My Cat Isn’t Food Motivated!

“But, my cat isn’t food motivated!” 

I frequently encourage cat owners to use food rewards when modifying unwanted behavior. And, almost as frequently, I hear this argument. Food is a powerful tool for changing behavior. Pairing something a cat doesn’t like with a tasty treat can change their feelings. Rewarding a behavior with a lick of food will teach a cat to repeat that behavior. Food is easy to use for training because it can be given in small amounts, at specific moments. Play and attention can be motivating, too, but they are rarely as powerful or easy to use.

And, of course, food is necessary for life! The fact is no animal is truly not motivated by food, because they need food. They don’t need to learn that it is rewarding to eat; that knowledge comes pre-installed at birth. So, I’m going to argue that your cat can be motivated by treats, as long as we use them the right way.

Medical Factors

If your cat has suddenly started eating less than they normally do, they need a vet visit ASAP. Changes in eating habits are a sign of health issues that need to be addressed immediately. 

Sometimes, certain foods are “ruined” because they become associated with bad tastes or sensations. This is particularly true when we try to hide medications in food. To avoid this, ask your vet if the medication they have prescribed has a potentially unpleasant taste. Hiding bad tasting medication in food can cause your cat to avoid that food completely, maybe forever! If possible, have the medication compounded with a better flavor to make it easier for your cat to take. If not, your vet should have some suggestions for making it easier. With some cats, you can coat a pill with something soft and sticky (try whip cream!) that encourages them to swallow quickly. Just be wary of hiding the medication in your cat’s usual food, so that you don’t risk creating a bad association.

Treats that Are Worth the Effort

Food is inherently motivating, but not all food is created equal. Also, your cat’s motivation will change throughout the day. The majority of cats in the U.S. are overweight and this can have an affect on their food motivation. Having free access to food 24-hours a day can also decrease their willingness to work for treats. Check out the American Association of Feline Practitioners’ guidelines on how to feed your cat. Make sure you are not overfeeding your cat and are feeding them according to your veterinarian’s recommendations. 

Try different textures and flavors for treats. Some cats like crunchy, some like soft, and others will prefer something lickable. Don’t stop at the cat-treat aisle of the store – consider small amounts of canned fish, meat-flavored baby food, even surprising things like green olives! Experiment with different choices to determine your cat’s preferences.

Cat licking baby food off popsicle stick
Yum! Baby Food!
Photo Credit: Jessica Char

Lures and Distractions: Good Intentions Gone Wrong

Lures encourage a cat to do something they wouldn’t choose on their own. Distractions are meant to keep a cat from noticing something they don’t like. Both lures and distractions have their uses, including when teaching new behaviors or dealing with very mildly unpleasant or annoying things. But, if your cat really dislikes something, is frightened by the thing, or the experience is painful, a distraction can create more problems than it solves. 

Owners frequently try to use treats to lure and distract a nervous cat into a situation they don’t want to be in. The cat takes the food, but then is exposed to whatever they find unpleasant. Over time, the cat becomes wary of the treats and may even run at the sight of them. The treats were meant to be a good thing to teach the cat to feel safe and happy, but they did the opposite. 

Instead, you want to use counterconditioning, the process of pairing an unpleasant thing with something wonderful to change an individual’s emotions. The key here is the order that things happen. Your goal is for the “scary” thing to predict that a “good” thing is about to happen. That way your cat begins to anticipate the “good” thing and feel positively about the “scary” thing. 

When you reverse the order, so the “good” thing comes first, you get a different type of anticipation. Now, your cat thinks “I just got a treat, the ‘scary’ thing is coming!”  They don’t feel better about the “scary” thing; instead they feel worse about the “good” thing. That’s how you can create a cat who doesn’t want to take treats that they were previously interested in. 

If you’re not sure whether or not you’ve made this common mistake, consider these situations. Have you ever:

  • Offered a cat a treat to get them to come closer and then petted them and had them run away?
  • Used a treat to lure your cat into a carrier, shut the door, and gone to the vet?
  • Tried to hold your cat still for a nail trim by giving them a treat before trimming their nail?

You may have found that this worked once, or even a few times, but then seemed to stop. The problem isn’t with the treats, but with the order of experiences. You can learn more about using treats with a shy cat here.

All animals are food motivated; your cat is no exception. Make sure they are healthy and create a feeding schedule that helps them stay that way. Identify their favorite food rewards and then use those foods to reward them, rather than trying to distract or trick them. Food is a valuable tool in behavior modification; don’t write it off too quickly!

If you need a specific plan for overcoming your cat’s problem behavior, schedule a private behavior consultation.