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Why Do Cats Act Like Their Food Bowl Is Empty?

cateatingfoodnlThere 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?


This cat quirk is so common that there are several memes about it. LOL

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.


Cat whiskers are pretty majestic, tbh.

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.


Whisker malfunction!

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.


This cat used its whiskers to be agile, but then got stuck in this troubling position.

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.”catlogicfood

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.


“No pain, no gain, bro.”

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!catstealingfoodcropped

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{ 33 comments… add one }
  • Bob the Cat Lady September 29, 2016, 6:02 am

    This article was doing so well–until its concluding sentence. Perhaps it should have stated “I bet you they will eat the food, and if not, then you may just have left the food in the bowl for too long!”

    Thank you for an interesting and informative article.

    • VetDepot September 29, 2016, 9:38 am

      Thanks Bob, I changed it to “picky eater” rather than spoiled brat, I agree it was a little bit harsh. 😛 I have a silly sense of humor towards my animals where I call them spoiled brats (even though it’s my fault they’re spoiled LOL). Glad you enjoyed the article, let me know if you have any other experiences relevant to this topic! 🙂

    • Nate February 4, 2018, 2:44 am

      It can’t have been because the food was left in the bowl too long if it’s dry food. Think of how long it sat in the bag after you opened it.

      Btw there is nothing wrong or demeaning about saying someone is a picky eater. There was nothing wrong with that wording.

  • Charles Wild September 29, 2016, 6:32 am

    wow! I did not know any of this…how incredibly fascinating and needed info for any cat lover. Even more fascinating though..a few months ago I started using a utensil to move the food around the edges of the plate to the center of the plate for my kitty. I was not even sure if it was going to work, but I noticed exactly what you said – and got tired of wasting food. And it has worked – most of the time. If she is hungry – she will then finish. But wow – thanks so much for this great article – I will pass the info along!

    • VetDepot September 29, 2016, 9:41 am

      Thanks, Charles! Yeah, apparently this has been a mystery for quite some time, but now it’s beginning to make sense! 😛 I was surprised to see how many people were debating it online, with different reasoning and theories and such. It’s quite a hot-button issue! Thank you for sharing your praise as well as your experience! Now if we could only find out why cats are so stand-offish…:P

  • Mishqueen September 29, 2016, 11:21 am

    Oh man, this is eye-opening. I actually did suspect my cat didn’t want to touch the food with her whiskers; I guessed that part right. But I DIDN’T know that it was because of irritation or pain. I thought she was being fussy or spoiled. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve blown her off and told her she’ll eat it if she gets hungry enough.
    And she has had to several times. Now I feel bad. 🙁 Does anyone know of a food dispenser that deposits onto a plate instead of in a bowl?

    • VetDepot September 29, 2016, 2:00 pm

      Aww, it’s okay, I’m sure everyone has been there! 🙂 This is relatively unknown to the cat-owning community, and there are a lot of people that don’t believe it at all because it’s not “proven by science” which I find a little absurd. Considering that we humans avoid A LOT of activities due to their slight level of discomfort, is it that far of a reach to think that cats do the same? I think not! Off the top of my head I don’t know of any cat food dispenser that goes onto a plate vs. a bowl, but I’m sure someone has invented it! 😛 If you find one let me know!

  • Toni September 29, 2016, 3:27 pm

    I’ve heard of Whisker Stress. That is why I feed my girls in oblong bowls, as well as low sided shallow dishes for wet food. Needless to say, All the food is gone. My one kitty has insanely long whiskers too, so I’d hate for her to feel any discomfort. However, by the looks of her waist line, she is apparently doing just fine.

    • VetDepot September 30, 2016, 1:38 pm

      Wow, awesome, Toni! I have never heard of it and never really thought about it, since I just assumed whiskers were just like a normal hair follicle! Where do you get your oblong bowls, and are they for humans or specifically for cats? The catfood bowl we have right now is pretty shallow and I don’t recall my cats ever complaining either, and they usually eat all of the food (which is also obvious by their waistlines).

