There’s no more irritating behavior than begging. You might expect it from other pets, but not cats, which makes it all the more annoying. So why do cats beg for food, and how can you stop them?
How do I get my cat to stop begging for human food? Cats beg for many reasons. Begging is partly a learned behavior, where the cat learns to beg because it normally works, i.e. the cat gets its food in the end. Food-obsessed cats may also beg because they’re ill e.g. with worms, when their food isn’t suitable, when they can only eat at certain times of day, because their food lacks key nutrients, or because they are actually hungry. To get a cat to stop begging, stop responding to its begs, or respond with a different reaction like affection. Consider clicker training or talking to a pet behaviorist and/or a vet for further advice.
The guide below is divided into two sections. The first explains why cats beg for food. This is essential information, because if you don’t know what’s making your cat beg in the first place, you won’t stop its behavior. The second section details how you stop cats begging for human food. There are options for everyone, including some you can follow yourself at home, right now!
Why Is My Cat Constantly Begging for Food?
Begging is a behavior that has many different root causes. Some are related to your cat’s biology and instincts, while others are learned; others still stem from your cat’s health. ‘Diagnosing’ the reason why your cat begs can therefore be difficult.
But if you don’t know why your cat is begging, how can you stop it?
Begging Is a Learned Behavior
The first thing you should know is that begging is an entirely learned behavior. There’s nothing instinctual about it.
The reason for this is that cats don’t live in groups with defined hierarchies like other animals do. Wild cats don’t have to beg each other or attack each other for food; cats hunt alone and would never approach another cat to beg. They might try to attack the other cat to steal its food, but would never beg.
There is an element of begging involved in the relationship between a mother and its kittens. The kittens will first feed on nothing but milk, but will gradually transition to eating solid food after a few weeks of life. The mother will bring home food for them to eat. But this behavior disappears and is never seen again when cats become able to hunt for themselves.
The point of all this is that unless you encourage your cat’s behavior, it won’t beg you for food. If you find yourself consistently giving in to its begs, then in a way, your cat is right to beg. It wants food, and it gets some when it displays a certain behavior; it stands to reason that it will carry on displaying that behavior for as long as it’s effective.
Your Cat Isn’t Getting Enough Food
Cats don’t just beg because they want snacks, though. It’s entirely possible that your cat isn’t getting as much food as it needs. It would therefore be little wonder that it’s asking for more. Reasons why your cat may not be getting enough food include:
- You aren’t feeding it enough. The portions you’re giving your cat aren’t big enough, or you aren’t feeding it enough meals per day.
- The food you’re feeding it isn’t high enough in calories. Some foods are bulked out with things that don’t give your cat energy.
- Another cat in the household is bullying it and stopping it from eating. Cats can bicker and fight over food. One might physically stop another from eating, or the bullied cat may be too scared to go to its feeding bowl even if the other cat isn’t around.
- Your cat is underweight, so needs to eat more to gain the weight back. Cats can lose weight quickly when they’re ill, and struggle to gain that weight back.
- Your cat has worms. Worms steal some of the nutritional value of the food your cat eats. The more worms or the bigger they are, the more nutritional value they steal. Your cat can therefore eat lots and lots of food but still feel hungry.
- Your cat is regularly being sick (i.e. vomiting/regurgitating). When your cat brings up its food, it misses the opportunity to use all of the energy in the food.
You ought to check for any of these issues before trying to train your cat out of its begging behavior. The best way to do that is by taking the cat to a vet.
Cats Are Snackers, Not Meal Feeders
Another misconception about cats is that they should have mealtimes like we do.
In the wild, cats hunt many times a day, and will eat whenever they get the chance. The same applies to housecats: your cat will graze throughout the day, eating a few pieces of kibble here, or a few chunks of wet food there.
What this means is that your cat will want to eat between its meals. If there’s no food available for it, it will beg you for some.
You Eat When Your Cat Has No Food
This is another consequence of feeding your cat at specific times of day. Since your cat is a grazer, if it sees you eating when it doesn’t have any food, it will beg you to have some.
This can even apply if you feed your cat just before you sit down to eat. Cats can eat fast, so yours may finish what’s in its bowl, then come to you to ask for more. So the problem might not be that your cat is obsessed with human food—it might just not have any food to eat of any kind!
Your Cat Isn’t Getting Key Nutrients
There’s also the possibility that your cat’s diet isn’t suitable for it. It may not be getting enough of certain key nutrients like protein, or it may be missing certain vitamins, minerals or micronutrients like taurine.
