How to Know if a Stray Cat is Hungry

We are used to giving rock-solid, black-and-white advice regarding stray cats. We cannot do that on the topic of knowing how to tell if a stray cat is hungry.

The big issue here is that cats can be very difficult to read at times, especially if you are not the owner of the cat in question. Unless you are intimately familiar with the behavior of a stray cat in your neighborhood, you may not see the signs of hunger. You might also confuse something you see as a cry for food when it really isn’t.

This guide will discuss a number of things that might be able to point you in the right direction. But first, let’s talk about what happens when a cat does not eat or drink frequently enough.

black cat looking backwards while standing on grass

Daily Food Requirements for Cats

To begin with, the average adult house cat needs upwards of 240 cal per day. That’s equal to just under 1 cup of dry food or a 6-ounce can of wet food. If a cat is getting at least that amount of calories on a daily basis, it will be just fine from a nutritional standpoint. Fewer calories obviously implies health repercussions.

If a cat goes more than a couple of days without eating, it begins to lose muscle mass. The risk of fatty liver disease also goes up. Fatty liver disease can prove fatal if it’s left untreated. Assuming the cat has access to water, it will not take but a day or two for the animal to at least try hunting. Whether or not it will succeed is another matter.

Past studies have shown that the successful hunt rate for domesticated cats is roughly 32%. However, cats only eat about 20% of the prey they actually kill. So in reality, a hunt ends in a consumed meal only about 9% of the time. Several days of unsuccessful hunting could put a cat in a bad position.

If the animal has no access to water, death could come as soon as two or three days. All of this points to the reality that stray cats probably won’t last long outdoors without access to food and water. That brings us to the question of how you can tell if a stray cat is hungry.

Listen to the Cry

Cats meow in different ways to communicate different messages. If you own a cat yourself, you are likely familiar with what your pet is trying to communicate based on the sound. Stray cats communicate the same way. So listen to what the animal’s cry sounds like.

An unusually high-pitched cry is often indicative of hunger. If you see this behavior in a stray cat, step back and observe for a few minutes. A hungry cat will continue persistently crying at a higher-than-normal pitch. The cat might even come up to you and aggressively rub against your legs to get your attention. Of course, this would require you to be outside at the same time.

Another thing you can listen for is the length of each cry. The hungrier the cat is, the more persistent its cries will be. Each cry will be comparatively long, almost as if the animal is wailing. This is an important distinction. High-pitched cries may not be a sign of hunger if they occur only in short bursts and without any pattern of regularity.

Pay Attention to the Cat’s Movement

If you were dealing with an indoor cat that was your pet, you would observe a definite pattern of movement in relation to cries of hunger. Not only would the cat let out that persistent high-pitched cry, it would also rub against your legs and then pull away as though it were trying to lead you somewhere. Follow the cat and you will discover that it was trying to lead you – right to the food bowl.

A stray cat will not necessarily have a food bowl to lead you to. But let’s assume the animal has found temporary shelter somewhere in your yard. The cat will think of that shelter as home and, hopefully, a possible place for food too. If you notice the animal appearing to want to lead you somewhere, there is a good chance it is hungry.

Look for Signs of Malnutrition in the Cat

If you are still not sure based on the animal’s cry and pattern of movement, you can try to get close enough to look for signs of malnutrition. Remember what we said earlier: a cat that has not eaten for several days will begin to lose muscle mass. You’ll notice that it looks slightly gaunt with patches of loose skin around the belly and legs.

An extremely hungry cat also won’t have that typical feline look on its face. The eyes may look sunken and the coat a bit dingy. The cat might also demonstrate signs of lethargy. If you suspect malnutrition, put a little dab of something on your finger and hold it out just to see how quickly the cat comes running. If the animal takes the morsel then persistently continues licking your finger even though there’s no more food, there is a good chance it’s hungry.