    • Tracy December 31, 2017, 7:34 am

      After reading this, I realize that my daughter uses a shallow oblong bowl she got from the feed store she used to work at. Her cats lick that sucker clean every day. Mike had on the other hand has four or five bowls and a paper towel food dumped on it and me standing there scratching my head in frustration! Reading this article was a game changer. Wondering if flipping the smaller bowl upside down in a bigger bowl could possibly lift the food up to help. My kitty seems to not like Eating off of the plate either. But he’s big and older and his whiskers are kind of like that have a crazy old man beard and they are all over the place. It’s nice to know why he’s always been happy to have his food stirred!

  • Linda Lovey's Mom September 30, 2016, 6:50 am

    Thanks for the great article! This answers every thing. We call it blessing the food, as we bless it by moving the food to the middle of the dish! Can you answer why she wants you to either pet her while she eats or stand over ?

    • VetDepot September 30, 2016, 1:40 pm

      LMAO! I love that SO MUCH! BLESSING THE FOOD, how adorable! <3 I imagine you pushing it around and humming? LOL 😛 Thanks for sharing that with us! As for her wanting you to pet her while she eats, I'm not sure...maybe she has food anxiety, like someone is going to steal her food? If she's a rescue cat this could be very likely that she is wanting someone to "guard" her food while she eats it, or keep her safe while she's eating?

      • Eileen Atkinson March 28, 2017, 9:48 am

        I noticed some ages ago that my kitties will eat more/longer if I stay there and pet them – or even just “be there”. I’d thought it was to “please Me” for feeding them. If I just set the food down and go elsewhere, they will eat for a bit and then stop and look up and around. If I go back, they will again eat and if I pet them, they will eat even more. I sorta wondered if it made them feel “safe”, or were they appeasing the “alpha cat” – me for giving them permission to eat ???

        • Andrea January 13, 2018, 12:50 am

          My cat likes when I sit down to eat when he’s eating….Sometimes, he waits until I sit down and then he starts eating. He’s so smart! He’s 9-1/2 and I just trained him this week to give me his paw. I really didn’t think cats are trainable, but I was bored with all the snow we’ve had in New York and I spent a lot of time indoors, so I tried….and he complies! But he needs a lot of coaxing (and treats!)
          but it’s getting easier with less coaxing. I have two short videos of it, but I don’t think there’s a way for me to add them to a message on here. Good luck with the shallow dishes! I’ve had them for about a year already and it definitely solved the whisker issue.

  • Heather September 30, 2016, 8:50 pm

    Wow! This article is really interesting! I would have never guessed whiskers were keeping my kitty and all the ones I care for from eating the walled food. LOL My personal kitty’s internal alarm clock is never late when it’s time for breakfast or dinner! Thank you for such a great article!

  • Laura October 6, 2016, 10:14 am

    LeRoi has instructed me to send you this message:

    Thank you for finally getting this through Laura’s thick head!

  • Mobee's Mom October 20, 2016, 5:57 am

    Thank you SO much for the enlightening information! Now I know why my 6 cats all try rush to the shallow dishes at feeding time! Next question: why does one of my cats drop food into the water bowl and then “fish” it out with her paw? She’ll do this with wet or dry food so my thoughts about her wanting to moisten the kibble seem unfounded…..

  • Debbie October 20, 2016, 5:18 pm

    My “kids” finish their bowls, but they do start asking for refills before they are empty. I always assumed it was because cats like the concept of “abundance”, especially when there are other cats around.

  • Chantelle March 27, 2017, 6:38 pm

    This might finally explain why we have a 2 year old male Maine coon that takes the food out of the dish and plays with it before he eats, and an 8 year old female Maine coon center eater! Bowl hunting this weekend!

  • Jody Chamberlain April 8, 2017, 5:16 pm

    Thanks so much! This helped me solve my picky cat problem! Just cut his whiskers off and he eats all the food 🙂 !

  • Tonia November 7, 2017, 10:37 am

    My kitten just started doing this recently, hes about 4plus months old. Also he is pushing his dish all around, its annoying, I hope this helps

  • MAJ November 15, 2017, 5:16 am

    This can’t be accurate in my cat’s situation because he doesn’t even get close enough to look into his bowl. He always assumes it is empty, even when it is full. He wants me to look at it first, no matter what, before he eats. I’m not sure why. Maybe he wants a protector. Maybe he wants me to keep track of the food level. But I think it’s more that he’d rather not waste energy on a food source that might not be there. I’m not sure. Cats are strange.

