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How to Tell if a Cat Is Hungry: 9 Signs to Look For

We’ve all been there. You’re relaxing on the couch or at your desk. Suddenly, you hear the meows. You try to ignore them because, according to the clock, it’s not quite dinner time. So, you go back to doing whatever it was you were doing. But then, the meows grow louder and more persistent. Your cat starts batting your face with its paws. And if you have anything on a table nearby? You can bet it’s getting knocked over.

Finally, you say, “Alright!” because you can’t focus.

We understand the frustration. Cats invented the word hangry. They show no mercy until their allotted kibble is in the bowl, packed to the brim. And it’s not like you’re starving your cat. So, how do you know if your cat (or any cat) is actually starving?

That’s exactly what we’re discussing in today’s post.

Click below to jump ahead:

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How to Tell if Your Cat Is Actually Hungry

Cats are always ready for dinner and don’t stop telling you when the clock strikes mealtime. Typical signs that cats are ready for dinner include:

  • Meowing
  • Pawing at things
  • Invasive behavior
  • Rubbing
  • Knocking things over

These are all classic signs of cat begging. This doesn’t mean your cat is starving. It only means your cat is running off an internal clock that says it’s time to eat.

In the wild, cats eat smaller meals multiple times throughout the day. It makes sense why house cats beg for food often—it’s only instinctual!

But sometimes, cats cross the bridge from begging into actual food deprivation. House cats don’t have to worry about this as much as stray and feral cats. Still, it’s a serious matter and can cause medical concerns.

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The 9 Signs of a Nutritionally Deprived Cat

1. Poor Body Condition

A cat with a poor body condition score ranks between one and three. A cat that hasn’t eaten in days has visible ribs, and the belly is sunken, so you can see a pronounced abdominal tuck. The spine could also be visible depending on how long a cat has gone without food.

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2. Eating Quickly

Some cats eat quickly naturally, but a starving cat inhales food at an alarming rate. If you try to take the food away, the cat may growl, hiss, or hunch to warn you to back off.

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3. Stealing Food

Homes with multiple cats almost always have a cat that likes to eat everyone else’s leftovers. This is normal cat behavior but should be monitored to avoid obesity.

However, a starving cat may steal other food, like the dog’s. It may get into the trash or bread loaf on the counter. The cat may even try to steal something off your plate right in front of you.

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4. Regurgitating Food

Many pet owners mistake regurgitated food for vomit, but they aren’t the same. Vomit is the ejection of contents found in the stomach and lower intestine. On the other hand, regurgitation is the ejection of contents found in the esophagus. Regurgitation happens immediately after eating, and the animal usually tries to eat it.

sick cat vomiting the food
Image Credit: Tom Wang, Shutterstock
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5. Eating Non-Food Items

A starving cat may try to eat non-food-related items like fabrics, plastics, cardboard, and paper. Also known as Pica Syndrome, this is more typical in younger cats than older cats. Veterinarians suspect it’s from being weaned too young. But it could also be a sign of starvation.

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6. Diarrhea

There are plenty of reasons why cats get diarrhea. A poor diet is one of them, along with ingesting foreign objects. Sometimes diarrhea is a symptom of malnutrition, and sometimes it’s the cause. In any case, it’s a good idea to keep tabs on your cat’s bowel movements.

Ginger cat in a litter box
Image Credit: Lightspruch, Shutterstock
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7. Lack of Energy

If you don’t eat, you don’t have energy, and a starving cat won’t have much energy to do its basic cat routines. You may see the cat sleeping more, ambling, and hardly ever running and playing. This is a survival instinct to preserve as many calories as possible.

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8. Lack of Grooming

Grooming is an expected behavior for cats. In the wild, cats clean themselves after each meal to remove any food scent from their bodies. Plus, cats like to feel clean.

Grooming is a clear sign of health in a cat. A cat that doesn’t groom itself is unwell. In this case, it could be a sign of nutrition deprivation.

bored domestic cat
Image Credit: IceEye, Pixabay
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9. Manic Behavior

Manic behavior is like being hangry but worse. It’s hard for the cat to focus, and the cat may try to get your attention in every way possible. This isn’t like how your cat tries to get your attention to bed for its normal kibble portion. This is usually an amplified version of it.

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What Happens When a Cat Doesn’t Eat?

An animal refusing to eat is always problematic, but it’s especially hazardous for cats.

Cats can experience a unique condition called hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver syndrome, when they go longer than 3–4 days without eating. The body breaks down fat cells for energy and overwhelms the liver in the process.

You shouldn’t have to worry about this if you’re feeding your cat regularly (and your cat is eating the food), but stray and feral cats face this problem if they can’t find food.

How to Fatten Up Your Cat

Usually, cat owners ask how to help their cats burn calories. But in this case, we’re helping you put some meat on your cat’s bones.

Before you try anything, you should try to take your cat to the vet. We say “try” because many cat lovers reading this are trying to help a stray or feral cat. If this is you, trapping the cat and taking it to a vet is best.

However, we understand if this isn’t an option for you. So, let’s look at other ways you can add weight to your cat healthily.

a gray stray cat is walking along the sidewalk
Image Credit: Gansstock, Shutterstock

Offer Canned Kitten Food

Canned kitten food has a higher protein and fat content than adult cat food, making it ideal for malnourished cats. This means more essential amino and fatty acids to help with muscle development and organ function.

Offer Canned Food Over Dry Food

Canned food has more moisture, thus hydrating your cat more than dry food. Canned food generally is also higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates.

Offer Whatever Is Enticing

Even a starving cat may have its limitations. Sometimes starving cats don’t feel well enough to eat a large amount. Try offering no-sodium chicken broth or beef broth to start. Make it warm, so it feels good in the belly and mimics wild prey. Slowly add some fresh meat as you go.

Use Fish Oil

Fish oil is loaded with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to help the cat’s skin, coat, and nails. It also adds calories to the meal and makes the meal more enticing. You can find fish oil in a jar and dropper or cut open the pill and drizzle it onto some wet food.

fish oil Capsules
Image Credit: Monfocus, Pixabay

Gradually Add More Food

Start small when offering food to a cat that isn’t used to eating large portions. After some time, you can gradually add more nutrition to your cat’s meals.

Mix It Up

Offering enticing food is one thing. Try mixing it up and offer different textured foods, like boiled eggs, fresh tuna, or salt-free jerky. It’s also a great opportunity to use the treats as a reward for finishing the main meal.

Monitor for Sensitivities

As we mentioned above, sometimes cats have medical reasons for not eating enough. These should be monitored as well as allergic reactions, gas and bloating, and vomiting and diarrhea.


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Final Thoughts

If you’re reading this as your cat paws at you while demanding to be fed, we’re here to tell you that your cat is fine! Cats are used to eating multiple small meals a day. Most of the time, cats beg for food because it’s instinctual.

There are medical reasons why a cat isn’t eating properly, and sometimes it’s because it’s homeless. If you want to help a stray or feral cat, follow the tips above. We have no doubts they will help.

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Featured Image Credit: Valeri Vatel, Shutterstock