Begging for food is just second nature for dogs, but for cats, excessive hunger is unusual. Downing meals in record time, cleaning out a day’s supply of kibble before lunch and stealing treats from the counter aren’t typical feline behaviors.
With few exceptions, most cats do a respectable job of watching their waistlines, so if yours is having trouble controlling his cravings, does it mean trouble ahead?
Not every change in a cat’s appetite is cause for panic. For growing kittens and pregnant or nursing females, an increased desire for food is expected and in the absence of other symptoms, doesn’t likely reflect a problem.
Variation in seasonal activity, mating behavior, and environmental changes can also impact appetite intermittently, but new and persistent hunger may signal a larger issue.
It’s possible that a simple problem like intestinal parasites or poor quality food is to blame, but ruling out diseases like diabetes, pancreatic insufficiency, inflammatory bowel disease, hypothyroidism, and cancer is critical.
Before you see your veterinarian, learn more here about the most common reasons your cat may always be hungry and what you can do to help.
When is an increased appetite normal?
Like humans, cats can experience variation in appetite without necessarily being ill, but it may take some detective work to figure out why.
Since most cats eat to satisfy their energy needs, it makes sense to look at ways your cat may be expending more calories than usual.
The most obvious examples include pregnancy and lactation. According to the Merck Manual, pregnant cats need 25-40 percent more calories through the last trimester of gestation and for the 3-4 weeks during which they are nursing young.
Unlike dogs, cats experience an almost immediate increase in appetite during pregnancy — well before outward signs show and unsuspecting owners become aware.
Intact males also experience changes in appetite when looking for a mate. Unlike females, tom cats have no defined mating season but are acutely aware of females in heat nearby.
The distraction can result in a decreased appetite for a period of time, followed by an unusual increase to make up for lost calories.
In both cases, excessive hunger should be temporary. If your cat continues to have an insatiable desire for food, other causes might be in play.
Could low-quality cat food be to blame?
Not all cat food is created equal. According to the FDA, even foods with an AAFCO label stating it provides guaranteed balanced nutrition may not be of the highest quality.
Some commercial diets are made with many indigestible ingredients that provide no real nutrition.
Occasionally, fillers provide valuable dietary fiber, but in excess, they displace the protein and other nutrients cats need.
To compensate, some food makers add inexpensive artificial vitamins and minerals, but if they are not in a form the cat’s body can process — called bioavailability — they pass through the gastrointestinal tract unused.
According to veterinarian Patrick Mahaney, this can result in a seemingly well-fed cat feeling undernourished.
Looking for the AAFCO label on cat food is a good place to start, but it’s only a guarantee that the promised gross nutrient percentages are accurate; it’s not a promise of quality.
Foods stuffed with poor quality ingredients need to be fed in larger than usual serving sizes to meet calorie and nutrient needs and that may not be obvious on the label.
Can intestinal worms or parasites cause increased hunger?
Worms and parasites can affect appetite in two distinct ways. First, they take nutrients from the cat’s food.
Second, they often cause vomiting or loose stool that causes some food to pass through the gastrointestinal tract undigested. Both situations can result in a malnourished cat with a big appetite.
According to vetinfo.com, two of the most common feline parasites, roundworm, and tapeworm, are especially likely to cause excessive hunger.
Since parasite risks are somewhat geographical, it’s important to consult your veterinarian about treatment and prevention of worms in your area before depending on an over-the-counter all-purpose wormer to do the trick.
If your cat is vomiting or having diarrhea more than occasionally, check the vomitus and stool for worms. Roundworms are long and thin like spaghetti.
Tapeworms are long, flat and segmented and typically shed only small segments at any one time.
Dried tapeworm segments that look like grains of rice may be seen periodically in the hair around a cat’s rectum.
Unfortunately, cats can be infested with worms and show no visible signs. Your veterinarian will ask you to collect a small stool sample for microscopic examination.
By identifying worm eggs or other parasites in your cat’s stool, the veterinarian can prescribe the appropriate treatment.
Is it just a behavioral problem?
Some perfectly healthy cats eat more calories than they really need. Strays that experienced a food shortage when they were young may instinctively eat food whenever it’s available, and cats in multi-pet homes may feel a competitive drive to overeat.
These behaviors are driven by nature and can be difficult to manage, but need to be considered when other causes have been ruled out.
Could my cat have a serious illness?
If common reasons for excessive hunger have been eliminated, your veterinarian will want to do tests to look for other causes.
There are five common conditions he or she will look for first: diabetes, pancreatic insufficiency, inflammatory bowel disease, hypothyroidism, and cancer. Here’s what you need to know about each.
Feline diabetes is a chronic disease in which a cat’s body makes insufficient insulin or is resistant to its effects.
Without enough insulin, food can’t be used efficiently for energy and results in feelings of starvation.
In an interview with WebMD, veterinarian Thomas Graves relates that 0.5 to 2 percent of the feline population has diabetes, but that’s it likely underdiagnosed.
Primary symptoms include:
- Increased thirst
- Frequent urination
- Increased appetite
- Weight loss
The cause of feline diabetes isn’t always clear, but it’s easy to diagnose with simple blood tests. Treatment usually consists of a change in diet from conventional to low-carbohydrate and may involve oral medications and insulin.
