Eat, PURR, Love

Jan 7, 2021 | Animal Behavior, BARKS from the Guild, Pet Guardians

By Andrea Carne

cat play hunting toy mouse

Cats have adapted well to domestication but still have an innate need to hunt, scratch, and maintain territory, among other things © Can Stock Photo / nataly0288

Read the next sentence very carefully (and with a large pinch of salt): Feeding your cat one meal a day might be best. I can almost hear the gasps from cat guardians across the world! “Feed my cat once a day? Are you crazy?” I hear you say. “What do I do when I get the 5 a.m. ‘wake up and feed me’ paw in the face? Calmly explain that there’ll be no food until 6 p.m.?”

And I can also imagine what feline behavior specialists may have to say too. For example, Dr. Liz Bales of the PPG Cat Committee wrote recently in BARKS: “Cats are exquisite hunters. They need to be. One cat needs to hunt, catch, kill, and eat 8-12 mice every single day to stay alive.

It takes about 80% of a cat’s waking hours to accomplish this. Nature gave cats a strong innate drive to hunt to ensure they stay alive, even if there is plentiful food (iCatCare, 2019). A cat’s stomach is only the size of a ping-pong ball, just right for a mouse-sized meal, one at a time.” (see Cats: In Crisis, BARKS from the Guild, September 2020).

And yet, a new study suggests just that — by claiming that some cats may benefit from being fed just one meal a day. The paper, by Camara et al. (2020) at the University of Guelph, Canada, was based on a study involving a small group of eight healthy adult cats who were fed a regime of commercial adult maintenance canned cat food either once or four times daily. Subsequent tests were carried out over a 21-day period, including monitoring of appetite-regulating hormones, insulin, glucose, etc. as well as observation of physical activity levels.

In the end, the study concluded that “feeding once a day may be a beneficial feeding management strategy for indoor cats to promote satiation and lean body mass.” (Camara et al., 2020).

Well, that’s all very well but, biological and physiological needs aside, as a professional cat behavior consultant, I find this study rather troubling in terms of meeting the behavioral needs of cats, particularly those with an indoor-only lifestyle. Apart from the fact that it involved a very small group of cats who were studied over a relatively short space of time, it, unfortunately, pays no attention to whether the behavioral needs of the cats were being met in terms of the feeding regimes.

After all, our domesticated cats of today are not that far removed (genetically speaking) from their wild cat forbearers and still carry with them a range of behavioral “tics” that hearken back to that wild ancestry. Yes, they have adapted very well to our human-centric worlds, but they still have an innate need to (among other things) hunt, scratch, maintain territory – and to eat – in ways which resemble how they would act in the wild.

In terms of eating, that innate behavior leans towards a preference to eat little and often. Out in the wild, without the luxury of a human feeding them at will, cats rely on their hunting abilities for food. Their prey is often small – birds, mice etc. – and so they must successfully capture several of these small items a day to fulfil their appetite, as so eloquently explained by Dr. Bales. This transfers to many of our domesticated cats who, when given the choice, will eat small amounts of food at several points in time throughout the day, rather than devouring a huge meal all at once.

­­Frequent Feeding

Atkinson (2018, p.52) states that “[m]any cats prefer to eat ad-lib or little and often, which mimics the natural feeding patterns of wild and feral cats that are most likely to kill and eat several small prey animals at varying intervals throughout the day and night.”

But, despite this, the Camara study makes the following conclusion: “Overall, feeding cats once per day presents several promising outcomes to improve the quality of life of indoor cats, as feeding regimen could reduce the incidence of obesity in cats, by controlling appetite and limiting feed intake.” (Camara et al., 2020).

In my humble opinion, while I am not discrediting the study’s findings, this conclusion is what I’d term the “easy way out” when it comes to combating obesity in our indoor cats. We can still “fight the good fight,” so to speak, while fulfilling the behavioral needs of our cats when it comes to feeding. There are ways to limit a cat’s food intake AND meet their behavioral needs without having to resort to feeding just one meal a day.

This is not to say that cats won’t eat a full meal in one sitting, especially if it is highly palatable or if there is a real or perceived element of competition, particularly in a multi-cat household and/or when the cats are fed in close proximity (Atkinson, 2018, p.52). But part of meeting the behavioral needs of cats is to reduce the feelings of competition by increasing resources and enrichment so they do not feel the need to devour all of their food in one sitting.

