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Our cats can sometimes seem pretty darn demanding.
Whether it’s insisting that all doors in the house are always left open or demanding pets with a well-placed headbutt to your hand cats aren’t shy about communicating with us.
But the hard part is figuring out exactly what our cats are trying to tell us. Headbutts to the hand and meowing at the door are easy enough to figure out but one of the more confusing scenarios is when cats beg for food despite having plenty of food in their bowl.
What’s going on here and why do cats beg for food even when their bowl is full?
In many cases, cats may actually be asking for your attention and not food but the difference between begging for attention and begging for food can sometimes be confusing. Outside of that explanation, cats may be unhappy with the food you’ve provided for them or may be suffering from some discomfort that makes eating painful.
Let’s dive in and take a closer look at what’s going on here with 10 reasons to explain this strange feline behavior.
Reason 1: Your Cat Actually Wants Attention
I know, it may seem like your cat really wants more food but in some cases, cats are simply looking for your undivided attention.
But this isn’t just speculation- one study on feline obesity found that “Owners are sensitive to the intensity of cats’ solicitation behaviors and may misinterpret these social interactions as hunger, and give the cat more food, which can lead to weight problems.”
While we’d all agree our cats are quite communicative, they really only have a handful of ways to express themselves so it’s no surprise the messages can get mixed.
A cat that’s begging will rub their cheeks on you, vocalize more, try to climb in your lap, or just generally get into whatever you’re doing. But a cat that really wants attention will show many of the same behaviors.
Most cat parents (including me) believe they can tell the difference but I could also see how I may be wrong…at least every now and then.
This explanation could be even more likely depending on how you interact with your cat during mealtime. I’d guess that you don’t just drop off the food and spring into the other room.
Instead, if you’re like most cat parents, feeding time can be a bit of an experience that includes plenty of positive praise and petting. Cats will quickly realize that begging leads to petting and quality attention from their favorite person. Food is certainly a nice bonus but it may not be the primary reason.
So the next time your cat begs with a full bowl, try doing something other than feeding them. Not only is responding with something other than food a fundamental part of discouraging cats to beg in the first place, but you may find that your cat prefers a petting or play session over food as well.
Or even better, they may eat the food they already have after play or pet time!
Reason 2: Your Cat Doesn’t Realize Their Bowl Is Full
It may seem obvious to you that there’s food in the bowl but it might not be so clear to your cat- there are two possible explanations for this.
First, your cat may just assume that the food bowl is empty. I’m very familiar with this behavior since it’s something that my cat likes to do, although there are probably a few other reasons at play.
But as soon as we wake up, she lets me know that it’s time for breakfast even though she still has dinner waiting for her. We’re in the bedroom and the food is in the kitchen so she can’t see it in front of her but she seems to be making the assumption that I need to get to work and feed her.
Of course, she could have walked into the kitchen at any point and eaten on her own but she either doesn’t realize there’s food ready to go or she wants a little company and I suspect it’s a little of both.
The second issue is that some cats may have real trouble seeing that their food bowl has food in it. As the folks at Live Science explain, “Because cats lack the muscles necessary to change the shape of their eye lenses, they can’t see things clearly quite as close as humans can and need to be further away.”
On top of that, the experts at Trupanion explain that “Since a cat’s cones are most sensitive to blue and yellow wavelengths of light, they do not see colors like red, orange, or brown. They are similar to people with red-green color blindness—red hues likely appear as the color green to your cat.”
If you combine a cat’s poor vision up close and their inability to distinguish between many colors, including the brown color of kibble, it should be no surprise that cats can’t see what’s in the bowl!
If you suspect poor feline vision might be at play, try shaking up the food bowl and even moving the kibble around with your hand. If we’re talking about wet food, try moving some of the mush to the middle of the bowl and see if this doesn’t help your cat understand that there is food in the bowl.
Even if they can’t see the kibble, the sound and your movements will let them know that there’s food available.
Reason 3: The Food Is “Stale”
This is especially true if the cat food, wet or dry, has been in the bowl for a few hours or overnight.
Of course, when I say “stale” I’m referring to feline standards which could mean that the food has only been out a few hours or less. So while you may think your cat has plenty of food in their bowl, what they’re really begging for is some fresh food.
