There is a very strange phenomenon that surrounds cats, and it is a well known fact among feline owners everywhere; cats pretending their food bowl is empty even though it’s not. A lot of the time when cats are meowing repeatedly by their bowl to tell you, “I NEED FOOD!”, there is actually food still in there. Sure, the food in the middle will be missing, exposing the bottom of the bowl – but there is still plenty of food around the edges. After lots of speculation and theorizing from cat lovers from across the globe, there finally may be an answer to this burning question: why do cats demand more food when their bowl still has plenty?
Many people think that perhaps this is some kind of instinctual trait passed down from their wild ancestors, a sort of survival technique to ensure that they always have as much food as possible (basically food hoarding). Others think that it could have a more simple reason, like the cat wanting fresh food versus the stale food that has been in the bowl. So, is it an instinct for survival or a tantrum of a spoiled cat? It doesn’t appear to be either, but the answer may lie when considering the whiskers of a cat.
Cats’ whiskers aren’t just for looks; they are definitely adorable, but also very useful for navigating their surroundings. Whiskers are actually special tactile hairs called vibrissae, that have extremely sensitive follicles containing a LOT of nerves at their roots. In the wild, these whiskers help them detect the proximity of predators, prey, weather, and other environmental factors surrounding them. In our homes, they help them gauge whether or not they can fit in that super tiny box you left on the floor, among other things. Due to a cat’s poor eyesight, their whiskers compensate for their sensory needs – kind of like an insect’s antennae. A cat’s whiskers are so sensitive, that they can detect the slightest draft, and are alerted by any drops in air pressure or temperature.
Since there are so many nerves at the root of a cat whisker, there can definitely be pain caused by any damage done to them. For instance, if a child tries to pull a whisker out of a cat’s face, it’ll cause an IMMENSE amount of pain. If a cat runs face-first into a wall, the pressure put on the hair follicle will hurt its whiskers as well. Anyone who has ever had nerve pain will know that it is a lasting sensation that takes a while to go away – and if enough damage is done, it sticks around forever. Usually though, these whiskers are just used as a guide and warning signal to the cat, and any slight discomfort with them is associated with impending danger or pain. When a cat whisker comes in contact with something, it alerts the kitty that it needs to be cautious.
Now, think of a cat eating its food out of a bowl: they obviously eat the food right in the middle of the bowl first, and then leave the rest of it around the edges untouched. It is fair to deduce based on all of the evidence presented above that perhaps some cats refuse to eat the food around the edges because their whiskers are touching the sides while they eat it! As mentioned, the whiskers are very sensitive with many nerves at the follicle, so even slight contact with objects could cause discomfort and perhaps pain. There is actually a name for this, and it is referred to as “whisker stress.” This particular theory has been posited by Ingrid King, a veterinarian and author who said this in her blog:
“Whiskers are extremely sensitive, and when a food bowl is too narrow and too deep, a cat is forced to put her face all the way into the bowl to reach her food. This causes her whiskers to bump against the side of the bowl, which causes discomfort. In extreme cases, cats may refuse to eat out of deep, narrow bowls altogether.”
This makes a lot of sense considering the fact that eating is one of cats’ favorite things to do (besides napping); so naturally, it would want to avoid eating food that is positioned in a way that causes even the slightest discomfort to their whiskers. Just imagine if you had a bunch of ingrown hairs on your face (one of the most painful things ever), and that in order to eat, you had to stick your face into a bowl. You’d obviously be eating the food that did NOT touch your ingrown hairs, and leave the food that does (unless you are really hungry and desperate). So obviously a cat (who is already usually somewhat neurotic to begin with) is going to avoid that food altogether and demand for more food to be put in its bowl in the center, where it is comfortable for them to eat out of. If your cat doesn’t do this, then perhaps they have a higher tolerance for uncomfortable whiskers.
So there you have it, folks; a pretty solid and semi-definitive answer to our burning inquiry concerning our beloved felines’ strange eating habits. You may believe it or you may not, but I guarantee you that next time your cat begs for food even though 75% of their bowl has food in it, shift the food around! Push the food into the center of the bowl and make a little mountain of kibble, and see if they eat it. Or, put it on a flat surface, plate, or wider bowl that won’t come in contact with their whiskers. I bet you they will eat the food, and if not, then you may just have a picky eater on your hands!