Environmental Enrichment

If the cat is a single pet in the home, there are lots of options. Measure out the food quota for the day and offer small amounts at several intervals. If you are not at home, you can still provide several feedings via an automated food dispenser, or a variety of food puzzles, or by hiding food in a treasure hunt throughout the home for the cat to seek out.

If there is more than one cat in the house, automated feeders can be set for each cat via their microchip or a tag on their collar. Alternatively, if the home is large enough, each cat can have their own area of the house while the guardian is out, with their own treasure hunt and puzzle feeders.

By providing feeding through things such as puzzle feeders and treasure hunts, you are not only providing your cat with the opportunity to eat little and often, but you are also engaging other important cat behaviors in the form of seeking out food and using their brains to solve problems. This helps keep them active both physically and mentally at various points throughout the day and provides enrichment which is crucial in an indoor-only lifestyle.

It is true that feline obesity is an ongoing problem, particularly when it comes to indoor-only cats, but I firmly believe the solution lies more with guardian education about healthy weight ranges, correct feeding amounts and providing opportunities for increased physical activity, than it does with restricting food to once a day.

Cats that are just fed ad-lib with no regard for how much food they are actually consuming – and then have little or no means of expending energy via play and other enrichment – may well get fat.

In my opinion, feeding cats once a day is not going to solve this problem, unless food is carefully measured for each cat and more opportunities for exercise are provided. And, if guardians can do this, then they can also provide ways for the cats to eat little and often, subsequently meeting their behavioral needs. Yes, it takes more time and effort from the guardian, but their cats will love them for it!

Cats and Food

Some other things to remember when it comes to cats and their food:

    • Cats Like Food that Smells Good:
      You may have noticed cats move up to food and usually always sniff it first. This is an innate behavior to ensure the food is not tainted. Their sense of smell is actually much better than their sense of taste. Olfaction “plays a major part in food
      acceptance; cats will often reject food if they cannot smell it.” (Atkinson, 2018, p.52).
    • Cats Generally Prefer Food at Room – or Blood – Temperature:
      Some believe this equates to the temperature of prey when it’s eaten. If you store canned food in the fridge, perhaps warm it up a little before giving it to your cat. Warming the food will also increase the smell, which may be beneficial for fussy eaters.
    • Cats Like Variety and Novelty:
      If your cat is seemingly fussy at times, provide a completely novel food that they haven’t had for some time – a different flavor or different texture.
    • Cats Need Safe Places to Eat and to Eat Away from Their Other Resources:
      Ensure all resources are separated – litter trays, water bowls, food bowls and sleeping areas should all be well separated. In the wild, a cat will not eat near his toileting area for hygiene reasons and will not drink near a feeding area in case the water is tainted. Some cats may prefer to eat from a raised area where they feel safe and secure.
    • Cats Like Choice:
      Offering choice in feeding methods and receptacles gives cats a sense of control over their environment, and a sense of control makes them more relaxed.

To conclude, then, I’d like to thank Camara and her colleagues for taking the time to research feeding regimes for cats. The more feline research we have, the better informed we are about the many facets of their health and behavior. But I really feel we need to do more in this area – perhaps using a larger group of cats and a longer period of time – to provide more answers on combatting the obesity problem while still meeting the behavioral needs of our feline family members.

Too often, the behavioral needs of cats are overlooked when it comes to tackling health problems and I think both need to work hand in hand so that our cats can lead not only healthy lives, but happy, contented ones as well.

Atkinson, T. (2018). Practical Feline Behaviour: Understanding Cat Behaviour and Improving Welfare. Oxfordshire, UK: CABI
Bales, E. (2020, September). Cats: In Crisis. BARKS from the Guild (44) 12-19
Camara, A., Verbrugghe, A., Cargo-Froom, C., Hogan, K., DeVries, T.J., Sanchez, A., Robinson, L.E., & Shoveller, A.K. (2020). The daytime feeding frequency affects appetite-regulating hormones, amino acids, physical activity, and respiratory quotient, but not energy expenditure, in adult cats fed regimens for 21 days. PLoS ONE

This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, January 2021, pp.46-48. Read the full article Eat, PURR, Love.

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About the Author
Andrea Carne is a graduate of the University of Southern Queensland, Australia where she majored in journalism and drama before, later in life, following her dream to work in the field of animal behavior. She is a qualified veterinary nurse and dog trainer and member of PPG Australia. Her special area of interest is cat behavior and her passion for it led to the establishment of her own cat behavior consultancy Cattitude, based in southern Tasmania, through which she offers private in-home consultations.