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So my cats - well, one more than the other - will whine and meow at me in a certain manner that I have come to recognize as, "There is no food in the bowl." When they exhibit this behavior, I automatically check the food bowl. Sure enough, there is food in the bowl, but the bottom of the bowl is visible. Not only that, there is still plenty of food - probably enough for the day.

I know I am not the only one to notice this behavior. There are even memes about it.

enter image description here

I think it is safe to say if multiple, separate cats exhibit this behavior, then it is an instinctual trait carried on from before domestication, not a learned behavior. This is similar to cats (and other animals) walking in a circle before lying down.

However, I cant think of what that pre-domesticated behavior would be. Any ideas?

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    I think it's just hard for cats to get food from the sides of the bowl. When I notice the bowl is like this I just shuffle the food more towards the middle and my cat will eat more of it. – augurar Aug 12 '15 at 7:07
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    Also, it's not likely that this is a specific "instinctual trait" or behavior. Rather, it is probably the outcome of some more general tendencies. – augurar Aug 12 '15 at 7:15
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    This video mentions this,among many other things, in a funny way :) – Hawk Aug 12 '15 at 8:15
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    @Hawk Great video. All of it is so true of cats. – Keltari Aug 12 '15 at 21:43
  • Try getting the kibble back to the middle using just your tongue, or your hands in oven mitts. This gives an idea how the cat is seeing the situation. – Oldcat Aug 18 '15 at 21:05
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My guess has always been that kibble (dry food) gets stale when exposed to air, and the cats are asking for the fresher stuff from the bag.

Even if you store kibble in an open box, there's less surface area exposed to air than in a half-empty bowl, so any added food would seem "fresher".

I haven't noticed this behavior while meal feeding wet food, even when they sometimes leave leftovers after breakfast until I get home from work. In those cases they'll eat the leftovers before asking me for more food.

One difference between wet and dry food is that dry food tends to contain cereals/grains/carbs (it's VERY difficult to manufacture meat only dry food), and those foods are more sensitive to air conditions (going stale) than meat-based (wet) foods.

  • Interesting. Your theory is pure speculation, however I do see the logic in your statement. Something in my gut says no, this isnt the reason. I suppose I could test the theory. It wouldnt be to hard of an experiment to set up... I am curious to see other peoples answers though. – Keltari Aug 12 '15 at 2:36
  • one of the reasons I dont necessarily buy the theory is the fact that that the food is always eaten out of the middle of the bowl. Fresher food would be in the bowl under the other food stacked up on the sides of the bowl. Im sure a cat could smell that and go for the food at the bottom of the pile stacked around the edge. – Keltari Aug 12 '15 at 2:39
  • @Keltari I'm not convinced that a cat can smell 'staleness' - staleness is caused by a realignment of starch molecules, not a change from one material to another. From a cat's perspective, the food in the bowl is 'not good' and new food is 'good'. – Zaralynda Aug 12 '15 at 3:32
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    @Keltari it may be that you are mixing the fresher stuff with the stale stuff, creating a random reward structure. Or not! I have another theory I'm about to post! – Zaralynda Aug 12 '15 at 10:13
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    Animals are not stupid. They learn tricks and get habits; the cat may have indeed noticed that the new food is fresher and that's how he prefers it. Cats are not served big quantities of food usually, their bowls have bigger surface areas and aren't very deep; they might not "dig" in the bottom of the bowl as much as dogs do. I agree with Zaralynda answer. But yes, you can add new food and shake the bowl... cat will still see it as new food... until he figures out what's going on! – go-junta Aug 13 '15 at 7:54
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Whisker stress is commonly believed to be discomfort caused by the cat's (very sensitive) whiskers brushing against the sides of a food bowl. Ingrid King (an author who previously spent 10+ years working in a veterinary office) describes it:

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.

The pictures (not drawings) of the meme mentioned by the question tend to have very steep sides, so the cat will eat out of the center (where it's comfortable and the whiskers have plenty of room), but decline to eat the food on the sides (where the whiskers would rub against one side of the bowl).

I'm not entirely convinced about this.

I tried to find any research to indicate that whisker stress is a real phenomenon for an earlier question and could not find any scholarly (peer reviewed) articles about it. I just found multiple instances of cat owners telling other cat owners about it (and selling special bowls!).

Additionally, we give a bit of dry food in the Flower Slo-Bowl and sometimes the cats ask for fresh even when there is still food in the bowl. They do not eat directly out of the bowl, but have to spend some time "fishing" kibble out of the bowl and onto the floor, where they then eat it (we do this before bed so they are entertained while we sleep). They may just be asking for food that they don't have to work for (wet food meals are fed on platters), so it's hard to tell if this disproves the theory or not.

  • If you can find a bowl that is completely rounded inside, no corners, that might help, as food will naturally slide to the middle. I had one like that for my cats years ago, but these days all I see is the bowls with corners. – Kai Aug 12 '15 at 14:14
  • again, an interesting theory. I am not saying you are wrong, but there doesnt seem to be a way to tell for sure. Its very vexing. – Keltari Aug 12 '15 at 21:42
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    I think there's some truth to the whisker sensitivity thing but mine will stick her entire head in a high ball glass to drink my water. – Mazura Aug 14 '15 at 14:55
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    @Kai - Some cats tend to push food in one direction as they eat - notably Persians. Too smooth a bowl leads to them shoving it all out the far side onto the floor. – Oldcat Aug 18 '15 at 21:07
  • We feed our cats from plates for this reason; they do seem not to like deep bowls. But like yours, they still don't like crunchies that've been out too long. Entitled little punks... – Ed Plunkett Dec 20 '15 at 2:40
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I have noticed this and wondered about it too.

My very vocal cat was crying at me the other day, since I was 30 minutes past the normal feeding time. I looked and they still had some dry food from the morning. I decided to experiment and went over and just shook their food plate making it sound like I dumped food on their plate. It is a flat plate so no whisker contact is involved.

This satisfied him and he stopped crying and ate happily. I believe some of it has to do with them noticing that the food adding event did not occur and becoming worried that there is a break in the normal pattern.

Taken a bit further; the patterns and the routines in which we care for and interact with our cats seems to be comforting to them. They may become a little upset when the routine changes or does not proceed according to schedule.

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From what I have read (and believe when I say I am no expert) cats have to have room for there whiskers because they detect so much as they eat. That is why they eat out of the center of the bowl and not the sides. My cats don't even eat to the bottom of the dishes I have currently because they are to deep for them and constantly complain until I shuffle the food around. For xmas they will be getting new and shallower dishes. Thank you for your time.

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I'm pretty sure one of the reasons is because they want a different type of food. The other day I dished the cat out her regular dry food consisting of chicken and rice pellets. She stared at the bowl. Then I tried a tiny bit of canned tuna which she sniffed, stared at the bowl and then stared at me again. Usually she adores the tuna. Lastly I tried a wet chicken sachet. She sniffed the bowl and proceeded to happily munch away trying to scoop out every last bit and lick the bowl clean. I'm reasonably certain they get tired of munching on the same dry food all day, or indeed the same type of food in general. They like a varied diet much the same as us humans.

  • What you say is correct, cats do like different kinds of food, but this is not correct answer for the asked question. – Sonevol Dec 26 '17 at 14:30

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