May 2009 Issue

Bothersome Eating Behaviors

Some quirky meal-time habits are inconsequential. But others may actually reveal some serious health problems. Here's why.

One cat knocks its food bowl over and makes a mess on your floor every time it eats. Another cat is a thief. It hops onto your kitchen counter at any opportunity to snatch whatever morsel of food it might spot lying there. A third cat spends a good part of its time gnawing on the clothing it finds in your closet. These are among the more common, puzzling, and often very annoying feline eating-related behaviors that, if not appropriately addressed, can seriously compromise the relationship between a cat and its owner. Some such unusual activities, says Katherine Houpt, VMD, James Law Professor of Behavioral Medicine at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, can signal the presence of a serious physical disorder and will thus merit the attention of a veterinary nutritionist. Others are merely goofy habits that the cat has picked up and can probably be rectified by an owner. And still other undesirable eating habits may stem from deeply rooted "neurotic" problems that can only be successfully reversed with the help of an animal behaviorist — sometimes with the help of certain feline anti-anxiety medications. When is it time to seek the advice and guidance of a behaviorist? "Certainly if the animal’s habits are seriously endangering the cat-human bond," says Dr. Houpt. "This is an especially urgent matter if the owner is thinking about abandoning a cat to a shelter or, even worse, having it euthanized. Likewise, an owner should seek behavioral consultation if the eating behavior — consuming indigestible materials, for example — could pose a physical threat to the animal."

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