The Evidence for Frequent Feeding of Cats to Promote Positive Welfare

This article first appeared on iCatCare here.

Members of our veterinary community and the iCatCare Feline Wellbeing Panel explore the recommendation of a recent paper to feed cats once a day and gather evidence as to why the feeding of frequent small meals is more beneficial to the welfare of the cat, taking into consideration both its physical health and mental wellbeing.

Consideration No. 1: Naturally, cats prefer to eat several small meals a day, even when they have ad libitum food access.

For nearly fifty years now, several scientific studies conducted in laboratories or with collectively housed cats have provided evidence that cats ingest several small meals per day when given free access to food (Kanarek 1975, Mugford & Thorne 1980, Kaufman et al. 1980, Kane et al.  1981, Kane et al. 1987, Peachey et al. 2002, Al Souti et al. 2012, Durenkamp 2015, Parker et al. 2019, Ligout et al. 2020, Rogues et al. 2020), predominantly at night.

Even when the work necessary to obtain food is increased, cats continue to split their food intake over several feeding occasions (Kanarek 1975, Kaufman et al. 1980, Kane et al. 1987), but tend to decrease the number of meals, increasing the average meal size and duration.

Studies revealed that cats adjust the energy intake by decreasing the size of their meal more than the frequency according to the food characteristics (more fat, more fibre), even with specific nutrients acting on satiety signal, we can see a decrease in the number of meals (Kanarek 1975, Thorne 1982, Kane et al. 1987, Rogues et al. 2020).

Even if cats are able to ingest a huge quantity at once in specific conditions (Gezici and Eken 2001), they tend to eat small prey when living in the wild (Kutt 2012).

The feeding pattern is related to the food available, the cost to access to and the postprandial satiety signals.

Image of a cat eating

Consideration No. 2: Feeding time, and mainly its anticipation is a major factor of the global activity of the cat.

Several studies provided evidence that going from one meal a day to several meals a day, increased the global and pre-prandial physical activity (Deng et al. 2014, de Godoy et al. 2015, Camara et al. 2020).

Feral cats or individuals with outdoor access spend a lot of time and energy on predatory behaviour including searching and attempting to capture prey.

Consideration No. 3: Cats seem to associate their water intake with their food intake. Because of their propensity to drink little, from both a general hydration and more specifically the urinary health perspective, splitting the daily food ration into multiple small meals may be beneficial.

Few studies report the impact of the meal frequency on postprandial urinary pH.

Cats having free access to food for one hour a day (compared to 24h) eat less but also drink less also and urinate less (Finco et al. 1986).

Taton and colleagues (1984) showed that cats fed meals (versus ad libitum) had a higher postprandial pH, making them more prone to urolithiasis.

Finke and colleagues (1992) demonstrated that post prandial urinary pH is a linear function of the quantity consumed. The authors suggest that nibble eating is beneficial for feline struvite urolithiasis prevention, decreasing postprandial alkaline tide.

That’s why the dietary approach to urinary disease prevention also takes into consideration the meal frequency with recommendations to split meals (Kerr 2013).

Image of a cat drinking

Consideration No. 4: A higher meal frequency helps build and maintain a better cat-human relationship by increasing the positive interactions between cats and humans. A lower meal frequency may lead, in some situations, to a deterioration of the human-cat relationship and trigger aggression episodes.

The meal can be a privileged time between a cat and its owner. Giving food can initiate a relationship between a cat and a human, and humans that give food regularly are preferred by outdoor cats (when the relationship is established, Geering 1986). Food givers are also perceived to be preferred by the cat in a home setting (Bateson and Turner 2000).

Cats also exhibit anticipatory behaviours such as begging, meowing, seeking owner’s attention (Bradshaw and Cook 1996, Deng et al. 2014, Delgado and Dantas 2020). Feeding time can be considered a moment of communication with their cat (Kienzle and Bergler 2006) and behaviours around feeding (before and afterwards) helps the building of the cat owner relationship (Levine et al. 2016). Therefore, a higher feeding frequency may strengthen the bond between cat and owner, offering more opportunities to interact.

