One reason why cats ask for food but don’t eat it sometimes

Sometimes domestic cats pester their owners for food. They then become picky and don’t eat it. The request for food can be quite distinct as can the rejection of it when it is served up. The reason for this must be because of a conditioned response. It is the pairing of a situation or circumstance and a reward. This triggers the request despite the fact that the cat does not actually want food. It is an instinctive response to indirect training by their owner.

Cat requesting and waiting for food
Cat requesting and waiting for food. Image: Pixabay.
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I’ll provide an example because it happens to me and my cat. When I come home my cat is pleased to see me like millions of other domestic cat companions. Normally I give him a little treat of prawns as a reward for waiting and greeting me; sometimes in the street as he is that keen to see me.

And little by little he has learned that he receives a reward of prawns, his favourite meal, when I come to the front door and go into the kitchen. He’s been trained. He has paired the stimulus, which is me walking through the front door into the kitchen, with a reward, namely the prawns. It’s a simple case of training a cat or a cat training a person: you can make your mind up on that.

So this morning he requested prawns. He rubbed up against me and meowed. All the classic signs of a request for something which I knew was his treat. I diligently placed prawns on the plate and broke them up so they smelt stronger. He licked them and then walked away from them. I put them back into the packet and the packet into the fridge in the expectation that he will ask again and at that time he will eat them.

I’m sure this conditioning occurs all the time in various ways but it often concerns food. I’m sure, too, that it is one of the reasons why sometimes cats appear to be picky about food. They are not actually being picky, they are simply not hungry but they’ve been conditioned to request food at a certain time and under certain circumstances.

Indoor hunting feeder no bowl system

This would imply that it would be better to vary the time and the circumstances at and under which you feed your cat. This would better replicate what would happen if they were living in the wild, as wild cats do not know for sure when they’re going to eat. In fact they might go days without feeding properly. Their feeding programme is entirely flexible as is the species of animal that they feed on. There is huge variety.

I’m as guilty as anybody in not providing enough variety of diet and timing. Although I do make an effort. The toys that you can buy in which you place dry cat food are designed to provide not only a challenge to get the food but also a flexibility in their feeding regime.

Puzzle cat feeder.
Puzzle cat feeder as recommended by Mikel Delgado, PhD in a Twitter tweet. Photo: Twitter.

There is quite a lot of discussion about how many times you should feed a cat during a 24-hour cycle. I’m sure that most people put food down about three times. I don’t think we can claim that there is any one rule on this. If you refer to the wild cat ancestor of the domestic cat their feeding regime is so flexible that it doesn’t inform us as to how often we should put food down. Perhaps we should vary it all the time to break up those routines and training triggers that I’ve referred to. It would help to keep cats on their toes which must be a good thing. They need challenges because arguably their lives are too pampered. This can contribute to boredom and overeating leading to obesity and feline Type II diabetes.

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