neutering which requires that their owners take this into consideration and sometimes, they don’t.

Boredom

We know that boredom can lead to pleasure eating in people. I believe that the same happens in cats. Take a bored full-time indoor cat and you are more likely to see that cat pleasure eating than one who is allowed to go outside. That is not to support the idea that domestic cats should be allowed outside. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that feline boredom can lead to feline overeating out of pleasure seeking.

Bored cat
Bored cat. Photo in public domain.

The wild cats never overeat. Their problem is under-eating. And when they eat, they have to work very hard to find their meal and capture it. They can’t ask their owner for a treat. As owners know the pleasure of eating and as they want to please their cat they give them their desired treat.

Obesity health issues

Almost everybody now knows that there are health issues associated to obesity and that applies to humans as well as cat companions. The obvious one that comes to mind is Type II diabetes. There is a human diabetic epidemic in the UK and probably in the USA brought about because of overeating. Domestic cats can develop diabetes through obesity. There are other health problems linked to obesity such as heart problems and there will be joint problems in old age because of the extra weight.

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