Restrictions in feeding frequency can have a dramatic effect on the cat’s behaviour and relationships in the household, as demonstrated by this Dutch clinical behaviour case

Aristos, a young street cat captured in Athens was nearly 5 months old when he came to his foster home.  An endearing white fluffy ball who ate every meal as if it were his last. The owner was advised by her vet to only feed Aristos, just like her dog, twice a day. And then it went wrong. After three days he attacked the dog and the following day he attacked the daughter when she wanted to feed him. The help of a cat behavioural counsellor was asked to see if there was anything wrong with this young male or if the problem was associated with the living conditions. The counsellor advised the owner to give Aristos 6 small meals a day by means of an automated feeder. Within a week the result was a completely different cat. No more attacks out of nowhere, tolerance to the dog, playful and inquisitive. It’s poignant to think that this cat almost got euthanised, just because it was hungry and such hunger manifested itself in aggressive behavioural responses.”

Consideration No. 5: A higher meal frequency gives the cat opportunities to show natural behaviours; decreases frustration and thus improve the cat’s mental wellbeing. On the contrary, food restriction to solve an overweight problem can lead to aggression between cats or displays of stress behaviour.

Feeding can be an opportunity to provide mental stimulation, which is especially important for indoor cats. (Ellis 2009, Sadek et al. 2018, Delgado and Dantas 2020). Here, smaller meals and plenty of opportunities to work for food must be favoured, and in multicat households, restrictions around feeding, whether it’s a decrease of the meal frequency or a caloric restriction, can lead to frustration and associated behaviours such as antagonistic interactions between feline members of the household by increasing competition between them (Sadek et al. 2018, Ligout et al. 2020), as demonstrated by this Dutch clinical behaviour case:

“Two neutered males, respectively 3.5 and 2.5 years old had a close social bond, but that changed in early 2020. Playing increasingly ended in fighting and eventually, these fights became so fierce that the youngest cat was regularly injured and in such a way cornered that he urinated in fear. The oldest male was overweight and put on a fairly strict diet. The behavioural history showed that the development of the problem behaviour coincided with the moment the older cat started the diet. This situation affected the well-being of both cats. To tackle the frustration, it was decided to introduce multiple feeding times per day again, to use feeding puzzles with the kibble and to give more wet food (with extra water). In addition, the owner threw some pieces of kibble down the hall every day instead of a meal in a feeding puzzle, so that the older cat had to catch them piece-by-piece and was motivated to exercise more.”

FWP member and veterinary behaviourist Marta Amat adds “Several cat behaviour practices around the world also confirm receiving inquiries from owners of cats with stress problems after a period of food restriction that was prescribed by their veterinarian to try and solve an obesity problem. The strategy to decrease the stress in these cases is to increase activity, use food-dispensing toys and ensure that a specific weight reduction diet is being used, rather than just restricting the volume of the current food.”

Two cats using a puzzle feeder

 Additional Information

  • Meal frequency and weight management

For more than two decades now, researchers have disagreed on the potential impact of feeding frequency on the risk of obesity.

While several studies point out that ad libitum food access is a risk factor of being overweight or obese (Russell et al. 2000, Harper et al. 2001; Kienzle and Bergler 2006; Camara et al. 2020), others either do not find any correlation (Allan et al. 2000; Colliard et al. 2009; Cave et al. 2012) or even conclude it has a positive benefit (Robertson 1999).

Right now, there is no consensus on this point. Each individual cat and personal history should be considered by the vet to define and adjust the best therapeutic approach where the most adapted feeding regimen will be specified.

As each situation can be unique, we agree that energy requirement should be calculated and adjusted regularly to maintain a healthy lean body or promote a slow weight lost if necessary.

Free access (time perspective) should be discussed against ad libitum (quantity perspective).

What we know is that calorie restriction leads to fewer but larger meals, taken at shorter time intervals with a faster eating rate (Ligout et al. 2020).

  • Meal frequency and metabolic diseases

Feeding cats with a single meal per day increases the circulating appetite-regulating hormones and lower fasting respiratory quotient (Camara et al. 2020).

