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Accueil veterinaires comportementalistes Publications internationales veterinaires comportementalistes Feline Behavior: Can Nutrition Really Make a Difference?

Feline Behavior: Can Nutrition Really Make a Difference?

C.A. Beata

Congrès : 2007 North American Veterinary Conference: Small Animal and Exotics Section - Orlando, Florida, USA

Diplomate ECVBM-CA, CETACE, Toulon, France.

Cats are known to be solitary hunters when their way of life allows it [1]. This way of feeding themselves has many consequences, including the large amount of time spent by cats to chase and hunt and the multiple little intakes of food. When possible, a cat will eat between ten and twenty times a day.

Nutrition must fulfill specific requirements for cats. Cats need high levels of high quality proteins and have specific needs in terms of taurine, which is particularly important during the development phase. Cats also have some specific dietary characteristics, such as lack of sweet taste.

Four points are discussed in this article:

  • The importance of a balanced diet during development

  • Inadequate diets can trigger medical conditions with behavioral consequences

  • Misunderstandings between cats and people about food can have possible pathologic outcomes

  • The relationship between food and aggressive behavior.


During development, it is obvious that kittens need high levels of proteins. The role of cholinergic and noradrenergic transmission has been demonstrated as a factor of the cortex plasticity in the development of the binocular vision of kittens [2]. Recent works also underscore the importance of serotonin [3]. Some foods are deficient in tryptophan, which is known to be the precursor of serotonin, and this deficiency can influence not only vision but also other systems.

In clinical practice, kittens are seen with abnormal behaviors such as stereotypies, fabric eating, and lack of autocontrol [4]. In many of these cases, an unbalanced diet, mainly lack of proteins, is suspected to be the root of such behavior disorders. For example, in our practice, the owners of a kitten presented with behavioral problems had decided on their own to feed the kitten a low-protein diet because a former pet had suffered from kidney failure, and they hope to prevent the condition in their new kitten.

Kittens that are separated too early from their mother and lack appropriate food can also show these types of behavioral symptoms.

In our practice, we first make an attempt to differentiate between a classic hypersensitivity-hyperactivity syndrome (HsHa) and a protein deprivation. The symptoms can be very similar; in both cases, the same neurological pathways may be involved but the outcomes are different.

A true HsHa syndrome is linked with a lack of maternal regulation during the crucial fifth and sixth weeks of life. Kittens will exhibit a lack of self-control, with excessive locomotion and scratching and biting, also with a lack of control. People and other animals are often afraid of the contact because it hurts. Excessive playing is also constant. These kittens eat without a satiety signal, eating everything which often leads to vomiting and diarrhea. Affected kittens are in good shape, sometimes a little slim, and owners are often surprised by the amount of food these kittens are able to eat without becoming overweight.

Clinical signs in kittens with early nutritional disorders can be quite similar to those of HsHa syndrome, with excessive agitation, nervousness, and restlessness in both, although there are slight differences. While HsHa kittens seem in perfect health even if they are overactive, kittens with nutritional deficiencies may have a different habitus, with broken hair and below average weight, and excessive arousal. Often startled, they don’t control their scratches and their bites. Even when the diet is corrected,, they do not gain weight and they remain very nervous. Prognosis is quite poor.

Prevention of this condition is possible with owner education. Owners must understand that the nutritional requirements of kittens and young cats differ from those of older cats. Often times, cats with early nutritional disorders have come from the wild, without being handled and without an access to an adequate food as kittens. Work is needed with humane societies to try to catch feral kittens as soon as possible after abandonment by their mother.

Thus, nutrition has been shown to affect feline behavior, with inadequate diet, mostly an imbalance in the quantity or the quality of proteins, leading to severe, lifelong behavioral disorders.


Links between diet and the formation of urinary crystals has been known for a long time. Relationships between dietary compounds and medical consequences have been widely studied. The role of fiber, proteins, and minerals have been evoked in the pathogenesis of struvite crystalluria, for example [5-7].

Practitioners should be concerned about the possible behavioral consequences of such a medical condition. Because cats are at the same time both predators and prey [8], they have a wide range of possible behaviors but they are more vulnerable to phobias than dogs. They are also very sensitive to pain and try to avoid any place or any condition that has triggered an unpleasant feeling.

Cats are often presented for behavioral consultation because of urine marking or inappropriate elimination. The description of the symptoms, however, sometimes is not consistent with a marking behavior or another behavioral disorder. In some of these cases, inappropriate elimination may be linked with a medical condition. This can be difficult to prove because many times the condition is no longer present at the time of the consultation. For example, we have treated cats are presented because they frequently change the location of elimination. In one case, every time the owner changed the location of the litterbox to the cat’s new location, the cat, a 3.5-year-old castrated male, would use the box for about 15 days before resorting to the inappropriate elimination in another location. This cat had been treated with several different medications because of this problem. We obtained three urinalyses before we were able to find evidence of a minor crystalluria. We hypothesized that this cat was suffering from these crystals on an irregular basis, and every time he felt the pain, he avoided the designated location to eliminate. Changes in diet and urine acidification have totally cured this cat, illustrating another link between nutrition and behavior.


