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

Does your cat have you scratching your head wondering what makes her tick? You're not alone. So enchanting, yet so mysterious, cats have bewildered humans for thousands of years. From their earliest role as rodent patrol in the Fertile Crescent where they originated, cats have snuggled their way into our hearts. But after all this time, are they still an enigma?

Take, for example, cats who think their food bowls are empty even though there's food left around the sides of the bowl. Why is it that lost cats can find their way home from hundreds of miles away; trekking through snowstorms; surviving mean city streets; weeding their way through fields; tiptoeing through herds of cattle; and landing back on their doorstep a year later; but your cat can't find the food in her bowl when it's right under her nose?

Cat eating out of bowl
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Is your cat focused on the empty hole at the bottom of his food bowl? And why won't he eat the food clinging to the edge? Naturally, a raft of hypotheses proliferates; with cat owners, cat behaviorists, and veterinarians speculating on this burning question.

Your cat can't see the food.

From a purely physical standpoint, cats have poor vision. Lacking the cones that humans have in their eyes, cats are nearsighted and don't see close-up very well — they need to be further away. But while that may be true, blurry vision doesn't explain why they eat the food in the bottom of the bowl, yet ignore the wreath of food hanging above. Cats also have 20 degrees more peripheral or side-view vision than humans, so you know they must see the sides of the bowl. And while cats cannot see things that are right beneath their nose or chin, they do pretty well cleaning up the portion of food at the bottom of the bowl. Turns out, the poor vision theory does not explain this idiosyncratic behavior.

Your cat is a hoarder.

Another theory suggests cats have an innate survival instinct, and they are hoarding food for later. It makes sense to save up food and resources for leaner times. People do, why not cats? But if that's true, why do cats never seem to eat the sides, even if you don't refill their bowl? With some cats, it seems like their food can sit there for weeks, untouched, and they wouldn't eat it even if they were starving.

Directly Above View Of Cats Eating In Bowls At Home
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The food is stale.

All theories aside, maybe the food has been sitting in the bowl way too long and smells awful. Maybe it's a legitimate cry for help. "Hey, my food's gone bad!" And what persnickety feline eats stale food?

Your cat is king or queen of the hill.

Or maybe you are blessed with a cat who wants to be treated like royalty, having you at their beck and call and demanding their bowl be refilled, half-full or not, at their whim.

The bowl hurts his whiskers.

The painful whisker explanation for why cats think their food bowl is empty makes the most sense. When cats eat the center portion of food, their whiskers collide with the sides of the bowl, causing them discomfort and maybe even pain. This theory postulates that cats avoid the pain-inflicting sides of a too-narrow, too-deep bowl, which forces a cat to put her face too far into the bowl. Whiskers are extraordinarily sensitive and composed of tactile hairs called vibrissae bristling with nerves at the roots. Whiskers pick up everything the cat needs to navigate her world. Under any pressure, like that exerted by the sides of a too-narrow food bowl, the nerves in the whiskers cause your cat discomfort. So says Ingrid King, a veterinarian, and author, and there's a name for it, "whisker stress." And even better, there's a bowl for it!

Your cat is a pessimist.

Have you ever considered that your cat might be a pessimist, and instead of seeing his bowl half-full, he sees it as half-empty? Maybe your cat is feeling a little grumpy.

Domestic cats eat pet food on the floor from bowls
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Possible solutions

Try a new food bowl or plate

So is this habit a strange anomaly, painful whisker avoidance, an inherited trait, a bad attitude, a sense of entitlement, or just a curious quirk? It seems clear that the whisker stress theory is the winner unless further scientific evidence proves otherwise. If that's a case, a new, wider food bowl like Dr. Catsby's Whisker Relief Food Bowl may be in order. Alternatively, how about a flat plate that has no sides? Sturdy paper plates are handy, inexpensive, and disposable so that you can use a fresh one each feeding. Choose eco-friendly, compostable plates made from recycled materials.

Could empty food bowl syndrome be a sign of anxiety or other health issues?

If you try a new, whisker-friendly bowl or plate and your cat is still leaving food, try changing up the food to another brand, feeding dry food instead of canned food some of the time, or mixing the two. Some cats are simply picky eaters, and leaving much of the food in the bowl could indicate indifference or an aversion to the taste of the food. Switching to a tastier food may make a big difference in your cat's eating habits.

Monitor your cat's food intake carefully if you have changed up his bowl and food and he's still leaving a substantial amount of food on his plate. His curious habit of eating only the food at the bottom of the bowl or leaving food anywhere in the dish could indicate he's suffering from anxiety or a health issue. Whether it's not acknowledging food that's in his bowl, or not showing interest in treats, you should always consider a trip to the vet if your cat's appetite changes. Anorexia can affect cats. Also, a poor appetite can be a symptom of kidney and liver problems.

Anxiety is a psychological problem that's common in cats. From changes in their environment to multi-cat households, many things can throw your cat off his game, and thus his food. Maybe your cat had a disagreement with another cat in your household, or maybe you recently moved. Cats are sensitive to their environments, and tend to get stressed when these environments change.

To alleviate some of this stress, provide physical and mental stimulation to help deflect some of the nervous energy your cat may be feeling. Create some safe spaces such as cardboard boxes, cat trees with perches, or spots to hide like closets or under beds until he gets more comfortable in his new surroundings. Soon he'll be back to his old self, savoring every morsel of his dinner.