If you’ve ever witnessed an aggressive cat, it can be equally bewildering and worrisome, if not frightening, depending on the size and age of the cat involved. One common form of aggression in felines is motivated by an unhealthy rapport with food. Because food is necessary for survival, it can easily become the subject of contention turning your affectionate kitty into an unrecognizable, threatening wildcat.

Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

You may have observed food aggression without necessarily realizing what you were seeing or at least connecting food as the source of your cat’s discontent and tendency toward aggressive behavior.

Feline Food Aggression Signs

How do you know if your cat’s aggressivity is connected to food?  One unquestionable sign is if your cat begins to act aggressively right before dinnertime or throughout its meal, especially to other weaker cats with special needs. There may also be subtle signs that have been in the works for some time without being recognized as being a specific form of food aggression.  

Typical food aggressive behavior includes:

  • Guarding a food bowl
  • Guarding the room where the food bowl is located
  • Pushing other family felines away from food dishes and bullying
  • Swapping food bowls or moving back and forth between food bowls is another tactic frequently used.
  • Begging for food constantly
  • Jumping on the dinner table to steal your food
  • Stealing food from the pantry and chewing through packaging, or foraging in the garbage
  • Hissing, swatting, striking, growling, or lashing its tail when food is near or during mealtimes.

Common Causes of Feline Food Aggression

One trigger might be if you are only feeding your cat once a day. It’s important to remember that feral cats or felines in the wild may eat anywhere from nine to twenty small meals daily. They will hunt and prey on birds and rodents. So, if you are providing only a single daily feeding, your cat may decide that the food must be protected at all costs for a meal later on.  They may also interpret the removal of a food dish as threatening.

Hunting and consequently eating, are practiced by felines in solitude. Unlike canines or wolves that will hunt in packs, cats are lone predators. Eating with other family cats, or pets may be perceived as a provocation. 

Some cats will not eat or will overeat if they do not have privacy during mealtime. They view company during dinner as intimidating and this can exact an aggressive response. Undereating can lead to malnutrition and overeating can lead to obesity or vomiting if they gorge on their food.

Often cats, or kittens that have suffered trauma by losing mom early on through abandonment, death, or early separation, and especially those felines not weaned properly, may be more prone to becoming aggressive when around food.

Aggressive behavior can often be connected to cats that live outdoors and must hunt or forage to get a decent meal or ]can be commonly observed in shelter cats that enter resource competition.

New cats introduced to multi-cat households or family cats that suddenly find their world disturbed by the presence of a new feline may utilize defensive territorial behavior which includes defending resources like food. 

If your cat suddenly becomes aggressive around food, you’ll need to rule out that there is an underlying health issue at play. Should your cat become food aggressive out of the blue, check with your veterinarian before considering other possible reasons.

Does Kitty Need a Behaviorist?

Not necessarily. There are cases of unusual psychologically-rooted behavior in felines such as the young male Siamese reported on in the Journal of Veterinary Medicine. This cat was diagnosed at only eight months of age as suffering from “psychogenic abnormal feeding behavior”.

This was undoubtedly an extreme case with aggressivity displayed during feeding and included the theft of food and a penchant for eating plastic. Objectively, it appeared as though he had a bottomless pit for a stomach as this kitty was never satiated. The veterinarians determined that there was no physiological motive for his behavior and that its origin was psychological in nature.

This Siamese cat suffered from pica, recognized as a mental disorder, which is the craving or eating of things that are not food. In the case of the Siamese, it was plastic. This condition can be triggered by early weaning, stress, anxiety, boredom, or a deficiency of some element in the diet. It is more common in purebreds. This Siamese had, at some point in his young life, his psychological equilibrium compromised. 

How Do I Manage My Cat’s Food Aggression?

Photo by Michael Morse

There are some simple ways to work on improving your cat’s behavior, but you will need to be patient, consistent, and dedicated to resolving the problem. Aggressive felines are quite the challenge.

 Consider these steps to reduce or eliminate feline food aggression:

  • Begin by visiting your veterinarian to eliminate the possibility of an underlying health issue.
  • Practice free feeding so your cat knows that food is and always will be available. If this is not a viable option due to obesity or other health issues, plan on providing at least five to six smaller meals throughout the day to replicate what their species’ natural behavior in the wild would be. 
  • If you are dealing with food aggression in a multi-cat household, the obvious strategy will be to feed your cats separately at mealtime. 
  • If you practice free feeding with a bowl of kibble always available, you may need two bowls of kibble in separate rooms or locations, to remove the tendency for food bowl guarding.  
  • If you feed wet food, always use separate dishes, one for each cat, placed far apart, and supervise dinnertime.
  • Positioning your cat’s feeding area away from distraction is a spot where your kitty can feel protected. An unnerved feline should not have to deal with noise, bright lights, litter boxes, odors, or any type of confusion when eating.
  • Food and water should be located separately and positioned in such a way as to permit your cat an ample visual of the surrounding area. Felines in the wild always choose to eat and drink from locations where they can see and be on guard against other predators.
  • Feeding positions can be changed often to mimic hunting.
  • Protect your cat from boredom during the day by arranging for a puzzle toy as a food dish. Hide small amounts of kibble in the puzzle toy so that your cat must search and scavenge to be able to eat a small mid-day meal. 

Lots of patience and time will reward your efforts to reassure your cat and aid him or her in finding balance around food and diminishing any anxiety Kitty may be feeling. A high-quality commercial cat food offering a variety of food textures and flavors will contribute to stimulating your cat while providing essential nutrients, and gradually your feline BFF will come to the realization that there will always be a sufficient supply of tasty food on hand.