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How to feed your cat

Cats have been living in close proximity to humans for thousands of years. But it was during the Middle Kingdom period of ancient Egypt (about 3500 years ago) that cats transitioned from African wild cats to the domestic cats of today. (Cats in Egypt)

Early humans were happy to tolerate cats since they kept mice and rats at bay. But 'tolerate' is very different from 'love' and 'welcome'. Therefore we can safely say that (perhaps apart from the time in ancient Egypt when cats were revered as semi-divine creatures), cats have never had it so good as they have today.

Modern cats are the most popular pets, even more popular than dogs. As of March 2017, an estimated 94.2 million cats lived in U.S. households as pets. In the same year in Europe there were approximately 102 million pet cats. The numbers are increasing year by year. Today 68% of all households in the USA have pets - 12% up from the number in 1988. In Canada 37% of households have one or more cats, and thatís about the same for all western countries.

Nowadays many cats are completely indoor and may never see a rodent. Food, specially designed to cater for all their nutritional needs, is available on demand from the nearest human, and this food has the additional benefit of being very palatable. However, thereís a downside. A completely indoor lifestyle is incompatible with normal cat behaviours of hunting and foraging for food. Indeed many indoor cats eat way too much just because they are bored. And those extra calories come at a cost.

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, roughly 58 percent of cats in the U.S. are overweight to obese. The group's research also shows that this rate continues to rise. And more than 90 percent of owners donít even realize that their cats weigh more than they should.

When cats had to rely on finding their own food, most of their lives revolved around hunting for it. They had to find prey several times a day to satisfy their hunger and they got lots of exercise. While overeating and other behavioral problems are more common in cats without access to the outdoors, even outdoor cats are not immune from obesity. Indoor-outdoor cats may catch a mouse from time to time but their main source of food is sitting safely in the food bowl at home ready to be eaten at will. Domestic cats just do not expend the same amount of energy on food foraging wild or feral cats. Getting cats to exercise more is a good idea, and since food is one of the few things that regularly motivates a cat, scientists have been looking at ways to make domestic cats act more like their wild relatives.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) recently released a consensus statement of 'Feline Feeding Programs: Addressing Behavioral Needs to Improve Feline Health and Wellbeing'. The Consensus Statement, published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, explores the medical, social, and emotional problems that can result from the way that most cats are fed today. There was also a set of guidelines to vets and pet owners of how best to feed indoor cats. Both the statement and accompanying client brochure are available online and the links are included below.

The article described:

  • How to make feeding of home cats more like what cats do in the wild.
  • Feeding in multi-cat homes
  • How much cat food is too much

In the wild, cats have small but frequent meals. So dividing your cat's meals into small portions and dispensing these through the day prevents the cat from gorging on food at one sitting. (Automatic feeders are helpful here.) Hiding treats helps to keep cats busy and alert.

The report also recommends puzzle feeders. There are a number of these on the market. They range from simple to fiendish, but all challenge the cat to work for her food. Usually the cat can see dinner, but has to get to it - for example by pushing it through a maze or rolling a ball. You can create a simple puzzle at home by putting a small bit of dried food in a plastic bottle or a cardboard egg container.

Start with simple puzzles and move to the more difficult ones when the cat is more accustomed to the the idea. Be prepared to accept that this wonít work with all cats. Many cats have a Ďto hell with ití attitude to puzzles and will simply give up on food that is too hard to get.

The article also covers the stress which goes along with feeding. When eating, a cat needs a quiet place where she feels safe. That is particularly important in multi-cat households. Watch for signs of tension during feeding. Cats which do not get along need separate feeding stations.

The next problem is getting humans to understand how much a cat should eat to stay healthy. Most house cats are neutered, and a lot of cats, especially fully indoor cats, are minimally active. The recommended daily calorie intake for them is 40-60 kcal per kg. But that is very approximate. The true caloric requirement should be calculated for each cat by establishing how many calories she requires to stay in optimal body condition (2.5- 3 /5 on a body condition scale.)

Finally, the more active the cat the fewer weight and health problems the cat will suffer. Playing regularly with your cat helps her to bond with you, and may even save you time once you subtract the visits you donít have to make to the vet.

Journal Reference:
1. Tammy Sadek, Beth Hamper, Debra Horwitz, Ilona Rodan, Elizabeth Rowe, Eliza Sundahl. Feline Feeding Programs: Addressing behavioral needs to improve feline health and wellbeing. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery (2018); vol 20(11); pp:1049 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1098612X18791877

2. The client brochure: https://www.catvets.com/guidelines/client-brochures

The information supplied here is intended as a guideline only.


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