This can apply to any cat. It can, of course, apply to a cat that eats nothing but cheap food. Cheap cat foods are typically bulked out with water, fiber and other things your cat doesn’t need. But it can also apply to cats fed more ‘organic’ diets like the raw meat diet. While raw meat is closer to your cat’s natural diet than tinned wet food, if you feed your cat the same kind of meat over and over again, it could become deficient in certain specific things like calcium.
Cat Keeps Begging for Wet Food/Human Food
Your cat can also beg for specific kinds of food. The most obvious is that your cat begs for treats; it does that because it likes them! But cats can also beg for certain kinds of food like wet food or dry food. This indicates that your cat prefers the other kind of food.
This particularly applies to wet food. Dry food isn’t like what cats eat in the wild; wild cats hunt for birds and rodents, and eat them raw. Kibble is a completely different texture and taste, and has nutrients that wild-caught food simply doesnt contain (like lots of fiber as a bulking agent). Your cat may therefore beg for wet food because dry food isn’t like a cat’s natural diet.
This can apply to your food as well. Your cat might not like the kibble you feed it, and when it sees you eating a steak or some chicken, it might want some too.
Your Cat May Have Hyperthyroidism (Why Is My Cat Always Hungry?)
Hyperthyroidism is a health condition that affects a cat’s metabolism. The thyroid gland becomes overactive and produces too many hormones. These hormones affect all sorts of things from heart rate and body temperature to levels of hunger and mood. In other words, an overactive thyroid can make your cat feel hungry all the time, which leads to it begging for food.
Hyperthyroidism is fairly common in middle aged and older cats. It can be caused by a non-cancerous tumor called an adenoma, or a malignant tumor called a thyroid adenocarcinoma. Other symptoms include weight loss, shaggy fur, vomiting and increased urination. If you suspect your cat has this condition, take it to the vet as soon as possible.
Ways to Stop Your Cat Begging
Begging is an irritating behavior and if you give in to it, it can lead to significant weight gain. So how can you stop a cat begging?
Talk To a Vet
Since begging can be related to many different health issues, it’s important that you take your cat to the vet. They can identify what precisely is wrong with your cat’s health and prescribe the correct fix. With the underlying issue fixed, the cat could stop begging completely; or it could at least stop begging some of the time, making it easier for you to prevent the behavior overall.
Specifically, the vet will check for known health issues that relate to diet and digestion. Worms are the most obvious: these are common and have a direct effect on your cat’s nutritional intake and hunger. These can be treated easily with tablets. The vet may also perform a generic checkup involving palpation (feeling your cat’s belly and body), blood tests and the like to see what’s wrong with your pet. Follow your vet’s advice exactly for the best chance of making it healthy, and thereby stopping this behavior.
Stop Giving In
Begging is a learned behavior, and if you had never given in to it, your cat wouldn’t have started. That’s not to say that the behavior is ‘your fault’, but it does mean that the power to stop it lies with you. The simplest way to stop your cat begging is to stop giving in.
This is easier said than done. A cat begging at the dinner table can be persuasive! But if you can manage somehow to simply stop entertaining your cat’s whims, it will eventually stop begging. That’s because it learns that it doesn’t work anymore. This can take a long time, but it’s guaranteed to take less time than if you carry on giving in to your cat’s begs.
The best way to do this is by ignoring your cat completely. Telling your cat ‘no’, ‘arguing’ with it, or otherwise interacting with it will make the process slower. So:
- Turn away and pretend that you haven’t noticed your cat
- Carry on with your conversation, or whatever you were doing before your cat begged
- Don’t respond with eye contact or physical contact
- Don’t give your cat any food when it asks
Follow these four steps and they will eventually work.
Respond Differently to Begs
If you feel bad ignoring your cat completely, then you can try a different tack. You could try responding differently to your cat’s begs.
One way of doing this is by responding with affection instead of food. Every time your cat begs, give it a scritch behind the ear. If your cat doesn’t mind being picked up and cuddled, you could do that instead. The point is that your cat will eventually begin to think that you’ve misunderstood—they’ll think that you’ve forgotten what to do in response to begging. They’ll therefore try and get food another, less annoying, way!
The key with this is consistency. If you respond with affection most of the time, but then occasionally give your cat food, it will still remember that begging = treats. But if you’re thoroughly consistent, and never give in, it will eventually learn.
Shut Your Cat Out of The Dining Room
If you’ve tried confronting the problem before, and nothing works, you do still have options. One is to physically keep your cat away from you while you eat. That could mean shutting the cat out of the dining room when you eat. Or, it could mean only eating snacks in rooms your cat isn’t allowed in, like your bedroom. Your cat will either not know that you’re eating, or not be able to pester you.
