Why Do Some Cats Always Think Their Food Bowls Are Empty?

Cute ginger cat looking up and waiting for food.
Why Do Some Cats Always Think Their Food Bowls Are Empty?
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Blessed with a fascinating complexity that no other companion animal shares, cats have bewitched and bewildered humans for thousands of years. Whether they're living large in an opulent palace or lounging on a bed of straw in a dirt-floor hut, cats are happy as long as they have shelter, warmth, food, and snuggles.

So if you're providing everything your cat could possibly need to be happy and thrive, why does she think her food bowl is empty when, in fact, it's full of her favorite tasty salmon pate? You wonder if she suddenly dislikes her food or if she has lost her appetite because she's sick. Before you consult with your veterinarian about this puzzling behavior, you can try to solve the dilemma by offering new foods or serving her favorites in a different cat dish. You may be surprised to find that cat bowls are the culprit, and your cat may be suffering from painful whisker avoidance.

Cat whiskers 101

Cat whiskers are remarkable sensing follicles that help your cat navigate his world. Since the whisker tips extend to about the same width as he is, he can tell when a box or any space he enters will allow him to fit inside. When his whiskers brush the sides of any object, be it a wall of a corridor or a paper bag, he knows it's too small. Whiskers are found not only on either side of the nose and upper lip area but also above both eyes like eyebrows, along the jawline, and at the back of the lower portion of the forelegs.

Each whisker station has a role to play in guiding your cat around his territory. At the end of each whisker is a proprioceptor that sends signals to the brain and nervous system, helping him to detect and interpret changes to his surroundings. With almost extrasensory powers, these ultra-sensitive tactile hairs or vibrissae are bristling with nerves at the roots, where they are more deeply embedded than the hair on the rest of the body. Never groom, trim, or pull your cat's whiskers since it will mute his expression and dim his perceptions, and he needs them intact to function properly as a cat.

In the wild, cats use their whiskers to detect prey, predators, and environmental conditions alerting them to the slightest shift in air currents or a drop in the air pressure and temperature. In our homes, your cat's touchy whiskers compensate for his poor eyesight by guiding him around furniture and into cozy little nooks and crannies for some exploring or a nap and also for seeing in the dark. Cats' stellar athletic abilities are due in part to whiskers, which help gauge the distance for a jump upward or downward, guaranteeing a safe landing.

Whisker stress, a.k.a. whisker fatigue

If you have ever seen your cat fishing her food out of the bowl and eating it off her paw or pulling it out and placing it beside the bowl to eat, you can bet she is experiencing whisker pain, also known as whisker stress or whisker fatigue. Cats with whisker stress also often act like their full food bowl is empty and stare up at you with pleading eyes as if to say "feed me." These are all classic symptoms of feline stress, discomfort, and perhaps, in some cases, intense pain that's caused by her whiskers rubbing on the sides of the bowl and setting those nerve endings on fire.

According to Dr. Catsby, the mascot of the brand Dr. Catsby and an expert in Whiskerology, having earned his doctorate at the University of Catbridge, other signs that your cat may be experiencing whisker fatigue are as follows:

  • Standing by the bowl for some time before eating
  • Pacing around the bowl
  • Obviously hungry but hesitant to eat
  • Leaving a mess behind on the floor
  • Acting aggressively toward other pets during mealtime

If these symptoms of whisker stress sound familiar, take a look at your cat bowl and you'll most likely find one that is too narrow and too deep, which forces your cat to put her face too far into the bowl and causes the whisker reaction, explains veterinarian Ingrid King.

The science of whisker fatigue

Is whisker stress a real condition? While some feline vets question the validity of whisker fatigue, there is a complex physiological reaction that cats do experience when their whiskers collide with a stationary object. This causes stress, and that's always a concern for cat owners.

According to PetMD, cats can turn on the sensory focus of their whiskers exactly where they want, but their whisker receptors respond primarily to the cat's autonomic system the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves that respond to the internal and external environment without conscious control like pupils constricting in response to bright light.

As the cat's whiskers make contact with the sides of a cat dish, he's bombarded with messages transmitted from the sensory organs at the base of his whiskers to his brain, causing information overload, which naturally stresses him out. While pain may be involved for some cats, cats generally feel an aversion or distaste rather than actual soreness, says Dr. Neil Marrinan of the Old Lyme Veterinary Hospital.

