If your cat is eating lots of food but not putting on extra weight, you’re bound to be concerned. We know that overindulging in food leads to weight gain, so it’s hard to understand how a cat could overeat but stay very lean.
Medical conditions such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism and inflammatory bowel disease can interfere with food absorption, so the cat may feel very hungry, eat voraciously, but not gain any weight. Psychological factors such as boredom and addiction can also cause over-eating, but you’d usually see some weight gain in these cases.
Occasionally, neither medical nor psychological factors are to blame for a cat’s ‘excessive’ hunger. It’s possible your cat might be genuinely hungry, either because its not getting enough calories at mealtimes, or the quality of the food is poor.
Why Is My Cat Hungry All the Time?
Polyphagia is the medical term for excessive hunger. Hunger is a complex process that is affected by physical as well as psychological factors. As such, the cause of polyphagia is not always easy to discern. Here are the leading causes of excessive eating in cats:
1) A Calorie Deficit
There’s a chance your cat is genuinely hungry – either because you are not feeding them enough, another animal is stealing their food, or perhaps their energy needs have changed.
A cat’s energy needs can change for a couple of different reasons.
If you feed your cat enough calories, but the food is devoid of vital nutrients, they may develop incessant food cravings.
3) Psychological and Emotional
If your cat is bored or lonely, they might learn that begging for food wins them attention. Not only that, they may become addicted to the sensory pleasure of eating – especially if they don’t have any other forms of stimulation/enrichment.
If your cat is overeating due to psychological factors – you’d probably see some weight gain.
4) Physical Illness
If you’ve noticed some weight loss along with the increased appetite – your cat is probably suffering from an illness. As we’ll explore, various diseases can cause polyphagia.
These diseases interfere with the cat’s hormones, metabolism, and/or digestive health. Unfortunately, many of these diseases are fairly common in older age (i.e., above ten years), but there are treatments available.
So, if your cat is always begging for food, keep an open mind about the potential reasons for this.
What Are the Symptoms of Polyphagia in Cats?
If you’re concerned about the severity of your cat’s behavior, see how many symptoms of polyphagia you can recognize:
- Whining and begging for food at inappropriate times (i.e., during the night)
- Becoming aggressive when asking for food
- Stealing food from the fridge, cupboards, another pet’s food bowl, or even the dinner table
- Eating very quickly (may lead to regurgitation)
- Weight changes
- Increased thirst – perhaps drinking inappropriate/stale liquid to quench their thirst
- Eating non-food substances such as dirt
If you can tick-off many of these symptoms, it’s quite likely that your cat’s excessive eating is due to an endocrine or digestive disorder.
Before we explore these disorders in more detail, let’s first check if your cat’s diet is up to scratch. As mentioned, some cases of ‘excessive hunger’ might be caused by a calorie-deficient diet
What Are the Calorie Requirements for Cats?
A loving owner would never knowingly underfeed their cat, but it can sometimes happen by accident. A cat may accidentally go hungry if:
- One family member assumes another family member has fed the cat.
- Another pet is stealing food out of the cat’s bowl, but it goes unnoticed.
- First-time cat owners don’t always know how much food is appropriate and some cat food labels aren’t very clear about portion sizes.
- Generally speaking, kibbles are more calorie-dense than wet food. If owners switch from a mixed diet to a wet food-only diet, they may not increase the quantity of wet food by enough to satisfy their cat’s energy needs.
- The cat’s energy needs may change – due to pregnancy/nursing, or recovery from physical trauma (surgery or illness).
According to NAS, an average domestic cat has the following daily kilocalorie (kcal) requirements:
- Kitten – 200 kcal
- Lean Cat (1 year+) – 280 -360 kcal
- Obese Cat (1 year+) – 240 – 280 kcal
- Cat Recovering from Physical Trauma (perhaps an illness or operation) – Take advice from your vet, but they will often require more than 360kcal while recovering.