But when you really think about it, this may not be as crazy as it sounds, and to be fair to our cats, wet food does look pretty gross after a few hours.
However, this isn’t just about a cat’s high standards. Eating fresh food and drinking fresh moving water would be an important part of surviving in wild. Your cat’s wild ancestors and feral cousins eat several small meals a day as they need to hunt down prey before they can eat.
In other words, it’s not so long ago that your cat would only eat fresh food. Not-so-fresh and already dead meals would generally be avoided since they could be less safe. This is very different from dogs which are scavengers by nature and would probably be happy to eat 100-year-old cat food.
While I don’t have as much scientific evidence to back it up, I suspect that fresh isn’t just about how long the food has been out but how long ago you added fresh food is just as important. It seems that cats want to see the food prep process just as much as they want the food to be fresh.
This could explain why many cats seem satisfied with a little top off of fresh kibble or wet food even if it’s only a very small amount of additional food.
Reason 4: Your Cat Doesn’t Like Their Food
Cats are naturally a bit picky about their food, especially if there’s something different about it.
So if your cat is begging despite a full bowl of food, one of the first things to consider is whether or not something has changed. It could be as simple as an updated recipe or even an entirely new brand.
Again, there’s a scientific reason why some cats are such picky eaters and like many feline behaviors it ties back to their ancient instincts. In the wild, cats wouldn’t want to eat every new food they could find since new foods could be dangerous or cause an upset stomach. The risk of an upset stomach may sound pretty mild but everything can be dangerous when you’re small enough to be prey for larger animals.
As a result, it appears that cats are quite committed to their usual routine.
Of course, some cats are just plain picky and there may not be more to it than that. I’ve reviewed dozens of cat food and written hundreds of articles about feline nutrition. Along the way, I’ve also read thousands and thousands of cat food reviews and the number one complaint is that cats won’t eat the food.
This is true of every cat food I’ve ever looked out and it tells me that no matter how great the cat food is, you can find a cat that will refuse to eat it.
So it’s not just your cat that’s picky!
Look for any possible change in your cat’s normal diet to explain the begging with a full bowl behavior. Keep in mind that some of these changes can be quite subtle but also realize that cats will usually come around pretty quick.
Reason 5: Your Cat Wants A Treat
Your cat’s begging could be their way of holding out for something better than what they already have in the bowl.
Your cat could be asking for wet food over the dry they already have or they could be asking for something even more delicious like a cat treat. Or even people food if you made the mistake of introducing your cat to the world of human food!
Essentially cats could be saying, “Uhh, thanks for the kibble. May I have some ham?”
In most cases, cats will quickly realize that tastier food isn’t coming but we really can’t fault them for giving it a shot.
Reason 6: Whisker Fatigue Could Be To Blame
Whisker fatigue might sound like something that guys who are tired of shaving would complain about but it’s actually a feline condition where the whiskers become overstimulated or uncomfortable as a result of constantly rubbing against food or water bowls.
Our cats have 24 very powerful whiskers that can are powerful enough to sense extremely subtle changes in wind current among many other “superpowers”. The problem is that cats can’t turn their superpowers off and have to rub their sensitive whiskers against the side of narrow bowls any time they want to get a drink of water or a bite of food.
Over time, this can lead to discomfort and whisker fatigue. Potential signs of whisker fatigue include spilling food, flipping their food bowls, and of course begging for food even though their bowl is full.
Cats with whisker fatigue will beg because even though their bowl has food in it, the remaining food is harder to reach with uncomfortable whiskers. That could explain why so many cats seem to only eat food from the center of the bowl while leaving the edges with plenty of kibbles or wet food.
Luckily, this is a pretty easy problem to solve and by switching to a wider bowl or even just a plate for food and water you can completely eliminate the potential for this problem. There are also many whisker-friendly food and water bowls available and we’ve reviewed the best ones here.
There may not be a lot of hard science supporting the idea of whisker fatigue and at the time of writing, I haven’t been able to find any study that evaluated the condition. Still, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur and the idea behind it makes sense so it’s worth mentioning as a possible explanation.
