Cats are natural hunters. The modern domestic cat (Felis catus) is likely descended from a small North African wildcat (Felis sylvestris lybica) that chose to live close to humans because of the abundance of rodents attracted to food stores in settlements in the Middle East.
Wild living cats spend about 70% of their daily activities on feeding-related behaviours. They’ll hunt no matter how well-fed they are, because less than 50% of attempts to catch prey are successful. In order to ensure that they have enough calories to survive and thrive, they have to be opportunistic and can’t afford to wait until they’re hungry to hunt. Their natural prey is limited to what they can catch alone, which tends to be small rodents. Each small rodent typically provides about 8% of their calorific needs, so they eat small but frequent meals.
Modern domestic cats have hardly changed in appearance or behaviour from their early ancestors. They are adapted to a hunting lifestyle and are obligate carnivores, meaning that only the nutrients found in animal tissue meet their specific needs. The way that some pet cats live, and how they obtain and consume food, isn’t representative of how they would naturally do so. Obtaining food, the activity that they’d normally dedicate so much of their day to, is done for them and taken out of their control, and this can negatively impact their welfare.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways that feeding can be made more engaging and stimulating for pet cats, and once we’ve looked at some of the potential problems, we’ll look at some solutions.
Problems with feeding in the human world
- Confinement in small homes and gardens, or living entirely indoors, potentially with other cats who may be non-compatible, can remove their choice and ability to consume food in a natural way.
- It can be difficult to identify when their needs aren’t met because of their independent, solitary nature and how they communicate.
- Food chosen by owners may not be wholly suitable, e.g. unbalanced or less nutritious home-prepared, raw or grain free diets and vegetarian or vegan regimes.
- Owners may approach feeding from a human perspective. For example, social eating with other pets or human family members, they may not recognise the need for cats to feel safe whilst eating and have space and solitude, or they may overfeed them.
- Their source of food and water may be in ‘double diners’, single bowls that have a division for each, that might be too close to toileting areas. When given the choice, cats will drink fresh, clean water that is separated from eating or toileting areas.
- Obesity due to:
- Inappropriate diets
- Lack of activity
- Lack of space or outlets for natural behaviours
- Owners not keeping correct feeding routines
- Lack of knowledge of normal weight and body conditions of pet cats.
All, or any, of these things may be sources of distress, which can lead to poor welfare, and potentially to ill health.
An important part of feeding cats appropriately is providing the right environment, so they feel comfortable whilst eating. International Cat Care’s ‘five pillars for a healthy cat lifestyle’ show what is necessary for a healthy feeding environment.
- Provision of a safe place:
Cats should have quiet, calm locations, without social pressure where they can eat out of sight of other cats.
- Provision of multiple and separated key environmental resources:
Cats need to have choice and control, with free and immediate access to what they want or need. Ideally, there should be two or three feeding and watering areas for each cat in the home. These should be away from toileting areas, entry points to the home and particularly busy areas.
- Provision of opportunity for play and predatory behaviour:
Cats need the mental and physical stimulation they would normally get through hunting. This can be replicated in a variety of ways that are discussed in more detail below.
- Provision of positive, consistent and predictable human-cat social interaction:
Cats have individual preferences as to what sort of contact they have whilst feeding. Some may like company or for play to be incorporated, while others prefer to be alone, or to independently forage. Being sensitive to this helps cats to feel more comfortable and at ease.
- Provision of an environment that respects the importance of the cat’s sense of smell:
Avoiding strong scents, for example perfume, around food and feeding will helps cats to feel more relaxed whilst eating. Creating appetising aromas by warming food can help entice cats to eat who may otherwise have a reduced appetite. Using plastic bowls for food or water can also put cats off eating as they can retain the scent of washing up chemicals or old food.
Feeding cats creatively
Being fed in a bowl in the same location every day removes the mental and physical stimulation that cats would have whilst hunting. A lack of opportunity for cats to interact with the environment can lead to boredom, which may develop into apathy or anxiety and can lead to the development of problem behaviour.
The way that cats play is similar to how they hunt, and this can be used to help them expend energy, have fun and be mentally stimulated when feeding. Playing with a wand toy in a ‘mouse-like’ way, or flicking a lightweight rolling toy or paper ball, and then ending the game with a ‘kill’, such as a scatter feed or food puzzle toy, can be fun and provide exercise and mental stimulation.
Puzzle feeders are a great way to for cats to receive food in a way that promotes physical activity and problem solving. There are a huge range of different puzzle feeders that can be bought or made at home easily and cheaply. They can be as simple as a small amount of dry food wrapped up in a piece of paper that the cat can work out how to get into, or a simple hide-and-seek game. Even the most basic of these give cats more stimulation than eating from a bowl. A great resource, including some ideas for home-made puzzles, is the ‘food puzzles for cats’ website that can be accessed here
Puzzle feeders should be introduced gradually, so the cat can get used to them and learn how they work. Whilst they’re adapting to their use, some of their daily food allowance should still be given in the method that they’re familiar with, and placing some dry food around the puzzle feeder helps to encourage interest and creates an association between the feeder and food.
More information about using puzzle feeders can be found in our article here.
Using variety in where they’re fed and how they’re fed allows cats to use different physical and cognitive skills. For example, puzzles that encourage use of the nose or paws, and to push, pull and rip, can mirror the variety of skills they need to catch prey whilst hunting. It’s important to ensure that all methods of feeding are within each individual cat’s capabilities and they can enjoy them without being scared or frustrated.
If there are multiple people feeding a cat, it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of when, or how many times, they’ve been fed, and cats may indicate that they want food even when they may not need it. Using conveniently placed markers that indicate ‘fed’ or ‘feed’ can help avoid overfeeding and overeating.
As mentioned earlier, cats have naturally adapted to eating little and often and this should be reflected in the feeding patterns of pet cats. Feline experts in veterinary medicine, behaviour and health at International Cat Care have created a feeding plan that divides food into five daily portions.
A short version of this feeding plan can be found here
Technology can also help cats feed effectively. Automated feeding systems can be set to a timer that dispense food several times a day when an owner isn’t around to do so. There are also feeders available which have microchip access and are connected to apps that help you to keep an eye on their feeding habits.
Understanding the ways in which domestic cats have adapted to feed naturally, and how some commonly accepted feeding practises are at odds with this, make it easier to make adjustments that will benefit pet cats. Many of the techniques involving creative feeding are an opportunity to interact with your cat in a way that’s fun for both parties and they can help cats to remain happy and healthy.
I am the feline behaviour specialist at feline charity ‘International Cat Care’. We are about engaging, educating and empowering people throughout the world to improve the health and welfare of cats by sharing advice, training and passion.