According to Dr. Graves, costs for medicines and supplies run about $25-30 monthly and most people can successfully learn to give insulin injections.
As with humans, feline obesity is a risk factor for diabetes. While weight loss in an overweight cat is usually desirable, no persistent weight loss is ever normal and should be evaluated regardless of initial size.
The pancreas produces several important enzymes that are necessary for digestion. When one or more of those enzymes is low, it’s called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and it can make your cat unreasonably hungry.
According to WebMD, symptoms are more obvious than with other hunger-inducing conditions and include:
- Large stool volume
- Watery diarrhea
- Light-colored or greasy feces
- Poor hair coat
- General malaise
- Increased appetite
The good news is that supplementation of pancreatic enzymes successfully treats most cats. Enzymes come in the form of sprinkles that are added to cat food and are usually well-tolerated.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Feline inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a chronic condition in which a cat’s gastrointestinal tract becomes swollen and irritated.
Inflammatory cells cause the walls of the tract to thicken, impairing its ability to digest food and absorb nutrients.
Cats of any age can develop IBD, but it occurs more in middle-aged and older cats.
According to Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Science, the exact cause of IBD is unknown, but as with humans, studies suggest it evolves from interactions between diet, the immune system, the balance of microorganisms in the gut and other complex environmental factors.
Symptoms of IBD in cats, however, can be a little tricky depending on which part of the gastrointestinal tract is affected and usually include:
- Weight loss
- Watery diarrhea
- Bloody stools
Despite overall malnutrition, some cats with IBD may show an aversion to food, especially if it causes vomiting, while others may want extra portions.
Because IBD can be a symptom of other conditions, diagnosis is usually made only after other illnesses are ruled out and may require gastric or intestinal biopsies.
Treatment typically involves medications and trials of different diets until one that eases symptoms is found.
According to WebMD, hyperthyroidism is the most common glandular disorder in cats and is caused by excessive production of thyroid hormone.
Primary symptoms include:
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent urination
- Poor coat
- Excessive appetite
Hyperthyroidism occurs in all breeds and affects both males and females, but is most common in cats over ten years old.
Because the symptoms of hyperthyroidism are so similar to other conditions, and secondary illnesses are often present in geriatric cats, comprehensive testing is usually done before arriving at a definitive diagnosis.
Treatment for hyperthyroidism takes three forms: use of oral medication, removal of the thyroid gland, or radioactive iodine therapy. Each has distinct advantages and disadvantages.
Use of oral medication, typically methimazole, is the most conservative approach and has an excellent rate of success; however, up to 15 percent of cats will have side effects that are severe enough to warrant discontinuation of therapy. For those cats, there are other options.
Most cases of hyperthyroidism are caused by benign tumors of the thyroid gland, and removing the gland is considered a cure, however, lifetime supplementation of oral thyroid hormone is required daily thereafter.
Surgery can be costly and seems radical to some owners, but it’s a good option for cats that don’t tolerate oral medication.
In an otherwise healthy cat, it can be more cost-effective than years of methimazole therapy.
Thyroid hormone is relatively inexpensive and ongoing care is minimal, consisting of regular exams and occasional blood work to check levels.
Radioactive iodine therapy is another safe and minimally invasive treatment option.
No anesthesia is required and a single treatment is curative, however, because the therapy uses a radioactive substance to destroy hyperactive thyroid tissue, cats must remain hospitalized as long as high levels of radioactivity are present in their urine and feces.
This can take as long as two weeks and contributes significantly to the cost of therapy. Although the treatment has been fine-tuned and costs have decreased, the 500-800 dollar price tag is still cost-prohibitive for some owners.
Untreated feline hyperthyroidism can have significant and lifelong consequences.
Watch this short YouTube video to better understand the importance of early detection as well as treatment options.
The symptoms of cancer in cats are variable and depend on the systems and organs affected, but like humans, calorie-hungry tumors and some blood cancers can cause profound weight loss.
So, when a cat has a big appetite and is losing weight without a clear cause, malignancy is suspected.
The search for a diagnosis begins with a complete physical exam and may include blood work as well as additional tests like x-rays, CT scans, and ultrasound to investigate specific symptoms.
Treatments range from surgery to chemotherapy and are recommended based on diagnostic findings and prognosis.
How can I help get to the bottom of my cat’s big appetite?
Until cats can talk, your veterinarian will depend on you to report physical changes and behavioral symptoms.
Here’s what you can do:
- Watch for increased activity, possible pregnancy and changes in demeanor that suggest a behavioral problem.
- Look for signs of intestinal worms and if possible, weigh your cat periodically and record the results.
- Monitor changes in stool volume and character.
- Keep track of all diet changes and if possible, measure the amount your cat eats each day.
- Record other symptoms including vomiting increased thirst and frequent urination.
- Collect a fresh stool sample for a veterinary worm check.
Not every hearty appetite means trouble, but cats are creatures of habit and any change in routine is worth keeping an eye on.
If excessive hunger persists beyond a week or two or is accompanied by other worrisome symptoms, see your veterinarian.