Check Your Trash Receptacles

A stray cat that hasn’t eaten in a while will attempt to hunt. Numerous failures will eventually put the animal in a desperate situation, leading it to consider any possible food source available. What does this mean to you? It means you should check your trash receptacles. Trash is not a cat’s first choice, but it will do in times of hunger. Signs that your trash has been disturbed are indicative that some animal has tried to get at it. Perhaps it’s the stray cat.

 cat looking at camera

You Can’t Know for Sure

Now we arrive at the hard part that people don’t like to talk about. Here it is: there is no way you can know for sure whether a stray cat is truly hungry. As was mentioned earlier, cats are complicated creatures that can be difficult to read. What you perceive as hunger may be something entirely different. What you perceive as just an attempt to be friendly could actually be a cry for food.

One of the biggest difficulties in determining whether a cat is hungry is having to consider that maybe you’re dealing with outdoor cat instead a stray. Remember that outdoor cats are actually pets that prefer to spend their days out and about wandering around.

You might be dealing with an outdoor cat that just happens to be extremely friendly. It may approach you, meowing incessantly to let you know it’s not a threat. The cat might rub around your legs and attempt to get you to bend over and pick it up. You might perceive the combination of meowing and leg rubbing as a cry for food when, in fact, the cat is just being sociable.

In the absence of any definitive signs of hunger, you only have a few choices:

  • Ignore – You can ignore the cat in hopes that it is both not hungry and willing to move on if you fail to respond. This can be a risky strategy if letting a hungry cat go hungry would bother you.
  • Feed – You can feed the cat immediately and trust you’re doing the right thing. If the cat is a stray, the strategy could mean you end up with a friend for life. If you are dealing with an outdoor cat, it will probably not make a lot of difference to feed the animal just once. It will move along in due course.
  • Test – Your third option is to put out just a little bit of food to see what happens. If the cat isn’t truly hungry, it may eat just a little bit before moving on. A hungry cat will quickly devour the food and then beg for more.

When Healthy Cats Are Hungry

We want to shift gears slightly by talking about otherwise healthy cats that are unusually hungry. You may run across such a situation if you encounter an outdoor cat you mistake as a stray. Sometimes outdoor cats purposely go looking for food – even though they are pets – because they truly are hungry most of the time.

Is this behavior normal? No. But there are legitimate reasons why an otherwise healthy cat may exhibit unusual hunger. At the top of the list is poor nutrition. Many people do not know that cats don’t do well with plant-based foods. Their systems just do not digest plant-based proteins as well as their meat-based counterparts. So an outdoor cat that isn’t getting enough meat-based proteins isn’t getting proper nutrition. It may be hungry as a result.

That cat you are trying to assess may have medical reasons behind its hunger. Perhaps the cat is suffering from hypothyroidism or feline diabetes. Both conditions cause malabsorption of food, leaving animals hungry most of the time. An intestinal condition can also be causing problems.

Finally, an otherwise healthy feline that appears to be hungry may just be exhibiting patterned behavior. Believe it or not, cats are very regimented animals.

The family pet used to being fed at the same time every day may go begging for food if it finds itself outdoors at feeding time. In such a case, the cat may exhibit the customary high-pitched cry and leg rubbing behavior in order to get fed. You might perceive that the cat is practically starving to death when, in fact, it’s just trying to get its next meal on time.

When A Cat is Truly a Stray

Even healthy strays may consistently be hungry for the same reasons listed above. So in closing, carefully consider your course of action should you come to the conclusion that you are dealing with a cat that is both hungry and a stray. By the way, you can look at some of our other guides for information about determining whether you’re dealing with a stray cat or not. You could be dealing with a house pet or feral cat.

Assuming the cat is a stray, remember that feeding it will likely cause the animal to adopt you as its new owner. This is not to say you should not feed the cat, but instead to say you should be prepared for what might follow. If the cat sticks around, make an attempt to capture and get it to the veterinarian for a thorough medical exam. A visit to the vet might even help you locate the animal’s owner.