BON APPETIT with our feline family members!
How Can We Provide a 5-star Dining Experience for our Feline Family Members?
How? What? How much? When? Where?
Every cat is different so there is no one “right answer” or solution, but following are some guidelines we can use as a starting point. Our goal is to feed our cats in a way that ensures they have the most natural, stress-free and healthy dining experience.
How we feed our cats is in direct contrast to their natural feeding behaviors: We often provide unlimited amounts of very palatable food which they don’t need to “work for” in one lump sum and in close proximity to other family members, be it cat/dog/humans. This can lead to weight and behavioral issues as well as causing stress and other health issues for our cats.
What you feed should be determined by a cat’s life stage, their dietary preferences, and recommendations by their health care team depending on their weight goals and other medical conditions. Cats have a reputation of being particular or finicky eaters. Feeding a kitten or young cat a variety of food flavors, ingredients and textures (as long as this doesn’t upset their GI tract) can help them be more flexible to different diets as they age. There is much debate about whether dry or canned food is better… again, there is no one right answer. There are benefits and reasons to feed each, and what you decide will depend on many factors depending on your cat’s preference and health status, your vet’s recommendations and other parameters. Many people elect to feed a combination of both dry and canned food as a lot of cats seem to like the variety.
How much to feed should be how much your cat needs to maintain an ideal healthy weight. The amount can vary greatly depending on a cat’s metabolism, lifestage, activity level, and medical conditions. A starting point for calorie amount to feed can be recommended by your veterinarian and adjusted accordingly as needed based on your cat’s body condition and weight. This is best monitored by weighing your cat regularly (once weekly to monthly is recommended) at home on an accurate cat-friendly body weight scale.
(NOTE: The amount to be fed recommended on the package by many commercially available foods is very often times significantly more than what a cat’s requirements truly are).
When to feed especially frequency is another important consideration. In the wild, cats must hunt to obtain food and will eat multiple small meals throughout the day. Multiple sources report that cats in the wild will eat 8-12 times daily. How can we emulate this at home? If you work from home or have a flexible schedule, you can offer many small meals throughout the day. This is not realistic for many of us, so automated feeders can be used to feed multiple meals daily.
There are many models available, including microchip activated, bluetooth connected, and even some emerging canned food models (Bistrocat & Sphinx) Many of us enjoy the act of feeding our cats, so since using an automated feeder eliminates that, options are to feed kibble in the automated feeder but then manually feed a canned meal daily and/or can also provide treat options to allow for the bonding experience of feeding.
To stimulate the hunting behaviors that are such an integral part of a cat’s behavior, you can hide small food portions around the house and/or use food puzzles that cats must ‘work’ to obtain food from. These are great solutions and there are a myriad of products and also homemade versions that work well. These options can potentially be problematic if you have multiple cats, or dogs, or toddlers in the house that may eat food not intended for them, so may need to find other ways to stimulate hunting behaviors.
Where should we feed our cats? It is a common misconception that cats are not social animals. However, they are generally NOT social eaters and prefer to eat on their own (of course there are exceptions to this). Cats in the wild almost always eat at a table for one. Ideally, if you have a multiple cat household, each should have a separate feeding station. This doesn’t mean they need to eat in separate rooms, but each should have their own bowl/plate, and should be at least visually separated, such as on opposite sides of the kitchen island or up on their own cat tree perches. It may be necessary to feed cats in different rooms depending on their eating habits.
To complicate things, the majority of cat loving households have two or more cats. Just like people, they all have different eating habits, health issues and personalities. This can necessitate flexibility and creative measures to provide a five star meal.
Let me give an example of two cats I have that couldn’t be more different:
Petunia is a petite dainty girl with a somewhat particular food preference. She will literally eat 2-3 kibbles at a time many times throughout the day. Given unlimited access to food she has maintained an ideal lean weight throughout her entire 15 years. All was well and good until I adopted a hungry underweight stray cat who I named Mumford. He would eat any food at any time in large quantities. Initially, he needed extra calories so that was okay. But once he was healthy and had gained weight, this wasn’t appropriate.
Many times cats who were strays and/or in a shelter setting will eat as if they are starving even when they no longer are, This can lead to begging, overeating (if calories not regulated), and a common behavior known as ‘scarf and barf’ (eating too much too quickly and so it comes right back up).
Obviously the same feeding regime does not work for both of these cats. For Petunia, a good option would be a microchip activated feeder that only allows her access. I can put her entire rations for the day in her feeder and she can eat her multiple small meals as desired. This would not work for Mumford, as if I put his entire daily amount in the feeder he would eat it all at once. So for him, an automated feeder that released measured portions every 4-6 hours would be more appropriate.
I also put their feeders in separate areas close to their household territories so they (especially Petunia) can eat in peace without feeling crowded. When it’s time for their canned food meal, I feed Mumford in a separate room because otherwise he gobbles his down and then tries to barge in on Petunia. He learned very quickly that this was the routine and so as soon as I start preparing for ‘tuna time’ (this is what we called canned food dinner at my house) he would literally run into his room and jump up on his dining platform (cat tree) in anticipation. With a little trial and error and creative serving we can all find the right restaurant style for our own cat(s).
So, while of course we want to feed a nutritionally balanced and quality diet – how, what, when and where we feed this diet are just as important as what we feed. Our goal is to create a natural, healthy and enjoyable dining experience for our feline family members.
Please pass the mouse souffle’ with a side of tuna tartar!
Dr Joey (with advice from Mumford, Petunia and the other 60 (yes 6-0) special needs cats she has shared her home with!)