- Pregnant/Nursing Cat – 600 – 850kcal
You should ensure your cat’s total daily intake of food meets the above kcal requirements. You should be able to find the kcal’s listed on the back of the food packet (though the information is not always very clear).
It does vary but, as a general rule, one pouch/sachet (1 serving) of wet cat food contains between 70 and 120 kcal. Dry kibble tends to provide more calories than wet food per portion.
For a few days, make a note of how many calories your cat is consuming in a day. You should monitor them for the entire time they are eating to make sure their food isn’t stolen by another pet.
If your cat’s daily calorie intake is regularly falling short of the above guidelines, this explains why they’re pestering you for more food.
Feeding Schedule for Cats
If your cat’s hunger seems out of control, consider how regularly you are feeding them. Cats love to graze on food throughout the day. If you feed them 4-8 very small meals per day (at consistent intervals), they’re less likely to experience hunger pangs.
When it comes to feeding your cat, consistency is paramount. If your cat is forced to wait hours and hours for a meal, they’ll be ravenous by the time the food arrives.
If your feeding schedule is very irregular, your cat may develop a condition called psychogenic abnormal feeding behavior. This can cause them to steal food, binge-eat, and/or constantly pester you for food.
Malnutrition and Excessive Hunger
Once you’ve checked the calorie-content of your cat’s food, you should also check its nutritional content. Cats who are fed poor-quality cat food can develop nutritional deficiencies – even if they are consuming large amounts of food. Cats who are fed leftovers may also develop deficiencies if they don’t consume a wide range of foods.
Deficiencies in the following vitamins and minerals can increase a cat’s food cravings:
If your cat is ravenously hungry all of the time, this might indicate that they lack a vital nutrient in their diet. You can prevent this by purchasing a good-quality ‘complete’ cat food.
But what if you’re already providing your cat with a nutritious, calorically-dense diet and they’re still constantly begging for food? In that case, your cat may be suffering from one of the following medical conditions.
Cat Overeating Due to Thyroid Issues
Hyperthyroidism is an endocrine disorder that’s relatively common in old cats. It occurs when the cat secretes too much thyroid hormone (T3 and T4) from the thyroid gland in their neck.
This speeds up the cat’s metabolism, thereby increasing appetite (occasionally, hyperthyroidism can actually dampen a cat’s appetite).
If you’re concerned about this condition, here are some additional symptoms to look out for:
- Weight Loss – This is common in cats with hyperthyroidism and it can happen rapidly.
- Poor Coat – Cats with hyperthyroidism often develop a shabby, disheveled coat.
- Vomiting – This is often a side-effect of excessive eating but might also be a symptom of the primary disorder.
- Hyperactivity – Meowing, pacing around, padding paws into the ground repeatedly.
If your cat is diagnosed with this condition, they will probably be prescribed medication. Occasionally, surgery is required to remove the thyroid gland. Scientists don’t know exactly what causes this condition, but it may be aggravated by a high iodine diet.
This is because iodine facilitates the production of thyroid hormone. As such, your vet may recommend cat food that’s very low in iodine.
Diabetes Increases Appetite in Cats
Like hyperthyroidism, diabetes mellitus (type 2) is relatively common in aging cats (10 years+). Diabetes occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin (or the cells respond inappropriately to insulin).
If insulin is low, glucose (sugar) cannot be transported around the bloodstream effectively. This can lead to lethargy and extreme hunger pangs.
What causes diabetes mellitus in cats? Diet is thought to play a key role in the development of this disease. Unfortunately, some mass-produced cat foods contain very large amounts of carbohydrates (sugars) and hardly any protein.
This has probably contributed to the rise in type 2 diabetes. Cats living in the wild would eat a high-protein diet so they may be less susceptible to this disease.
