Q:My cat will sometimes stare at his bowl and look at me like he wants food even though there is clearly food in it. He mainly eats the food from the middle of the bowl. Why do cats think their food bowl is empty when it isn’t? Is that normal?
A: Your cat may be meowing at their still-full bowl for several reasons, including they’re already worried about where their next meal will come from, their bowl doesn’t allow them to easily eat all their food (whether wet food or dry food) or they just know all that noise will get a response out of you. It’s common but technically not normal and should be addressed.
Cats are mysterious little creatures, and as cat parents, sometimes their behaviors stump us. Acting like their food bowl is empty at mealtime, even when there’s plenty of food in it, is one of those odd behaviors. We’ve tapped three cat experts to help solve this common kitty conundrum.
Is It Normal for Cats to Meow at Their Food Bowl When It’s Not Empty?
While it’s fairly common, it’s not technically normal. In fact, it could be a sign that your cat isn’t getting enough to eat, they’re not feeling stimulated, or they’re anxious. Here’s why cats meow at their food bowls, plus how to stop it, according to our experts.
Why Do Cats Meow at Their Food Bowls?
Their survival instincts are kicking in.
Most of cats’ behavioral issues can be boiled down to one reason: survival.
“In this cat food bowl case, cats can be truly worried there is not enough food in the bowl, so they will alert us when the food supply is low,” says certified cat behaviorist and owner of The Cat Behavior Clinic Mieshelle Nagelschneider.
This may seem like overly dramatic behavior for domestic cats who spend most of their time curled up sleeping in the sun while we wait on them hand and foot. But their wild ancestors passed down these survival instincts. Wild cats were originally scavengers and had to hunt for their food, so domestic cats today still have that prey drive—even if they don’t have to rely on it in the same way.
Because of this, the way you feed your cat can either stimulate them or make them feel incredibly anxious. “Cats have no opposable thumbs, so they have no control or the ability to get their next meal,” says IAABC Certified Cat Behavior Consultant Ingrid Johnson, CCBC. Essentially, they’re relying on you to feed them, which is not part of their genetic makeup.
“They can get stressed or anxious when they are worried about their next meal,” Johnson adds. And, yes, that can happen even before they finish the bowl of food in front of them!
They have whisker fatigue.
Another reason your cat could be meowing at a full bowl is something called “whisker fatigue,” or the overstimulation of their whiskers’ sensory system because they are rubbing on the side of the bowl, says Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM, CVJ. That whisker stress can be a source of anxiety and makes them not want to eat the rest of their food. This can happen with their water bowl, too.
“It’s the reason why the internet jokes about cats eating the center of their kibble piles and then won’t eat the food on the sides, yet they beg for more,” she says.
You’re giving them attention when they do it (oops!).
Sorry to say this, but you may have taught them to do it—by accident of course. This cat behavior is “likely because their human has reinforced meowing at the food bowl,” Johnson says
OK but how exactly?
While you’re probably not giving your four-legged friend treats and singing their praises every time they scream their little head off, Johnson says you could be inadvertently rewarding this behavior simply by talking back to them: “Vocalization gets human attention.”
“Every time you say ‘hey, be quiet’ or ‘it’s not time for dinner yet’ to your cat, you’re giving them attention—good or bad, it doesn’t matter,” she explains. “It’s still attention.”
They’re straight-up bored with mealtime.
Your cat may be meowing at a bowl full of food because they’re bored and want to be fed in a different way (yes, really), says Johnson. Remember, cats’ wild ancestors had to hunt for their food and they still have a little hunter inside of them. Serving up their foodies on a silver platter come feeding time may not cut it with their killer instincts.
What to Do About a Cat Meowing at a Bowl with Food Still in It
If your cat is meowing when there’s still food in their bowl, it may be worth talking to your vet about the right feeding frequency for your furry friend. All of our experts agree that anytime there’s a sudden or major change in your cat’s eating habits, it’s worth a quick trip.
If they’re worried about their next meal or bored by mealtime…
Feeder toys or puzzle toys for cats can help relieve some of that boredom and anxiety.
“Puzzle toys are a great outlet for your cat’s prey drive and hunting instinct… they can eat when and where they’re comfy, free of distractions,” Johnson says.
If you have company coming over for dinner or a rambunctious toddler running around the kitchen where your cat eats, put the puzzles or feeder toys with your cat in another room so they can eat when and where they want it. Remember: Cats like control, and “when we try to control [their food or environment], they get stressed and anxious,” says Johnson.
One thing Johnson doesn’t love for cats? Automatic feeders. She says, “That’s a boring way to feed.” Instead, she recommends thinking of ways to make your furry friend work for their food to tap into their natural hunting instincts. To help curb this, Johnson recommends utilizing creative feeding techniques that give them “free access to food, but still make them work for it.”
If they have whisker fatigue…To combat whisker fatigue and help tamp down your cat’s anxiety around eating, Dr. Wooten recommends that you buy a shallow food bowl and water dish since they “force [your cat] to hold their whiskers in a certain position to avoid overstimulation.”
If they’re doing it for attention…
This is going to sound harsh, but if your cat is meowing at their food bowl because they know it will get them attention, then the solution is to ignore it, says Nagelschneider. Find other ways to engage with your cat to satisfy their need for attention. (Get tips on how to bond with your cat here.) And to not create a learned meowing behavior issue in the first place, “replenish the cat’s bowl when your cat has not yet asked you to,” Nagelschneider says.
What to Do If Your Cat Is Meowing at a Truly Empty Food Bowl
If your cat is meowing at a totally empty food dish, they could be hungry! Healthy adult cats typically get hungry 8 to 10 hours after eating, Dr. Wooten says. “This fits with their behavior in nature, as in nature, they are ‘crepuscular’ animals, which means they hunt and are active around dusk and dawn.” Translation? Two meals a day is fine, but like we mentioned earlier, indoor cats can get bored with this basic feeding schedule.
Again, to beat this boredom, Dr. Wooten recommends food puzzles or “hunting” opportunities during the day. If you’re offering different feeding methods and you’re still noticing that your cat is meowing at the sight of their empty bowl, talk to your vet to rule out any potential health issues and make sure you’re feeding them enough.
The Bottom LineCat behavior is a funny thing sometimes. You may think it’s just your cat being overly dramatic if they’re meowing at their food bowl when there’s food still in it, but they do have their reasons. Understanding our feline friend’s behavior and meeting their needs can help finally bring some peace to mealtime once and for all. Bon appetit!
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