The only problem with this approach is if the cat begs to be let into the room. If it knows you’re eating in there, it might meow, scratch the carpet or bat at the door to ask to be let in. This can be just as annoying as regular begging! If your cat does this, you should probably try a different method.
Buy a Food Puzzle Bowl
Food puzzle bowls are special bowls that look like mazes views from above. There are walls and ridges that the food gets caught behind. Having one of these means that it takes longer for your cat to eat. There are a few reasons why this is relevant:
- If your cat finishes its food and begs you for yours during mealtimes, these bowls will make it eat slower
- If your cat wolfs its food down, these make it eat slower; eating slower makes your cat feel more full
- If your cat is bored with its food, puzzle bowls will make it more interesting
You can buy a few different kinds of puzzle bowl and swap them out occasionally to stop your cat getting bored with them, too.
Buy an Automatic Cat Food Dispenser
Another way is to get your food-obsessed cat an automatic feeder. These dispense food at regular intervals throughout the day. You can program them so that there’s always enough food for your cat, but never too much.
There are a couple of reasons why these help with your cat’s begging. One is that your cat will recognize that you aren’t the sole source of food in the house. Your cat begs you for food because it knows all of its food comes from you. But if the dispenser dispenses food without your ‘assistance’, at least in your cat’s eyes, then it will think the food appears by magic!
Another reason is that your cat will be able to graze any time it wants. You can set the feeder so that it dispenses regular snacks rather than occasional meals, meaning that any time your cat needs food, it can head to its dispenser and there will be some there. It won’t feel as if it has to ask you for food any more.
Can Clicker Training Stop a Cat from Begging?
Clicker training is the ultimate way to train a cat. It works better than any other method, and it can be done at home. It’s best used for teaching cats tricks, but it can be also used to teach standard behaviors like using a litter tray. So can it stop a cat begging?
What Is Clicker Training?
Clicker training is where you use a handheld clicker device to reinforce certain behaviors. This clicker device is small, and looks like a key fob. It has a button on it like a doorbell that you push down which makes a loud clicking sound.
The point of the clicker is to draw the cat’s attention. When it does something you want it to do, you click the clicker and immediately feed your cat a treat or give it affection—some kind of reward. The clicker helps your cat make the association between the behavior and the reward, and it eventually learns to perform the behavior to get its treat. This is how professional cat trainers teach their cats to do amazing tricks.
Can You Use Clicker Training for Begging?
There’s an obvious problem that you’ve likely picked up on already. Clicker training necessitates the use of rewards for behavior, and that reward is typically a treat. How can you teach your cat to stop begging by giving it treats?
The answer is to use your cat’s desires to your advantage.
Think from your cat’s point of view. It’s learned that if it displays a certain behavior, it gets a treat. It will keep displaying that behavior as it gets more and more treats each time it does. You can instead teach it a different behavior to display, one which is more suitable for you. Since your cat wants your food so badly, it will definitely take to displaying these new behaviors instead, even though you give it fewer treats than you would otherwise.
You can pick whatever behavior you want. For inspiration, read our full clicker training guide.
How Effective Is Clicker Training?
Clicker training is definitely effective, but it’s best used for tricks rather than modeling ingrained behaviors like these. People use it to teach cats how to roll over, or how to high five. It can be effective for certain things like litter training, too.
The problem is that clicker training is best for teaching cats to do something. In this context, you’re trying to teach your cat to not do something. The clicker helps the cat understand that when it does something, it gets a treat. But you can’t give your cat a treat every time it doesn’t beg, because that’s not a clearly defined single behavior. You instead have to pick a behavior like sitting still and teach that, and hope that the cat understands that it doesn’t need to beg anymore, but display the new behavior.
You may therefore find that clicker training doesn’t work for you; if so, stick to the other options listed above. But if it does, it’s effective for life, so you will have solved your cat’s begging problem!
Talk To a Pet Behaviorist
Your option of last resort is to take your cat to a real pet behaviorist. Pet behaviorists study animals for a living and learn what makes them tick. Through hiring one you can learn what drives your cat to beg, and how to train it not to. They may teach you to clicker train your cat, or tell you how to use an alternative method.
And if a pet behaviorist can’t help you, you’re out of luck. At this point it’s best to reshape your reaction to your cat’s begging rather than shaping your cat’s behavior. That means remaining calm when your cat begs rather than getting annoyed or stressed. There are all sorts of ways to do this, like with breathing exercises, counting to ten, distracting yourself, and any number of other methods.