Cat in front of food bowl
Cats most commonly eat multiple small meals throughout the day, but some owners notice differences in the way their cats eat their meals.

For example, some cats wolf down their food like hungry dogs, whereas others seem finicky and only pick at their food. Some pick up mouthfuls of food and then run off to eat away from the bowl, or away from other cats, before coming back for more. Or they eat only at certain times or when no one else is noticeably around. Some cats (and some owners) prefer canned or dry food to other alternatives. Cats also have prey preferences during hunting or play that can influence how they like to eat, and some leave “trophies” of dead animals for their owners as part of their eating experience.

How Do These Behaviors Develop?

I like to think of behavior in general as the result of three interconnected factors:

  • History
  • Context
  • Expectations
Your individual cat’s history, as well as the context in which his behavior occurs and what his expectations might be as a result of that behavior all influence what actually occurs. For example, each time your cat acts, his environment responds in some way. Your cat receives a response from the environment through his senses — sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. His brain then attempts to make sense of this information and shapes a meaning from it according to his personal history. The place where the interaction occurs (the context) and what he expects to happen next (his expectations) also influence his behavior.

Your cat’s life history consists of his family and environmental past. The context is the cat’s present surroundings — the resources he has available to cope with the situation he’s living in, as well as his interactions with the world around him. Your cat’s expectation is what he thinks will happen next.

Some cats are programmed to be more sensitive to stress or threats in their surroundings. For example, a cat may have had a bad experience early in life (like being orphaned), which can make him more sensitive to threats in his surroundings. If your sensitive cat lives in an enriched home that meets all his needs, this sensitivity may never be expressed. On the other hand, if the cat lives in a barren or unstable, chaotic household that is more than he can cope with, unusual behaviors can result.

Your cat’s expectations are also about predictability. If your cat expects a good outcome, he will thrive in most situations. Expecting a bad outcome, or even more importantly, not knowing what to expect, can be very threatening to a cat. This is especially important in indoor cats because they are confined and have much less control of their surroundings than do their owners, who literally control every aspect of the cat’s life, including where and when he can eat, drink, eliminate, explore, etc.

A Different Way to Look at Behavior

Viewing cats’ eating behaviors from this perspective leads directly to some ideas about their causes. As we know, cats are a prey as well as predator species, and eating is a vulnerable time. Because of this, cats in threatening environments may wolf down their food, pick at their food, or run off to eat portions of their food away from the bowl and other cats before returning for more.

All of these behaviors minimize the time spent in what the cat may perceive to be a threatening area. These perceived threats might be emanating from other cats, appliances, high-traffic areas of the house, proximity to windows, etc. Creating individual feeding stations in safe, quiet areas of the home can usually resolve these eating behaviors if they are of concern.

Some cats prefer canned or dry food or a particular prey to other alternatives, and sometimes cats will eat only a single kind of food. (Always have your cat examined by a veterinarian to make sure there isn’t a medical reason for the preference, such as dental or oral disease.) There are a number of possibilities for these behaviors.

Food preferences develop in cats early in life, influenced by what their mother eats and provides for them. That is why some veterinarians recommend that kittens be offered an assortment of foods, so that they become used to variety. The home environment also plays a role, in that cats, like many animals, are more interested in novel foods when they feel they are in safe rather than threatening environments. In threatening environments, they prefer familiar, safe, foods.

Practical Tips About Prey

Differences in prey preferences during hunting or play can be observed by owners and used to guide choices of toys — food based and otherwise — to offer your cat. Cats who jump at objects in the air may prefer “birdlike” toys, whereas cats who chase bugs may prefer laser pointers or pieces of dry food rolled across hard floor surfaces. The range of toys for cats is seemingly endless, as a quick Internet search for “cat toys” demonstrates. A bit of time spent observing what your cat chooses to play with as “prey” will help you choose toys that will provide the most fun for both you and your cat — a bonus of your attention to his diet.

Some owners also report that their cats bring them hunting trophies. Because cats are opportunistic hunters who will hunt any time game is available, they do not stop killing to eat, but instead store food to eat later. And what safer place to store a kill than with one’s feeder (that’s you)?

When your cat brings you a mouse, he is more likely saying, “Hold this; I’ll be back,” rather than, “See what I brought you?” Along the same lines, owners often become concerned about their cats leaving food in their bowls, but as long as a cat is healthy, this can be considered normal behavior. The cat may simply feel that it is safe to leave uneaten food in your presence.

Of course, cats are individuals (because of history, context and expectation), so your cat may or may not engage in any of these eating behaviors. If he is engaging in a feeding activity you have questions about, you may be able to figure out what is going on with your cat by taking a closer look at all of his behaviors, the context in which they occur, and the quality of the environment in which he lives.

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