We should never feel that our cats only love us at mealtimes, or have their interest in us dependent on their dependence. Cats have two reasons for being so excited about food.
One is the strong survival drive we share; food is a necessary part of living. Eating tasty food will always make them happy.
The other is that they feel we must care as much as they do.
That makes them just as happy.
The key thing here for me is the bit about cats' interest in relationships (with humans, or with other cats or animals for that matter) not being dependent on their 'dependence'. I ran into this notion a lot back when I first adopted Coraline, Brodie, and Shadow. Since they were born and raised completely feral (no human contact or handling) until the day I took them home with me from their outdoor colony I knew they would not be snuggling up into my lap right away (or possibly ever). Which of course I was fine with. My main priority in adopting them was to give them a home they could thrive and be happy in.
So, I read a lot about feral kittens, hoping to get some guidelines that could help me figure out how to provide them with a place they felt safe and comfortable in. A lot of these resources were helpful in many ways. However, one thing I found a little unnerving about even some very practical "Kitten Socialization Guidelines" was the way they all seemed to suggest that you had to sort of bribe the kittens with food in order to "tame" them.
Something about that just rubbed me the wrong way, so to speak. I have never liked the concept of "taming" in the first place, at least not to the extent that it implies submission. I am painfully aware I have a lot of power over my cats, but this is not something I enjoy. Consequently I would feel very uncomfortable "taking credit" for their current or future human-friendliness (which varies according to the individual cat, the day of the week, etc.). Of course I offered the kittens food when they arrived, but this was never done in a "I'll bribe you to love me" sense. I did NOT want a bunch of cats with Stockholm Syndrome running around -- I wanted the choice to approach me or my partner or any visitors to be theirs.
So? There was definitely some "kitten socialization guidelines" I did NOT follow. I did NOT withhold food for hours and hours so they would "have" to come to me physically to eat. Initially, Coraline and Brodie did not want to eat at all unless Matt and I were either out of the room or lying in bed. I did offer them bits of baby food on a spoon between regular meals, and they varied in their responses to this, but to me this was not about getting them to "associate me with a pleasurable stimulus" but rather about sharing as a gesture of friendship. Many animals share food to demonstrate trust and friendly intentions, so this is more along the lines of what I was thinking.
As for Shadow, initially he was so scared he did not touch any food for nearly two days. When I realized he (unlike his siblings) was not eating when we were out of the room, I figured I would try hand-feeding him, as I did not want him to get liver problems or anything (which cats can get if they don't eat for too long). And in Shadow's case he actually did take food from my hand almost immediately. Matter of fact, for his first week here he would only eat off my hand, or at the very least when he could see me. It was almost as if he didn't feel safe eating unless someone else was there, and he didn't care whether that "someone" was human or feline. Whereas his siblings would eat in front of each other, but not me and Matt initially.
Anyway, that was all a bit tangential, but my point is that while nowadays I certainly see a lot of excitement at mealtime (I must upload a video of the Morning Meow Chorus soon!) it does not seem like they're just after food. Sometimes they want to play, other times they want to nap curled up with someone, and still other times they simply want to be acknowledged. And beyond these generic categories they have their own individual preferences and favorite games, etc., as well, and each has his or her own way of communicating specifics.
I encourage this, of course. I want them all to feel comfortable having their own minds and ideas about life, their own agendas. I do realize they depend on me for some things, but the idea of either trying to cultivate "dependence" (in the emotional sense) or presuming that they only would ever hang around anyone else because of said dependence fills me with a kind of sickening dread.
[This sort of thing does not just apply to food-related matters, either. Another guideline I did not follow (popular in kitten-socialization manuals) was to separate siblings "so they will be forced to depend on you" (see a theme here?).
Coraline and Brodie cried whenever they couldn't see each other during their first few weeks here, and gah, there was just no way I could ignore or disregard that. I figured they had enough stress in their lives without having to endure forced separation!
And Shadow was still with MomCat at that point, so he was not alone, and when I finally brought him home three weeks later I only kept him apart from his littermates until he'd seen the vet and gotten flea treatments, etc. (which worked out to being maybe 4 days).]
Of course there ARE times when I have used food as a tool to "get the cats to do something" -- see my last post, for instance, on tossing treats into the house in order to get a herd of escaped kitties back into the kitchen before leaving home myself. But that has nothing to do with trying to foster dependence -- but rather (in that case) with safety. Moreover, the cats had already been fed their wet food that morning, less than an hour prior to their patio excursion, so they were not starving!