Cats prefer frequent and short contacts while humans behave in the opposite way. This is the root for a substantial and constant misunderstanding. This is also the root of a misunderstanding between nutritionists and behaviorists. The first are concerned - and they are right - by the increasing rate of obesity in cats, while the second group pleads for the respect of the ethological needs of the cat by providing them food throughout the day - and they are right, too!

Practitioners have observed an increase in the incidence of diabetes mellitus in cats [9]. It is known that cats mostly present with type 2 diabetes, which is highly correlated with an excessive amount of ingested carbohydrate. Nutritionists often blame ad libitum feeding, while behaviorists have another analysis of the problem. In fact, feeding is not a social behavior for cats like it is for dogs and people. Cats like to locate where they can have a friendly contact with humans. The kitchen is a place where people gather on a regular schedule and cats can use it to have social contacts. But, when they begin to meow, looking for the contact, there can be a misunderstanding about the meaning of the vocalization. Owners think their cat is begging for food and they provide it in large amounts. As it has been explained, to feed many times a day is not an error per se but the quantity may be too much. Thus, this apparent contradiction between these two veterinary fields can be resolved by meeting the ethological needs of the cat (short contacts, necessary hunting, multiple food intakes) while monitoring and limiting the total amount of food ingested. Cats are not fond of sweet rewards (it has been demonstrated that they are lacking part of a gene encoding for this taste [10]), so owners should be taught that giving water or petting the cat may be appreciated just as much as a sweet treat. The idea of food as a social contact promoter should be given up. If owners still want to use food as a reward, explain that one or two pellets can be sufficient and even better if the cat has to chase after it.


The link between aggression and nutrition seems obvious in many species and is related to the role of neurotransmitter serotonin [11]. Tryptophan is the precursor of serotonin, and some authors have hypothesized that dietary supplementation of tryptophan should be beneficial in case of aggression. This has been studied in dogs12 in complex studies including different kinds of aggression and different kinds of diet.

No such studies exist in cats, but clinically we do see a link between food and aggression. Many of these aggressive incidents occur in the hour just before the meal in cats that are fed only once or twice a day. Whether variations in the level of serotonin explain this state of irritation in unknown; however, we do know that frustration and hunger (one can be linked with the other) can trigger arousal and aggressiveness. Therefore, when a cat exhibits aggression, the first approach to therapy may be to check the cat’s feeding schedule. When the cat has only one or two meals a day, the first change prescribed will be to increase the number of meals without increasing the total daily amount of food. It is also important to use motivating food or to distribute in a motivating way. We advise owners to hide some food in different locations and to encourage the cat to find it. In simple cases, this modification, which attempts to approximate natural feline feeding behavior, can be sufficient to improve behavior, further illustrating the link between nutrition and behavior.

When faced with feline behavioral disorders, nutrition is obviously not the only tool for the practitioner, but it can play an important role in the prevention and treatment of many behavioral (and medical) conditions.


  • 1. Turner DC, Bateson P. The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p 244.

  • 2. Gu Q, Singer W. Effects of intracortical infusion of anticholinergic drugs on neuronal plasticity in kitten striate cortex. Eur J Neurosci 1993; 5:475-485.

  • 3. Gu Q, Singer W. Involvement of serotonin in developmental plasticity of kitten visual cortex. Eur J Neurosci 1995; 7:1146-1153.

  • 4. Neville P. Stereotypic behaviour in kittens. Vet Rec 1998;143:400.

  • 5. Funaba M, Uchiyama A, Takahashi K, Kaneko M, Yamamoto H, Namikawa K, Iriki T, Hatano Y, Abe M. Evaluation of effects of dietary carbohydrate on formation of struvite crystals in urine and macromineral balance in clinically normal cats. Am J Vet Res 2004; 65:138-142.

  • 6. Funaba M, Yamate T, Hashida Y, Maki K, Gotoh K, Kaneko M, Yamamoto H, Iriki T, Hatano Y, Abe M. Effects of a high-protein diet versus dietary supplementation with ammonium chloride on struvite crystal formation in urine of clinically normal cats. Am J Vet Res 2003; 64:1059-1064.

  • 7. Buffington CA, Chew DJ, Kendall MS, Scrivani PV, Thompson SB, Blaisdell JL, Woodworth BE. Clinical evaluation of cats with nonobstructive urinary tract diseases. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1997; 210:46-50.

  • 8. Beata C. Understanding Feline Behavior. In: 26th Congress of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, Vancouver, 2001.

  • 9. Reusch CE, Tschour F, Kley S, Boretti S, Sieber-Ruckstuhl N. [Diabetes mellitus in the cat: a review]. Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd 2006; 148:130-138.

  • 10. Li X, Li W, Wang H, Bayley DL, Cao J, Reed DR, Bachmanov AA, Huang L, Legrand-Defretin V, Beauchamp GK, Brand JG. Cats lack a sweet taste receptor. J Nutr 2006; 136:1932S-1934S.

  • 11. Emeson RB, Morabito MV. Food Fight: The NPY-Serotonin Link Between Aggression and Feeding Behavior. Sci STKE 2005;2005:pe12-.

  • 12. DeNapoli JS, Dodman NH, Shuster L, Rand WM, Gross KL. Effect of dietary protein content and tryptophan supplementation on dominance aggression, territorial aggression, and hyperactivity in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2000; 217:504-508.

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