Q: Why do cats leave a hole in the middle of the food in the bowl and act like it’s empty?
A: Ah, the age old question. And look at Marmalade’s sweet kitty face as he wonders why the humans just don’t understand. (See more of that sweet kitty face in the video Cat Logic, which I feel like we can all relate to.)
Speculation has, for decades, been spiraling around a few things: Maybe it’s because cats prefer to eat several small meals rather than 1 or 2 larger ones. Cats can’t see that well really close-up, so maybe that has something to do with it. They could be saving it for later. Maybe it’s because the dry food at the edge is stale or somehow unpalatable due to contact with the bowl. Perhaps it is an ancient ritual, passed down through generations. Maybe they do it to mess with us. (That is the internet’s favorite, and therefore we can safely assume it is the most wrong.) In truth, none of these is the answer.
The real reason is so much simpler: whiskers (AKA vibrissae).
The reason that they often don’t eat the food around the edge of the bowl is because their whiskers are VERY sensitive. They have so many nerves at the root of each whisker that this is a real problem with deep bowls. While it’s not that bad to eat from the middle of the bowl, getting at the food on the side puts too much pressure on their whiskers, which is uncomfortable for them.
You might hear this referred to as “whisker fatigue” or “whisker stress.” That leads to them asking you to please fix the situation, or (Stiles’s solution) to start trying to knock over the bowl to get at those bits on the side.
Their whiskers are so sensitive that they can feel the slightest of breezes. They are important tools for cats that help them hunt, steer clear of predators, and navigate in the dark. Whiskers help the cat figure out if they can fit somewhere. If the whiskers fit, they will fit, but pressure on those whiskers means they are in danger of getting stuck. Only a foolish cat would ignore that kind of warning.
So, for once, this problem has an easy solution! You should switch out their deep bowls for shallow ones. We recommend using a wide, shallow bowl or a small plate with edges just high enough to keep the food from sliding off. If your cat tends to chase the bits around, cut out a bit of rubber shelf liner and place it on the bottom of the bowl or plate to keep the kibble from getting away. (Make sure to wash it and the plate regularly!)