  • Charles December 22, 2017, 11:57 pm

    All of my 8 cats eat the entire bowl at two separate occasions. I don’t fill it up when it’s half empty although they beg me to do so. I’d stick with the food hoarding theory. Anyway that would mean that I would hurt them every time I pet their whiskers???

  • Tracy December 31, 2017, 7:38 am

    So I am curious about copping whiskers. Seems like a bad idea as they depend on their whiskers for so much, plus I wouldn’t want to cause pain to my cat. However if eating is causing him pain, maybe a short bouts of pain will be better than daily paper? My cat to the indoor cat only, and I know dogs have their whiskers trimmed by groomers, but what about cats? I’m really struggling right now with getting my cat to eat off a bowl or plate. I have cat food all over my house daily because he takes a mouthful and carries it over to the rug and drops it. I thought he was doing something instinctive there but maybe he’s trying to get it away from the bowl. Ideas? Thanks for a great article

    • Tracy December 31, 2017, 7:39 am

      Oh my. *Clipping whiskers! Please fix my typo, dear moderator!

    • Andrea January 13, 2018, 12:54 am

      Tracy, some cats like to eat where it’s quiet and not too much traffic. Is your cat’s dish in an area where he can have peace when he eats? If not, that could be the reason he moves the food to another spot.

  • Andrea January 13, 2018, 1:01 am

    I have a question about how much I should be feeding my cat. He’s been a steady 15 pounds for his entire adult life. I cut back on his dry food. I used to have two cats, and I would split a 5.5 oz. can between them for the morning meal, and the same for the evening meal….and since I was gone all day at work, I left dry food out all the time for them. My other cat passed away in 2015, so it’s just the one cat, and I cut back on his food tremendously. I usually give him one and a half small 3 oz. cans, split between his morning meal and his evening meal. And I give him very little dry food at night just to keep him satisfied in case I sleep a little later in the AM. However, since he always seems to sit by his dish wanting more food, I sometimes give in and give him some extra canned food. But I would like him to lose about 3 lbs. He does not lose weight. I always worry if I’m feeding him enough? or too much. He’s on special urinary food because he had crystals a few years ago, so I have to feed him a Urinary formula. I’d be curious to know what the proper amount of food to feed a senior cat daily. Thanks!

  • Hannah February 1, 2018, 1:10 pm

    If you have a bowl with a round bottom this won’t happen. But my cat STILL refuses to eat it when it’s not a mountain. Lol but it’s probably still the whisker thing, since the width of a round bowl decreases the farther in the cat’s head goes. Sounds like plates or very shallow bowls might be best? I’m pretty sure the cats I’ve seen don’t care how long the food has been out… or if they do, they’re not picky about that.

  • Talia April 2, 2018, 1:32 pm

    I’m having a hard time believing this whisker stress. Primary because my two cats and mainly other cats I’ve seen (I’m around cats 24/7) rub their face on everything. From their cat tree with an actual face brush attached,to my leg, my phone, my laptop, desk legs or anything really, they brush their face repeatedly and their whiskers are getting brushed as well. Granted I understand if a whisker is pulled out but to say a cat is unfortable when the whiskers touch the sides of a bowl is reaching. I honestly believe that cats get tired of the same flavor, especially if they’ve tried better flavors other then their regular food because I’ve tried to trick my cat and pretended the bowl was refilled but he still wouldn’t eat it until I’d added some gravy to it, I’ve also learned that it’s better to feed them on a plate verse a bowl because they won’t tilt their heads the way dogs do to lick the sides. They are carnivores, their jaws only go up and down and they really only each what’s directly below their face or in front of them.

  • MICHAEL Thomas April 15, 2018, 9:04 am

    My cats bowl can be 90% full,no hole in the middle and a low bowl..I will fill it until its over the top.It will eat some of that to make it basically a full bowl.It will walk back over no more that 15 minutes later and it just looks around.The food is defenitely not stale.If its half empty ill get a finger full of food and mux that around with the old.It eats just fine.So its not stale food

  • Kelly S Dyer July 4, 2018, 12:16 pm

    So this is why my Tinkerbell is constantly begging for food lol!!! Thank-you for feeding my extreme curiosity!!!

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