Cinder’s Advice: Growling and Food-Guarding

In December 2013, my husband and I adopted a one-year-old tortoiseshell cat from Hearts United for Animals. Cinder has taught us so much about cats that it seemed proper for her to have her own advice column.

QUESTION: Why do cats growl and how does one stop them from guarding their food?

“Grrr!” I growled as Allison placed my breakfast in front of me.

Allison pulled back. “Cinder, no!” she scolded.

She turned to Andy who had just entered the kitchen. “Cinder growled at me!”

He approached me. Before I could stop myself, I growled again. “Grrr!”

Allison shook her head. “I thought only dogs growled.”

Ha! I thought. If a dog can growl, so can a cat! We can get just as annoyed as dogs. And scared. Even angry.

Andy shrugged his shoulders. “What are we going to do about it? How can we teach her not to growl?”

Puzzled, I glanced up at them. Growling had been the only way I could tell all those other cats at the shelter to stay away from my food. Why would I stop growling?

A common reason cats growl is to protect their food. But why do some cats feel the need to guard their food? Like me, some do so because they were in a situation where it was necessary. Some reasons cats guard their food are:

  • As kittens, they were separated from their mothers too young and never properly weaned.
  • They were forced to live outdoors and to scrounge or even fight for food.
  • They receive too little food or are fed too often during the day and their protective instinct gets aroused.
  • As part of a multi-cat household, it’s just the presence of other cats that triggers the instinct, even if none of the other cats are actively trying to steal their food.

After I’d cleaned off my plate, Allison leaned in and gently stroked my head. “Sweet Cinder. Your food is safe here. No one’s going to take it,” she whispered.

Wow! I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard! Allison understood what I felt. Instead of rushing off to play, I basked in her attention.

For a long time, nothing changed. Then one day at mealtime Allison didn’t immediately place my food in front of me. Instead she ordered me: “Sit!”

My heart began to race. I started to frantically turn in circles. Allison had been teaching me to “Sit,” but telling me to sit now didn’t make any sense. Was she trying to taunt me by withholding food? I could see my dish in her hand. Why wouldn’t she give it to me? When Allison wouldn’t budge I reluctantly sat, but the instant she put down my food, I growled and hunched over my dish. No one was going to keep me from my food!

“Cinder, you have terrible manners!” Allison scolded and took back my food. I began to whine and pant.

Allison’s face looked sad and she tried to soothe me. When I finally sat, she returned my dish. I instantly growled. I couldn’t help it.

Every day was like this. I started to hate mealtimes. Maybe Allison figured this out, because after a while she tried other ways to teach me this thing called “manners”. One day after preparing my food, she gave me a treat. I gobbled it up. “Good girl for not growling,” Allison murmured and then gave me another treat. I soon figured out that my Allison was giving me treats whenever I didn’t growl at her, but I still couldn’t quell my panic.

There are many ways to teach dogs and cats not to guard food. My pet mom has tried them all!

  • Don’t feed at the table. This only trains us to always expect food.
  • Restrict our exposure to food of any kind except at meals, which means you pet parents can’t eat in front of us.
  • Give meals at a set time, so we take comfort in knowing when the next meal will come.
  • Give attention, not food. When food is always used to meet our demands, we’ll always want food.
  • Play with us before meals. That way, we’ll be in a positive mood before our meals.
  • Feed us more than once a day. We like our independence and take comfort in having some control over when we eat.
  • Add more food to each meal so that we have the chance to feel full. Don’t let us get overweight, but just give us more food so that we feel more secure.
  • Make us work for our food by using puzzle feeders. These reward us when we figure out the puzzle, along with keeping us slim.
  • In multi-pet households, feed everyone in different areas or rooms. Separating where we eat eliminates competition and our need to bully.

One day Allison had a talk with me. She told me again that I didn’t have to worry about anyone stealing my food, and then told me that she was going to stop trying to change me. Instead she said that she and Andy were going to give me privacy at mealtimes. “We love you the way you are, with all your quirks, and we want you to be happy.” I touched her with my paw, thanking her. Maybe one day I’ll stop being stressed about food, but for now it feels good to be accepted as I am.