Reason 7: Your Feline Friend Could Be A Social Eater
Yep, social eaters are a real thing. Sometimes called affection eaters, these are cats that enjoy your company while eating.
Some cats may simply want to be watched while they eat but many will prefer to be pet and given your undivided attention until they’re ready to chow down.
Some cats may only become social eaters in a stressful environment and when I worked at one of the largest shelters in the United States, we had an entire team of volunteers who were dedicated to offering appetizing food to shy cats while giving them plenty of attention…and the program worked really well.
But your cat doesn’t have to be stressed for this to be the case and an especially social eater may beg with a full bowl of kibble because they really want you to pet them before they chow down!
For a great example of a social eater, check out the handsome ear-tipped feline in the video below:
Notice how as he’s being pet, he almost seems to have a sudden urge to eat?
That’s a social eater!
So your cat may be hungry, but they just need a little encouragement from you before they start their meal.
It’s not entirely clear why cats are social eaters, especially since it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective, but it could be that they feel more comfortable with a little security or eating is just how they express their love for their favorite human.
Reason 8: Your Cat Has A Medical Issue
Cats with a painful or uncomfortable mouth may beg despite having a full food bowl right in front of them. In my experience, these cats seem visibly conflicted in that they’re clearly hungry but still refusing to eat and their affection ends up looking like begging.
According to some studies, dental disease affects somewhere between 50% and 90% of cats and while the vast majority of cats will just eat through the pain it can get so severe that some cats will refuse food or be hesitant to eat certain types of food.
But dental disease isn’t the only concern and there’s a wide range of medical conditions of the mouth that can lead to food hesitancy and in some situations weird movements of the mouth along with it.
If you suspect that any kind of illness could be at play, whether it’s related to dental disease or not, it’s always a good idea to talk to your veterinarian and let them know what you’re seeing. Even more so if it’s been a while since your cat had an exam with a veterinarian.
Reason 9: The Bowl Isn’t Full “Enough”
So far, most of the reasons on this list have some kind of science backing them up, but sometimes cats just do things because that’s what they want to do.
With the prevalence of cats begging because the bowl isn’t full enough (at least based on a cat’s judgment) I think it’s fair to say that this is just one of those cat quirks.
And the internet seems to agree with hundreds of hilarious cat memes about partially full food bowls.
Still, we’ve seen that this kind of begging could be related to a variety of things including a cat’s poor vision or preferences for food that’s as fresh as possible.
But sometimes, begging with a full food bowl might just be part of a cat being a cat.
Reason 10: Your Cat Wants You To Move The Food
It’s possible that your cat isn’t actually begging for more food but instead is begging you to move the food they already have.
I know, that seems unlikely which is why I’ve put it at the bottom of the list but there is some real science behind the possibility of this explanation.
In the wild, cats would regularly bury or cover their food in order to prevent potential predators from sniffing it out. We see this behavior today and many cats will try to cover their food bowl by pawing around the bowl despite the hopelessness of covering their food with hardwood flooring.
So what does this have to do with begging while there’s still food in the bowl?
Cats may be asking you to move the food bowl out of reach so as not to blow their cover. It’s the same sort of logic that explains that cats may be bringing your dead animals in order to teach you to hunt.
Again, I wouldn’t start with this explanation, and the others on this list are more likely but I still wouldn’t rule it out entirely either.
It’s Probably Not Just One Reason
It’s important to realize that with any complex creature, such as our feline friends, there is probably more than just one explanation that motivates their behavior.
For example, I suspect that my cat is both a social eater and doesn’t realize that the food bowl is already full. She insists on me walking into the kitchen with her because she wants the company but she may have also forgotten that the food bowl could potentially be full- or just doesn’t care.
Other cats may have some whisker fatigue and decide that as a result of this discomfort it’s not worth the hassle of eating food that’s been sitting overnight
I’m sure you get the idea here but the point is to not pigeonhole your cat into just one reason for begging despite a full bowl of food. Instead, look at the big picture of feline behavior!
That’s likely more reasons than you expected for what seems like just another quirky cat behavior!
But begging at the bowl is a form of communication and our cats are trying to tell us something- it’s up to us to figure out what it is!
What do you think? What reason best explains why your cat likes to beg despite having plenty of food?