Why Doesn't My Cat Eat Food Outside?
You may be trying to train outside, give them a meal in their catio, trying to counter condition them to their fear of outdoors, or give them a treat on a hike… but they won’t take your treats.
There are generally three main categories of why a cat may snub tasty food outside.
Over-stimulation & Stress
Indoor cats who aren’t outside often can become easily overwhelmed by all of the noises, smells, and sights of the outdoors. The world is huge to them and for an animal who has acute senses, it can all be too much to take in at once. A very stressed cat will not take treats, even if they are usually their favorite foods.
The Environment Wins
For a cat who spends most or all of their time indoors, when they are outside it can be extremely exciting. All of a sudden your cat’s senses are overwhelmed by the outdoors. The breeze carries smells of plants, prey, predators, and the neighbor’s barbecue. The birds and bugs dance around and taunt your cat as they watch with a close eye. They may be so focused on what they are sensing that food means nothing in that moment.
Cats are naturally prey and predator. They instinctively need to be aware of their surroundings to make sure they aren’t in danger. On the other hand, it is really reinforcing for them to hunt. They pre-programmed to stalk, hunt, and eat small critters. Even if they are on leash, they will still attempt to do this. Since they are preoccupied by hunting, they may have no interest in taking free food. After all, the hunt is half the fun for cats.
There’s a fine line between this category and the one above.
The difference is body language. If your cat is sniffing, actively exploring, walking at a normal pace, and has loose body language, then they are likely just too busy. However, if they are slinking around, frozen, or trying to bolt then your cat is not happy. Other body language to look for in a stressed cat is dilated pupils, panting, ears back, tense body, and their tail tucked.
Want a visual? Check out our FREE Body Language Guide
The Food Doesn’t Cut It
Since the outdoors may be too exciting or scary for your cat, the value of the food needs to reflect this level of distraction. Your cat may happily work for kibble inside the house, but when they get outside it may fall short.
What to do
For a cat who is stressed by the outdoors, you will need to take a step back to get them more comfortable.
If you are trying to train your cat outdoors and they take treats well in the house, then start with working with your cat on their harness and leash in the house. This will eliminate the added stress of the harness being on. If your cat has trouble accepting their harness, click here.
Once they are okay with their harness, train with the harness and leash on and the door to the outside open. If this is too much, train by the closed door (added benefit if it’s a glass door so they can see outside) or a window.
Then try training in the threshold of the door. After, try a step outside the door with the goal of getting further outside while working at your cat’s pace. You can use your cat’s food motivation as an indication of how they are feeling. If they stop taking treats, you know it’s too much.
Take this process slow and keep the sessions very short. If you need extra help, feel free to contact us! We would be happy to help you work towards your goals.
For cats who are interested in taking in the sights and smells of the outdoors, there are a few different approaches depending on what you are looking to do.
If your cat is confident and you are hiking with them, you can skip the treats and just let them interact with the environment. Just make sure that they are having a good time.
If you are trying to train your cat outside and they are distracted by the environment, you can try stinky, high value treats like boiled chicken, bonito flakes, Churu, freeze-dried meats/liver, or small bits of tuna (not healthy in high quantities). Churu is the only treat valuable enough for my cat Peach. She finds the environment very rewarding.
If that doesn’t work, you can reward your cat with a favorite toy that they can’t resist. My personal favorite is to use a wand toy or the Cat Dancer.
If you’re looking for my opinion on the cat dancer, click here!
You can also reinforce your cat with the environment itself. Ask them for something right before you go outside and then once they complete what you asked, then give them access to the outdoors. You may also let your cat explore first and once the initial novelty of outside dies down, then you can try training. Keep training short and sweet.
You can also try the protocol for stressed cats above. Easing into training outdoors generally improves focus.
Feel free to reach out with any questions, here!