Nevertheless, when cats must undergo enteral nutrition, feeding guidelines recommend starting with many small meals (6 to 8) before decreasing progressively towards three a day. One of the main reasons being the limitation of the stomach volume (100ml to 270ml, according the size of the animal) (Bartges 2003)

Martin & Rand (1999) did not observe any negative impact of a multi meal feeding approach on diabetic disease management.

Right now, there is no clear demonstration of a benefit on the body composition or on the metabolic pathways when feeding cats only once a day.

In conclusion, offering multiple food intake opportunities:

  • Promotes spontaneous physical activity
  • Promotes water intake and urine production
  • Decreases post prandial urine alkaline tide
  • Decreases postprandial satiety-hormone released
  • Decreases hunger feeling and frustration
  • Decreases agonistic interaction between cats (when multi housed)
  • Promotes mental well-being
  • Promotes human animal bond increasing the opportunity of positive affiliative communication and interaction
  • May or may not have a negative impact on weight management

Obesity is an epidemic disease among our pet population. More and more cats suffer from this chronic inflammatory pathology. What we do know is that it’s one of the few reversible pathologies.

Knowing that it is difficult to help cats lose weight not only from the pet perspective (hunger, frustration) but also from their pet owner perspective (feeding event being one of the main rewarding, self-reinforcing bonding moment within this cat-human relationship), it is important to avoid weight gain and promote a lean healthy body from the start.

In order to do so we need to adjust the energy delivered by the food to the energy requirement of the cat. This latter may vary according the breed (eg, Persian versus Sphinx), the age (eg, growing kitten), the sex (neutered or not), the physiological status (eg, lactating queen), the lifestyle (eg, outdoor), the temperament (eg, playful), etc.

We need to weigh our cats regularly and assess their Body Condition Score, as well as their Muscle Condition Score ideally. You can find these tools here. Do not hesitate to ask your veterinarian for help.

As for the diet, we need to adjust the calorie content of the food ration. Meal feeding or providing ad libitum is one aspect of the food delivery, controlling the intake is another, better one.

For more information about feeding your cat

Feeding your cat or kitten

Feeding cats creatively

Puzzle feeders

Further References:

Allan, F. J., Pfeiffer, D. U., Jones, B. R., Esslemont, D. H. B., & Wiseman, M. S. (2000). A cross-sectional study of risk factors for obesity in cats in New Zealand. Preventive veterinary medicine46(3), 183-196.

Al Souti, S., Bailey, D., & Thomas, D. (2012). Real Time Monitoring of Cat Feeding Behaviour. In Electronics New Zealand Conference (ENZCon’12). Dunedin, New Zealand (pp. 163-168).

Bartges, J. W. (2003). ENTERAL AND PARENTERAL NUTRITION. Handbook of Small Animal Gastroenterology, 416.

Bateson, P. P. G., & Turner, D. C. (Eds.). (2000). The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour. Cambridge University Press.

Bradshaw, J. W., & Cook, S. E. (1996). Patterns of pet cat behaviour at feeding occasions. Applied Animal Behaviour Science47(1-2), 61-74.

Camara, A., Verbrugghe, A., Cargo-Froom, C., Hogan, K., DeVries, T. J., Sanchez, A., … & 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 one15(9), e0238522.

Cave, N. J., Allan, F. J., Schokkenbroek, S. L., Metekohy, C. A. M., & Pfeiffer, D. U. (2012). A cross-sectional study to compare changes in the prevalence and risk factors for feline obesity between 1993 and 2007 in New Zealand. Preventive veterinary medicine107(1-2), 121-133.

Colliard, L., Paragon, B. M., Lemuet, B., Bénet, J. J., & Blanchard, G. (2009). Prevalence and risk factors of obesity in an urban population of healthy cats.

Delgado, M., & Dantas, L. M. (2020). Feeding Cats for Optimal Mental and Behavioral Well-Being. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice50(5), 939-953.

