By Patience Fisher
From cat food commercials to cartoons and internet cats, it is something of a running joke that cats are picky eaters. But is this common assumption correct?
According to C.A. Tony Buffington, a leading researcher in the field of feline nutrition, the answer is a resounding no.
Health and Stress
Buffington states that cats are very adaptable; left to their own devices they can and do thrive on a wide range of foods. This is important to their survival, since they are opportunistic eaters. If a cat is not eating a food she previously liked, then something is wrong. Health issues and stress are both possible culprits in preventing a cat from enjoying her food (Buffington, 2015).
Health issues that can cause a cat to become finicky include dental problems, digestive upset and dehydration. The latter two can be symptoms of a serious health issue, such as kidney problems or hyperthyroidism. If the finicky cat also experiences loose stool or emesis, she should be promptly seen by a veterinarian.
Another potential sign of digestive upset is sitting in a protective position after eating (also known as the meatloaf position, this involves the cat resting on her sternum with her legs, paws and tail tucked underneath her with eyes unfocused, partly shut or shut).
Of course, there are many reasons a cat may assume this posture but bear in mind that most cats that have had a fulfilling meal will wash their faces afterwards, or assume a relaxed posture. Some will play. It is important to know the cat’s normal after-meal activity. If finicky eating is paired with this posture after eating there may be a health problem.
Painful teeth can cause a cat to appear picky. When offered a new, delicious food a hungry cat with a sore tooth may well be enticed to eat.
As explained by McCurnin and Bassert (2010, p. 322): “A transient ‘newness factor’ can temporarily increase food intake” when new foods are offered. It goes to reason that after his hunger abates and the pain is a more evocative stimulus than hunger, the cat may stop eating. This may result in an aversion to the new food as the cat may now have been conditioned to associate it with pain.
Although it is fine to offer a few small portions of new foods to see if that solves the problem, constantly changing the food may let the underlying problem go untreated and condition aversion to these particular foods. If a cat is finicky even when offered a few new foods, it is time to see the veterinarian.
Feline Tooth Resorption
Problem teeth can be hard to diagnose. Cats are prone to a painful, hidden problem known as feline tooth resorption, the cause of which is unknown. The teeth can look normal but their roots may have lesions which can only be seen using x-rays.
According to McCurnin (2010, p. 1,136), 20 to 70 percent of cats are affected by this problem. Because one unpleasant food experience can lead to the rejection of that food for months, a cat that is perceived as finicky over a period of a few days should be looked at by a veterinarian (Houpt, 1982; Macdonald et al., 1984, 1985, as cited by Overall, 2013, p. 322).
Another indication of a possible dental issue is a cat that stops eating when there is no food left in the center of the bowl. If pushing the food back to the center or serving it on a plate entices the cat to eat, a dental check-up is in order.
The natural stimuli for eating are movement and smell. Feeding your cat while you are cooking your own dinner can have an effect.
Robinson states that cooking palatable food the cat is not given to eat can stimulate the cat to eat her food (cited by Overall, 2013, p. 322). The presence or absence of cooking smells can therefore affect a cat’s appetite, making the cat’s preference appear inconsistent if the owner has not made this connection.
Whether or not a food is room temperature or refrigerated can also be a factor that is overlooked. The preferred food temperature is 35 degrees Celsius/95 degrees Fahrenheit (Overall, 2013, p. 322).
At the 2015 International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) Feline Behavior Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Buffington stated that stress affects individual cats differently. Although it may cause some cats to overeat, it causes others to become fastidious.
Feline Body Language
Cats are very subtle in their body language. A stressed cat may assume a tucked position, in just the same way as a cat with digestive upset does. This is a defensive posture, signaling the cat’s desire to be left alone.
Competition for food from another pet can be a source of stress and may not always be obvious. A cat staring at another cat during meal time may be all it takes for that cat to walk away from his food. Other things that might cause a cat stress are a change in routine, a new housemate or person, the loss of a housemate or person, or a change in the behavior of a housemate or person.
The common theme is change. If a cat is finicky and a veterinary exam shows no signs of digestive, systemic or dental issues, try to discover if there were any changes in his life on or before the finicky eating developed. If a change can be identified, a coping strategy should be considered.
As always, prevention is preferred. If you know that there will be changes in your cat’s life, initiate a desensitization strategy as well as a coping strategy in advance.
Conditioned to Be Picky
Cats can be conditioned to be picky. If new foods are offered to a picky cat, she may well be tempted by the new food. If the cat’s microbiome is unaccustomed to this food it can cause digestive upset. This can lead to dehydration which further decreases appetite. It can also condition the cat to dislike that food.
The following scenario is how some cats may become picky eaters. The cat is put off by her regular food (for whatever reason) and so is offered a new food. The hungry cat is stimulated to eat the new food, which upsets her unaccustomed digestive system and results in pain.
Now the cat will not eat that second food.
The owner offers a third food and the pattern repeats. Perhaps at some point the owner goes back to the original food.
If enough time has passed the cat may well try this food. The conditioned aversion to the food may no longer be remembered. The owner may assume that the whole scenario is due to the cat being finicky, when it may actually be a series of conditioned aversions.
You can avoid this problem by only offering a small quantity of a new food and then gradually increasing the amount over many days. If the cat soon turns against the new food perhaps a medical problem is the underlying cause.
Variety of Foods
To prevent creating a picky eater, Buffington recommends starting kittens on a variety of foods. Since changes such as a discontinuation of a type of cat food, a change in the manufacturing process of a cat food, or a conditioned aversion to a food due to the onset of dental or digestive issues are hard to avoid, it behooves us to get kittens use to a variety of foods.
The cat will then be more open to choosing another food should the one he is eating become undesirable.
If a cat rejects her food and is not ill and does not have dental problems, it is fine to offer her a new food but this needs to be done correctly. If it is not, it can cause digestive upset. The new food must be offered in small quantities, especially if she likes it and may eat more than her system can acclimate to.
Introducing New Foods
Buffington states that encouraging an adult cat to eat a variety of foods is a good idea, because you may have to change her food at some point in her life. If she is already eating different foods, this will be easier.
Offer the new food along with the current food at first. If she likes it that should be apparent in a day or two (Buffington, interviewed by Eckstein, 2015). Although it is a good idea to find out what your cat prefers by offering an array of small portions of different foods, be sure to put them all out at once.
Do not offer other choices in response to meowing or not eating. And be sure to keep in mind the role stress and underlying medical conditions may play.
Buffington, C.A. (2015). International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants Feline Behavior Conference, Atlanta, Georgia
Eckstein, S. (2015). How to Deal With a Cat That’s a Picky Eater
McCurnin, D., & Bassert, J. (2010). McCurnin’s Clinical Textbook for Veterinary Technicians, Seventh Edition St. Louis, MO: Saunders Elsevier
Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. St. Louis, MO: Mosby