She wants YOU to fetch dinner? Tell her to go feed herself

Seriously—she needs to forage. Especially if she’s overweight.

That’s the consensus of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), and they explain why in a new statement, “Feline Feeding Programs: Addressing Behavioral Needs to Improve Feline Health and Wellbeing,” published last month in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.

The statement identifies normal feeding behaviors in cats and provides strategies that allow them to hunt, forage, and fight obesity by eating frequent small meals in a solitary fashion at home.

Fat cats are nothing new to veterinarians.

“Most people in our profession are fully aware of obesity in feline patients,” said Tammy Sadek, DVM, DABVP (Feline), founder of the Kentwood Cat Clinic in Kentwood, Michigan, and coauthor of the statement, which says allowing cats to exhibit normal feeding behaviors regularly can help alleviate or prevent stress-related issues (such as cystitis) and obesity-related problems (such as inactivity and overeating).

But what constitutes normal feeding behavior? NEWStat reached out to Sadek for clarification.

“Cats by nature are solitary small predators,” Sadek said. In the wild, they eat multiple small meals, meals they’re required to hunt for, which actively engages the cat and burns calories. Plus, each meal is generally low in calories. “Most cats today are fed . . . one or two large meals per day without regard to their caloric needs, as well as their need for predation and foraging.”

Sadek says that encourages obesity: “All they have to do is waddle over to their food bowl.” And when feeding is that easy, the act of eating can become an activity all by itself. “They’re just like us humans in that regard,” she laughs.

On the other hand, “Foraging allows cats to engage with the environment in their search for food,” Sadek says. By having multiple small meals, pet owners are engaging their cats physically, emotionally, and mentally. “They have something to do.”

Sadek says the easiest way to encourage foraging is to put small amounts of food in different locations around the house each day, away from the main feeding location. And it doesn’t have to be a lot of food. “A few kibbles,” Sadek says. “Half a dozen is plenty.”

Sadek says you have to introduce a cat to the new eating strategy, especially if they’ve lived indoors all their lives and are used to being fed by people, but that’s pretty easy: “Most cats are instinctive hunters, so it won’t take them long to catch on.”

It also depends on the cat—Sadek says it may not be practical to expect, say, a fifteen-year-old cat to pick up on the new routine, or even like it much. And age is definitely a factor: “The younger the cat is, the more active she is, the easier it is to get her started.” Having said that, Sadek adds that foraging can be tried with older cats, “but you have to be more strategic and introduce the [foraging] option more slowly.” Just don’t have unrealistic expectations.

Puzzle feeders (also called food puzzles) are another great option for stimulating cats mentally and physically, and improving weight management without contributing to either patient or owner distress (unless, of course, neither can figure out how to open the darn thing). “When starting to introduce food puzzles, we need to use relatively easy [ones] at first,” Sadek says. “As cats become more used to these puzzles, they can access the food more easily.” Solve that problem by gradually introducing increasingly more complex puzzles.

Getting a cat to mimic foraging behavior isn’t complicated, but it does require some effort on the part of the owner.

Sadek says veterinarians can help. “At every veterinary visit, in addition to asking the client what they feed their cat, we should also ask if they are using food puzzles, feeding cats in multiple locations, or interacting with the cat or cats in the household as part of the feeding process.”

Multiple-cat households are a little trickier.

“We need to ask the client where and how each cat is being fed in relation to the other cats,” Sadek says. For example, are the cats all fed together from a single bowl or from multiple bowls located adjacent to each other? Or are they fed in completely separate locations? “We also need to ask if there are any cats who don’t get along well in the household.” Socialization can have a huge impact on feline diet: “Cats who are bullied by other cats often either eat very rapidly, or may not come out to eat enough food.”

Automatic feeders programmed to feed multiple small meals throughout the day are another option. In multiple-cat households, automatic feeders that can read microchips that allow only the cat who wears the microchip to access the food. Finally, separating cats for parts of the day or evening to allow undisturbed eating can be beneficial in multiple-cat households where cats with more forceful personalities snarf everyone’s food.

Sadek says this is of critical concern in multicat households, and requires active monitoring by the owner to ensure that more timid cats are getting adequate nutrition.

“It’s very important to allow timid cats access to food, water, and resting places as well as the litter box without being disturbed by more aggressive or dominant cats,” Sadek says. In addition, timid cats will need to be monitored closely to make sure they get enough food, and to make sure they don’t eat too fast, putting them at risk of both throwing up and overeating. She emphasizes that multiple food, water, litter box, and resting place locations are important in a multicat household. “Cats need to be able to eat, rest, and use the litter box in areas where they feel safe. “

“It does take a little bit more work for owners to have multiple feeding locations, use food puzzles, or forage feed,” Sadek concedes, “but it’s well worth the effort to provide improved quality of life and reduced anxiety and stress for our feline friends.”

Photo credit: © iStock/aetb

NEWStat Interesting/unusual