Diabetes is sometimes quite difficult to distinguish from other diseases, though the Blue Cross has summarized the key symptoms to look out for:
- Urinating frequently
- A thirst that can’t be satisfied (perhaps drinking the ends of cups of tea, or drinking water from the toilet bowl)
- Being hungry all the time – no matter how much food is provided
- Weight loss – this is because the cat cannot absorb the sugars in food effectively
- Bladder infections (perhaps urinating outside the litter box)
- Weakness and lethargy
The standard treatment for diabetes is insulin injections and improving your cat’s diet.
Feline Acromegaly and Overeating
Acromegaly is linked to diabetes in the sense that cats with this disease have problems maintaining a healthy blood glucose level. As such, they’ll feel hungry and thirsty all the time and may have some of the other symptoms associated with diabetes.
Feline acromegaly occurs when too much growth hormone (IGF-1) is produced in the pituitary gland. This results in some quite particular physical changes, such as:
- A large body
- Broad face
- Larger than average feet
- Protruding lower jaw
- There may be bloating around the stomach area
If you notice these physical changes, alongside an increase in hunger/thirst, you should seek medical advice. Thankfully, feline acromegaly is quite rare so you shouldn’t jump to conclusions. If your cat is diagnosed with acromegaly, it cannot usually be ‘cured,’ but it can be managed.
Does My Cat Have Inflammatory Bowel Disease?
If your cat is eating a lot but staying very skinny, another possibility could be feline inflammatory bowel disease (FIBD). FIBD occurs when the walls of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract become inflamed.
The GI tract is comprised of the esophagus, stomach, intestines, and the colon. Inflammation in any of these locations can cause FIBD.
Due to this inflammation, food cannot be absorbed properly, so it is usually thrown up as foamy vomit, or comes out at loose stools. As you’d imagine, the cat is unable to absorb enough nutrition from their food, so they’ll constantly feel hungry.
Scientists are still learning what actually causes FIBD. Given that FIBD can affect any part of the GI tract, there is a range of potential causes, such as:
- Food intolerances/allergies
- Genetic abnormalities in the GI tract/immune system
- Parasites (perhaps previously treated but not fully eradicated)
- Bacteria in the stomach/intestines/colon
As a first-line treatment, your vet may suggest switching to hypoallergenic cat food or managing stress in the household. If these treatments aren’t appropriate, your cat might be prescribed a course of antibiotics/anti-inflammatories.
Cat Worms Lead to an Increased Appetite
Parasites can sometimes be the culprit for inflammatory bowel disease. Parasitic worms such as tapeworms, roundworms, and hookworms can interfere with digestion and increase a cat’s appetite.
If your cat frequently plays outside, or you have other pets in the household, the risk of contracting worms increases. Worms can be caught from fleas, or from the soil (where other animals have defecated).
It might sound gross, but the easiest way to detect worms is to look in your cat’s stools or vomit. Worms will usually be white/gray in color (though they are not always visible to the naked eye).
If you see worms, try and collect a small sample to take the vet. This will ensure they get the most appropriate treatment. Worms can cause weight loss, malnutrition, and even death if they are not treated appropriately.
Can Cancer Cause Excessive Eating in Cats?
When our cat is sick, we often fear the worst-case scenario: cancer. But is there really a link between cancer and excessive eating? Having cancer may impact a cat’s appetite. For example:
- A cancerous tumor may press on the GI tract. If this impairs digestion, this can make them feel hungrier than usual.
- Some cancerous tumors secrete an excessive amount of hormone (IGF-1, for example), which can raise the cat’s metabolism – so it’s more difficult for them to satisfy their hunger.
Nevertheless, cancer is less common than many of the other conditions mentioned above, and quite often cancer decreases rather than increases a cat’s appetite.
Additional symptoms of cancer include nosebleeds, discharge from eyes or mouth, seizures, bloating/swelling.
Psychological Reasons Cats May Overeat
We’ve explored the physical and medical causes of excessive hunger, but there are some psychological factors to consider, too.
