Cats have a reputation for their insistent behaviour around feeding. They are individuals so it’s important to learn what is normal for each of them. If they appear hungrier than usual, there may be a simple reason, but it could be a sign of a medical condition and should be checked out.
What is normal?
Normal will be slightly different for every cat but it is common for cats to create quite a din around feeding times. Cats are often quite ritualistic and like to remind owners when feeding time is imminent. If your cat has always done this it is not cause for concern.
Cats naturally eat small meals frequently (in the form of prey). Feral cats can spend 12 in every 24 hours looking for food so our feeding schedules can seem quite unnatural to them. While some cats may be happy with these feeding times, others may be more in tune with natural instincts taking opportunities to ask for food, even if they are not hungry. If you give treats this may increase the ask, on the off chance they may succeed. However, if your cat usually does not bother you outside mealtimes and suddenly does this may be cause for concern. If you get another cat (or dog that steals food) then competition can drive a cat’s desire to ask for food and increase their speed of eating.
If your cat is overweight, but still cries for food, then they should probably be fed fewer calories, not more. Overweight cats are prone to diseases such as diabetes, joint pain, bladder issues and certain cancers. Cats can become bored at the ease of eating, so perhaps try puzzle feeders. These satisfy the desire to hunt, kills time, slows their intake and burns calories.
When should I be worried?
Changes in hunger shouldn’t be ignored although there could be a simple explanation. Making sure the type and amount of food they are getting is adequate is a good first step, especially if there has been a recent diet change. If your pet has started on medication recently, ask your vet if this could be a side-effect. If your cat is female and entire, consider pregnancy as a possible cause for increased nutritional need. Feeding kittens requires an even higher calorie need.
Worm burdens can increase hunger. Spaghetti-like roundworms and ribbon-like tapeworms are most common in UK cats. Tapeworms are made up of segments resembling rice often visible around your cat’s bottom. Worms may cause diarrhoea and weight loss as well as hunger and are spread in the environment or by hunting or eating fleas. Worms and fleas are simple to treat but there are a plethora of products so it’s best to use a veterinary product to ensure safety and effectiveness. Young and hunting cats are especially at risk, but all cats should be up to date.
Many medical conditions can cause increased hunger although usually alongside other signs:
This condition is rarely seen in cats under 7 years old. Increased appetite is commonly seen, but usually alongside weight loss. Cats may be more active and vocal, demanding more food. Vomiting, diarrhoea and increased thirst occur less commonly.
It’s caused by overproduction of thyroid hormone, usually due to a benign overgrowth of tissue. Diagnosis is made by measuring hormone levels. Excess hormone speeds the metabolism, increasing the heart rate, eventually leading to heart disease. Increased blood pressure can affect organs such as the brain, kidneys and eyes. Rarely (1-2% of cases) malignant tumours cause a worse prognosis, but generally the condition can be managed well with medications, surgery or less commonly radioactive iodine therapy.
Increased hunger is a common sign of diabetes because food ingested cannot be used as energy. Usually there are other initial signs like increased urination, thirst and weight loss. Cats can have vomiting and lethargy, and become extremely sick, if left untreated.
Diabetes is caused by a lack of the hormone insulin, or a lack of response to it (resistance). Insulin is produced by the pancreas and released into the blood after a meal allowing glucose in the blood to be taken up by cells in the body and used for energy. Lack of insulin, or lack of response to it, causes blood glucose levels to rise (hyperglycaemia) so cells can’t use glucose efficiently for energy. In cats, insulin resistance is commonly caused by obesity with 60% of obese cats becoming diabetic over time. The rise in diabetes may be linked to the rise in obesity.
Diabetes is diagnosed with urine/blood tests and treated with insulin injections. Injecting your cat may sound scary but it’s quite easy with patience and practice. Special high protein, low carbohydrate diets alongside controlled weight loss is essential. If diabetes is managed well initially, some cats may not need insulin long-term, although this isn’t the norm.
Digestive tract issues
Lack of absorbing the nutrients from food due to a gastrointestinal problem such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) could cause hunger. This complex group of disorders causes inflammation of the intestinal wall, leading to diarrhoea, vomiting, weight loss and often an increased appetite, attempting to make up for the lost energy. Cats with IBD can conversely have appetite loss.
Intestinal tumours can cause similar signs. There are different types of intestinal tumours, the most common being lymphoma and adenocarcinoma, usually occurring in older cats. Again, signs due to lack of nutrient absorption or blockage may include vomiting, diarrhoea and weight loss alongside either appetite increase or decrease depending upon the stage.
These conditions can be challenging to diagnose and treat. As with the other conditions there are usually signs other than increased hunger to alert you to the need for veterinary intervention.
When to call the vet
It’s important to talk to your vet about changes in your cat’s eating habits. There could be a simple explanation, but it could also be an early sign of a medical issue and early diagnosis and treatment is always best.