Why Cats Act Like Their Food Bowl Is Empty

Cats love to always keep eating, especially when they sniff their human cooking or have access to food. You will feed them and even after a few minutes, they will still meow for more food. But at some point, you’d expect the cat to be full or at least finish the food in its bowl. Many cat owners have confessed to noticing their kitties exhibiting various odd behaviors. One of the most common is cats digging in their food or water bowls. So why do cat’s act like their food bowl is empty?

Natural Instincts

Digging is a sort of survival technique to ensure that they always have as much food as possible (basically food hoarding); some kind of instinctual trait passed down from their wild ancestors. Wild cats bury their food to protect it from being eaten by others as well as to deter predators or to save it for later. As part of the cat family, cats will thus exhibit this as a behavior out of their nature.

Although indoor cats may not bury their food as they aren’t scavengers like wild cats, they will leave some left over in their bowls to eat later. Cats need small, frequent portion-controlled meals daily so watch the amount your cat consumes and consider reducing the portions of food that you offer him/her accordingly. You can also try placing food in puzzle feeders, so your cat has to “hunt” for its meal. *

Behavioral Issues

When your cat dislikes a particular food or is ill or has a certain discomfort, they will consume less or even cover uneaten food or leave half-consumed food in their bowl. You should monitor your cat for any unusual behavior as cats tend to send messages to their owners through various modes.

How you feed your cat is as essential as what you feed them. With this in mind, developing a feeding schedule entailing regular meals and water will ensure they are healthy.
A cat’s day mostly revolves around eating and napping. Naturally, cats spend more than half of their day looking for something to consume. Feeding cats from food bowls deprives them of their innate need to hunt for their food.

A cat’s brain releases dopamine which increases their arousal and brings about a happy feeling of anticipation rewarded by finding and eating the found food. So there is a need for environmental enrichment which enables them to connect to their natural feeding behaviors.


Cats, especially those that are young may tend to feel like their food supply is threatened. This occurs especially where the food bowls are placed outdoors where there are other cats and pets or in a home where there is more than one cat that is regularly fed.

Insecure cats especially those that have been strays or are young will tend to eat too fast causing them to regurgitate their food when they eat. To curb this, try keeping your cat’s food bowl in a designated area or room on their own. If you have a couple of cats or other pets, you will need to find a way to feed them in different areas. This makes cats feel comfortable that their food won’t be eaten or taken away by other pets or humans.

Size of their food and water bowl

The shape and size of the feeding bowl may discourage cats from eating as much as they should. Although deep and narrow bowls are the most common feeding bowls for pets, they are not particularly ideal for cats. This is because cats are very sensitive to their whiskers touching the side of the bowl and especially those with very long whiskers.

Cats will hence eat food at the center of the bowl and leave the corners or edges untouched. The most suitable bowls are shallow, oval-shaped or bowls with low sides that prevent food or water from going everywhere.
For water bowls, ensure they are wide enough for them to drink out of the middle of the bowl, and avoid whisker fatigue especially for older cats. Some elderly cats digest better when the bowl is in a slightly elevated position so consider the height of their water and food bowls when purchasing one for your cat too.

Location of the food and water bowl

It has also been observed by some cat owners that some cats prefer their water bowl in a separate location from their food bowl because it encourages their natural hunter instincts, while others would prefer their water when it is close to their food.

Due to their instinctual wild nature, cats dislike to consume food near their water because they feel bodily substances from their prey are likely to contaminate their source of water. Such cats will remove food from their food bowl and consume it from a different place if it’s near their water bowl.

Depending on your cat’s preferences, place their water bowl and food bowl at the appropriate place to encourage their feeding.


Cats will also not eat from unclean bowls so they will keep digging around the food rather than eating once they feel the bowl isn’t clean enough. Just like you clean your dishes, ensure your cat’s food and water bowls are always clean.

Cats are quite delicate creatures who love grooming quite a lot especially through licking. With this in mind, keep your cat’s food and water bowls far away from litter bins, trash or just dirty areas in general.

Cats have instinctual disgust over trash or even overstayed food thus will tend to dig into their bowl rather than consume the food.

Avoid overturning food bowls when your cat finishes eating but instead clear the bowl and clean it as well as the environment around. Then you give your cat water thereafter. To maintain a clean food bowl for your cat, stainless steel bowls are considered the best, followed by glass, and then ceramic. One of the causes of vomiting in cats is bacterial infections so avoid plastic as it releases micro-abrasions that allow bacteria to grow.

Dietary changes

Can you eat the same food for a couple of meals or an entire week? No. So can’t your cat. If you notice your cat refusing to eat, playing around with food or just acting like their food bowl is empty, they probably need a change of diet.

Try different pet treats and even gourmet meals to ensure your cat keeps feeding well. You can also give them some supplements as recommended by your vet to boost their appetite.

Your cat may also dislike certain foods due to allergies or they may just simply be disgusted by them. If you notice your cat showing disgust over a particular flavor or addition to their diet, eliminate it.

Fresh food vs Stale Food

Cats have been known to easily identify any spoilt food or drink or even slightly stale human meals. Similarly, they will not eat from their food bowl if the food has been out for a while and they sense it may no longer be fresh. Stale food can also cause vomiting in cats so ensure you always feed your cat fresh food using a wet cat food dispenser if you are away.

Change water in the food bowl at least twice a day. As for food, you can feed your cat more than twice a day depending on the most suitable schedule for you.

Poor Eyesight

Cats are unable to accurately judge where their water is due to their short-sightedness. To see the water in their bowls, they will use their paws to create ripples making it easier for them to see the water.

It is recommended that you use a ceramic water bowl or one that is patterned as opposed to a glass or metal bowl as this aggravates the issue further.

Alternatively, if you have enough room, particularly outdoors, consider putting up a water fountain to make your home really comfortable for the cat. Fountains attract cats as they love drinking from outside water sources.

The cat is not hungry

People tend to think that cats always leave food in their bowls or paw around for other various reasons other than the cat being full. Cats tend to eat a lot throughout the day regardless of whether you feed them or they eat from whatever they come across.

Cats’ stomachs are also relatively small so they can only consume as much.

When we fill their bowls with food that they like, cats will also consume more such that by the next meal, they will eat less or nothing at all. So your cat may actually just eat a small amount, ideally right from the middle of the bowl and leave the rest, basically, because they have had enough.

Cats are quite peculiar creatures. There are many explanations as to why cats will act like their food bowls are empty or paw around their water bowls. However, if you sense your cat continually refusing to eat or unable to consume food or drink from their bowl, seek advice from your vet.

About the Author
Ian Mutuli is a pet enthusiast, keeper of two dogs called Moxy and Metsy, and one lovely cat, Sassy. When he isn’t blogging at Smart Pet  he is sipping coffee, hanging out with Sassy, or designing homes to make the world a better place to live in.


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