What are Food Aggression in Cats?
Food aggression refers to a type of aggressive behavior displayed by cats towards other people and pets in their household or vicinity. Like other kinds of cat aggression, food aggression can be motivated by anxiety, but is unique in that it is specifically focused on food and mealtimes.
Cats who aggressively guard their food, constantly search and beg for food, and become overwhelmingly aggressive when anyone approaches their food or food dish may hiss, growl or bite in response. These behaviors can be alarming and even dangerous to other members of the family, but can be treated through several techniques aimed at dealing with the causes behind them.
Symptoms of Food Aggression in Cats
Food aggression in cats can share similar symptoms with other forms of feline aggression, such as hissing and attacking family members, other animals or visitors. When aggression is centered around food, a cat will exhibit specific behaviors with or near food that can often go unrecognized as aggression, and simply be thought to be signs of hunger. If your cat is experiencing food aggression, you may see symptoms including:
- Guarding food bowl, its location, or entrance into room where food is served
- Growling or hissing while eating, or when anyone gets near them and their food
- Attacking family members or other pets when food is present
- Stealing food from family members or other pets
- Forcefully keeping other pets from their own food
- Tearing through food packaging to get to food
- Spending a lot of time in kitchen waiting for food
- Excessively vocalizing need for food, whether food is present or not
- Pestering owners to feed them
- Begging for food at human mealtimes
- Eating quickly or overeating, which can result in vomiting
- Acting excessively hungry
Other signs of generalized aggression that can be seen along with food aggression include:
- Quick, flicking tail
- Dilated pupils
- Direct stare
- Tense or crouched body
- Ears that are flattened or rotated backwards
- Fur standing up on neck or tail
Causes of Food Aggression in Cats
The cause of food aggression may stem from instinctual behaviors of wild cats that are still inherent in domestic ones. In the wild, cats of all sizes are carnivores who spend at least half of each day hunting and eating prey. These solitary predators live and eat alone, and eat as frequently as they can, resulting in several small meals throughout any given day. Many theories as to why cats become food aggressive relate to these wild behaviors centered around active hunting and frequent eating that are compromised in an indoor, domestic environment.
Factors that can contribute to the development of food aggression include:
- Multi-cat households that prevent solitary and private mealtimes, and create anxiety and competition for resources
- Change to two large, daily meals rather than several smaller ones that can create anxiety about when food will be available
- Lack of mental stimulation and activity normally obtained through hunting that causes mealtime to become main daily activity
- Stress-induced eating caused by anxiety or boredom
New research has discovered that some cats with food aggression may be experiencing a food obsession, officially termed psychogenic abnormal feeding behavior. Much like pica, an obsession with eating non-food items, this compulsive food obsession can cause a cat to exhibit behaviors regarding food that may go beyond mere aggression into abnormal and compulsive acts, such as clinging onto food containers or the kitchen counter.
In some cases, a medical issue could be causing the aggression. Possible conditions include:
Diagnosis of Food Aggression in Cats
Aggression in cats is fairly common, and is generally diagnosed by observation of their behaviors. Your veterinarian will need to know all of the symptoms you’ve been noticing in your cat, including all food related aggressive behaviors, and any other aggression displayed. You should also relate to your veterinarian any other symptoms, including behavioral, elimination and appetite changes as these can point to a physical reason for the aggression.
After a physical examination, your veterinarian may conduct several tests if they suspect a medical condition may be at fault. These can include blood tests, urine tests, fecal tests, X-rays or other imaging tests. If a medical issue is ruled out, your veterinarian will look for an environmental reason for the aggression.
Observations of your cat’s behavior is key to diagnosing food aggression, so be sure to relate everything aggressive or abnormal you’ve noticed your cat doing, as well as if there are multiple cats in the household, and how much space and resources are dedicated to each one. In some cases, food aggressive behaviors are misinterpreted as aggression when they are in fact learned behaviors to get food and treats, while in others, cats may be suffering from boredom or anxiety.
Treatment of Food Aggression in Cats
Once behavioral food aggression has been diagnosed as the reason your cat is exhibiting food-related aggressive behaviors, treatment aims at reducing stressors and situations that may be contributing to the aggression while getting closer to a natural feeding routine. Each cat is different, and will likely need a variety of methods to break food aggression habits.
In a multi-cat household, try giving each cat their own separate area to eat. Some cats do well with their own spaces in the same room, but most cats do better with their own rooms, or with physical separations such as baby gates. Placing food dishes on different vertical levels can also help cats feel more secure, while watching for other animals encroaching on their territory. Having separate water and litter access can help as well.
Natural Eating Routine
For a cat aggressively anticipating meal time, try to split up their meals into several smaller meals throughout the day rather than in two large meals to emulate how they would eat in the wild. Timed, automatic feeders can help spread out mealtimes. Be sure to place your cat’s food dish in an area where they can feel safe, which may mean placing it away from doors, entrances and places of high foot traffic where they may feel threatened or bothered.
Encourage Hunting Instinct
To tackle boredom and the repressed instinct to hunt, engage your cat’s natural hunting prowess by spreading multiple small meals around the house and let them forage for them. New locations and elevated spaces can really get them moving! Giving your cat the ability to hunt for food aligns them with their natural feeding patterns, and gives them rewards for their efforts which can create positive feelings and associations, and reduce their anxiety and aggression related to food.
Make Mealtime Fun
Puzzle feeders are a great way to engage your cat’s senses, and give them some mental stimulation and physical activity while eating. They can also be beneficial for overeaters or those who eat too fast, as well as for spreading out meals into smaller amounts throughout the day. If you’ve got multiple cats, be sure to place several puzzle feeders around the house so all can enjoy the activity, and there isn’t so much competition for resources.
Another method is to turn food time into play time by using their kibble or treats to play fetch or catch, or even hide and seek. This again gives them a positive and fun association with food rather than a tense, negative one.
While correcting food aggression in your cat, refrain from feeding your cat at the table, or from your own plate. In some cases, you may need to separate your cat from you while you and the rest of the family eats until their aggressive behaviors cease. Praise your cat when they are acting calmly during mealtime, and never punish them when they act inappropriately. Whatever technique you try, be sure to keep an eye on the daily amount of food and treats they consume, as well as their weight.
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Recovery of Food Aggression in Cats
Due to the variety of reasons behind food aggression, as well as the methods and anxieties that could be involved, there is no set time frame for recovery. If your cat is suffering from a medical condition that is causing the food aggression, proper treatment can usually alleviate the aggressive behaviors.
For cats who are given meal adjustments and re-conditioning, recovery is generally high. Some cats can be cured of food aggression using these techniques, while others may need additional considerations as time goes on, or even treatment for other aggression issues that may be related or be contributing to the food aggression. Your veterinarian will work with you, or recommend a cat behavioralist to help guide your cat to recovery.
In some cases, a cat may continue to exhibit food-related aggression and will need to have special meal adjustments throughout their life. Usually, these are fairly easy to establish and continue, and work best when the entire household is involved.