Try new cat bowls or plates

If your cat is showing signs of whisker stress or pain, switching from a deep, narrow bowl to a stoneware dinner or luncheon plate is a quick DIY remedy, and cats prefer eating from a flat surface, says Marrinan. Paper plates are even better since you can toss out these handy, inexpensive servers instead of having to wash them. Eco-friendly and compostable, most are made from recycled materials. You may like to try one of the wide, shallow cat bowls on the market designed specifically for cats with whisker stress such as the slick, stainless steel Dr. Catsby's whisker relief food bowl that features a smart, non-slip mat.

A wide, shallow, 304-grade stainless steel cat dish that is BPA free is decidedly the best choice in pet food bowls for its resistance to bacteria and breakage. In addition to Dr. Catsby's cat bowls, other brands also offer stress-free dining for your kitty. For example, Pet Fusion promotes its food-grade stainless steel pet food bowls as relief for whisker fatigue. Available in three sizes, they are wider and more shallow than a regular cat dish, with an aesthetically pleasing brushed finish.

Don't forget the cat dish in which you serve water. If it's too narrow and deep, your cat will experience the same problem as she does with her food bowl. Consider the exquisitely handcrafted ceramic cat water fountain products made by Wet Whiskers Fountains, which provide fresh, filtered water in a selection of stunning, whisker-friendly artisan designs and colors that enhance your decor. Food-safe glazes make them perfect for your feline, and cats prefer a lipless, flowing water source to a bowl of stale water any day.

Lack of appetite and health

If you have switched up your old cat bowl to a new, whisker-friendly model and installed a fancy water fountain, and your cat is still not eating normally, you may have an issue other than whisker fatigue on your hands. It may be a simple one to solve, such as changing to tastier food or making sure that wet food doesn't sit out of the refrigerator so long that it becomes crusty, odorous, and stale. Domestic cats are particular and like their meat fresh out of the can.

You can also try feeding dry food some of the time instead of exclusively wet or mix the two. If he is still leaving untouched food in his cat bowl, start monitoring his intake. Perhaps you're feeding too much food and should cut back so he finishes his meals. However, if he is not showing interest in his favorite treats in addition to a lack of appetite, it could indicate a potentially serious physical or psychological health condition, such as dental disease, liver and kidney problems, oral tumors, gastrointestinal diseases, anxiety, or OCD, and you should seek veterinary care immediately.

Also keep in mind that many things can throw a cat off his game and his food that are not linked to ill health. Keenly sensitive to their environment and fiercely territorial, cats grow anxious and stressed over change. That means new cats, other pets, or even new people joining the household as well as disagreements between members of a multi-cat household can affect cats' behavior, appetite, and overall well-being. Anxiety is a psychological problem that's notoriously common in cats.

How to destress your cat

After new food, a new cat bowl, a water fountain, and a trip to the vet proves that your cat is generally healthy but suffering a case of non-whisker-related stress, you have lots of options to help relieve her stress and get your feline back to her old self.

An excellent way to alleviate day-to-day stress for cats is to provide physical and mental stimulation, which helps deflect some of the nervous energy your cat may perhaps be feeling. If she's stressed due to changes in the household, you can easily create DIY fun spaces that do double duty as safe places for your cat to hide out and get away from it all when she's stressed out.

Readily available materials like cardboard boxes can be fashioned into cat forts with cut-out windows for interactive cat toys, and you can give her access to space underneath the beds, small rooms, or closets lined with cozy, faux-fur throws. Cater to her penchant for heights and install wall shelves at varying levels or invest in sisal-covered cat trees with multiple perches for lounging and feeling like a queen. As she becomes more comfortable and less stressed, she'll likely start savoring every morsel of her delicious dinner.

Is the cat bowl half empty or half full?

Like their owners, cats can be neurotic and even pessimistic. Seeing the cat bowl as half empty rather than half full can be a state of mind that is just part of a cat's personality. So when your healthy cat is occasionally refusing to eat or is acting like his whisker-safe cat dish needs to be filled, it's typically nothing to worry about. As long as a cat is eating a sufficient amount for his weight and age, a little grumpiness every now and then can be forgiven and can even become his signature style.

Grumpy cats love treats like all cats, so tease his taste buds with a couple of liver snaps or catnip-infused treats, and he'll soon be cleaning up that half-empty cat dish. Don't forget that cats thrive and maintain a hearty appetite when they are loved and given lots of attention and affection.