Study shows that smaller portions, more frequent meals could help cats slim down

Researchers from the University of Illinois are recommending that owners consider reducing their animals' meal portions and feeding them more frequently to increase energy and avoid unhealthy weight gain.

Their recommendations are based on a study published in the February issue of the Journal of American Science, which tested multiple feeding methods to gauge their effects on the physical activity of cats.

Kelly Swanson, animal sciences researcher at the University of Illinois, said the study results also give veterinarians an effective talking point when offering nutritional advice to clients.  

"I think veterinarians will be interested in this information because it gives them evidence to be able to recommend something to pet owners that could help with feline obesity and diabetes," Swanson said in a university news release. 

Designing the study

Many cat owners simply place a large portion of food out and allow one or multiple cats to feed at any time, which makes it difficult to ensure their caloric intake is in moderation, Swanson said. He and his research team wanted to produce evidence showing that less passive feeding methods could help cats shed pounds and be more energetic.

To do this, they designed two experiments. For both experiments, the cats wore monitors on their collars to measure their physical activity levels. They were also placed in individual cages while eating so researchers could accurately monitor each cat's diet.

In the first experiment, cats were placed in one of four rooms and fed dry food either four times daily, two times daily, once daily, or at random, the university reported. Cats that ate more frequently received smaller portions, but the total amount eaten by the cats was the same for all.

According to researchers, who monitored the cats' activity levels two hours before mealtime, the cats that ate more meals and the ones fed randomly were more active before meals. This was likely because they anticipated that they were going to be fed, which often prompts them to become more active, Swanson said.

During the second part of the study, researchers split cats into two groups: those that received only dry food, and those that ate food containing added water. Observation of the cats showed that the ones eating food with added water were more physically active, especially right after they ate. Researchers speculated that the post-meal physical activity was partly because those cats were more likely to use the litter box after eating.

Researchers' recommendations for cat owners

After analyzing the study results, researchers concluded that cat owners can prevent their pets from packing on the pounds by feeding smaller portions more frequently, and by adding water to dry food to give cats a sense of fullness.

"It all comes down to energy in and out," Swanson said. "It's very simple on paper, but it's not that easy in real life, especially in a household where there is more than one pet. That can be difficult, but I think these two strategies are very practical ideas that people can use."

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