If your cat is fed a good-quality diet, is fit and healthy, but is always begging for food, they may be experiencing psychological/emotional hunger. Indeed, scientists have termed this condition ‘psychogenic abnormal feeding behavior.’
So, what are the psychological factors that can make a cat feel very hungry?
If your cat doesn’t get much attention or opportunity to play, the sensory pleasure of eating may become central to their life. This can cause your cat to overeat or constantly beg for food.
Cats can develop an addiction to mealtimes (due to the sensory pleasure of the food and the attention they receive at mealtimes).
This double-stimulation can be very addictive for a cat and cause them to keep begging for food all the time. For example, if multiple members of the family feed the cat throughout the day, they may become addicted to food and the feeling of being cared for by multiple people.
Also, if you feed your cat leftovers from the table, they may start to become addicted to the extra food/attention. Even if you refuse to feed them from the table the next day, they may pester you for food/attention until they get their own way.
According to a review in the Telegraph, cats that beg for food may indeed have a psychology ‘addiction’ rather than a physical need or a medical condition.
3) Fear of Starvation
This is quite common in cats who have been neglected or cats who have to share meals with others. If they don’t know when the next meal is coming, this can lead to bingeing and/or stealing food.
Granted, if your cat is overeating out of boredom or addiction, you’ll probably see some weight gain. However, owners are quite bad at recognizing weight gain in their own pets – especially if a cat has a long, thick coat to disguise the heaviness. For that reason, don’t be too quick to disregard ‘psychological hunger’ as a factor.
If your cat is eating excessively due to psychological reasons, there are things you can do to manage/prevent this behavior.
How to Stop Your Cat from Overeating
Assuming there are no medical problems, altering the way you feed, play with, and care for your cat may help to keep their appetite under control. Here are some tips:
1) Make Mealtimes More Challenging
Try feeding your cat’s meal in a food bowl that forces it to search for its food. If your cat wolfs down their food and then regurgitates, these food bowls are a good option.
2) Switch Up Their Diet
As mentioned, make sure you are purchasing ‘complete’ cat food and take note of how many calories your cat is consuming in a day.
The average cat needs about 12.5 grams of protein per day so check the labels on any new cat food you buy. Protein helps cats feel satisfied so they’re less likely to beg for extra food.
3) Provide Fresh Water
Make sure your cat has clean, fresh water to drink at all times.
Cats get a lot of their water from wet food, so if you don’t provide them with enough drinking water, they may overeat on wet food to stay hydrated.
4) Lock Food Away
This should help to discourage stealing/ food addiction.
5) Do Not Feed on Demand
Try to establish a regular routine with your cat and avoid feeding them ‘on demand.’
It’s best not to feed them from the dinner table (or any other place they will receive a lot of attention) as this can lead to addiction.
6) Reduce Stress at Mealtimes
Try to feed cats separately and don’t enter/exit the room whilst they are eating. If they feel relaxed and secure around food, they’re less likely to binge-eat.
7) Regular Play and Attention
Provide your cat with plenty of fuss and attention outside of mealtimes. If you have the time, try to provide short bursts of attention throughout the entire today.
When Should I See a Vet about Excessive Eating?
A temporary increase in appetite can be normal in cats who are pregnant, nursing – or cats recovering from physical trauma.
In all other cases, excessive eating may be a cause for concern, especially if you see signs of:
- Weight loss
We’ve explored the strong link between endocrine/digestive diseases and excessive hunger. To be on the safe side, it is advisable to see your vet immediately if your cat’s appetite increases.
Most of the conditions mentioned in this article are life-threatening if left untreated – either in-and-of-themselves or because they can lead to starvation.
If your vet determines there is nothing medically wrong with your pet, their excessive hunger may be caused by psychological factors.
Alternatively, they may be experiencing genuine hunger pangs caused by a calorie/nutrient-deficient diet. Either way, there are things you can try to help keep your cat’s appetite under control.