Deng, P., Iwazaki, E., Suchy, S. A., Pallotto, M. R., & Swanson, K. S. (2014). Effects of feeding frequency and dietary water content on voluntary physical activity in healthy adult cats. Journal of animal science92(3), 1271-1277.

de Godoy, M. R. C., Ochi, K., de Oliveira Mateus, L. F., de Justino, A. C. C., & Swanson, K. S. (2015). Feeding frequency, but not dietary water content, affects voluntary physical activity in young lean adult female cats. Journal of animal science93(5), 2597-2601.

Durenkamp, N. (2015). The effects of ad libitum feeding of low-or high-palatable feed on the physical activity, bodyweight and feeding patterns of domestic cats (Master’s thesis).

Ellis, S. L. (2009). Environmental enrichment: practical strategies for improving feline welfare. Journal of feline medicine and surgery11(11), 901-912.

Finco, D. R., Adams, D. D., Crowell, W. A., Stattelman, A. J., Brown, S. A., & Barsanti, J. A. (1986). Food and water intake and urine composition in cats: influence of continuous versus periodic feeding. American journal of veterinary research47(7), 1638-1642.

Finke, M. D., & Litzenberger, B. A. (1992). Effect of food intake on urine pH in cats. Journal of Small Animal Practice33(6), 261-265.

Geering, K. (1986). Der Einfluss der Fütterung auf die Katze-Mensch-Beziehung. Thesis, University Zürich-Irchel, Switzerland.

Gezici, M., & Eken, E. (2001). The effect of stomach volume on the colon topography in cats. Annals of Anatomy-Anatomischer Anzeiger183(2), 177-180.

Harper, E. J., Stack, D. M., Watson, T. D. G., & Moxham, G. (2001). Effects of feeding regimens on bodyweight, composition and condition score in cats following ovariohysterectomy. Journal of Small Animal Practice42(9), 433-438.

Kanarek, R. B. (1975). Availability and caloric density of the diet as determinants of meal patterns in cats. Physiology & Behavior15(5), 611-618.

Kane, E., Rogers, Q. R., & Morris, J. G. (1981). Feeding behavior of the cat fed laboratory and commercial diets. Nutrition Research1(5), 499-507.

Kane, E., Leung, P. M. B., Rogers, Q. R., & Morris, J. G. (1987). Diurnal feeding and drinking patterns of adult cats as affected by changes in the level of fat in the diet. Appetite9(2), 89-98.

Kaufman, L. W., Collier, G., Hill, W. L., & Collins, K. (1980). Meal cost and meal patterns in an uncaged domestic cat. Physiology & Behavior25(1), 135-137.

Kerr, K. R. (2013). Companion Animals Symposium: dietary management of feline lower urinary tract symptoms. Journal of animal science91(6), 2965-2975.

Kienzle, E., & Bergler, R. (2006). Human-animal relationship of owners of normal and overweight cats. The Journal of nutrition136(7), 1947S-1950S.

Kutt, A. S. (2012). Feral cat (F elis catus) prey size and selectivity in north‐eastern A ustralia: implications for mammal conservation. Journal of Zoology287(4), 292-300.

Levine, E. D., Erb, H. N., Schoenherr, B., & Houpt, K. A. (2016). Owner’s perception of changes in behaviors associated with dieting in fat cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior11, 37-41.

Ligout, S., Si, X., Vlaeminck, H., & Lyn, S. (2020). Cats reorganise their feeding behaviours when moving from ad libitum to restricted feeding. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 1098612X19900387.

Martin, G. J. W., & Rand, J. S. (1999). Food intake and blood glucose in normal and diabetic cats fed ad libitum. Journal of feline medicine and surgery1(4), 241-251.

Mugford, R. A., & Thorne, C. (1980). Comparative studies of meal patterns in pet and laboratory dogs and cats In: Nutrition of the Dog and Cat (Anderson, RS, ed.).

Parker, M., Lamoureux, S., Challet, E., Deputte, B., Biourge, V., & Serra, J. (2019). Daily rhythms in food intake and locomotor activity in a colony of domestic cats. Animal Biotelemetry7(1), 25.

Peachey, S. E., & Harper, E. J. (2002). Aging does not influence feeding behavior in cats. The Journal of nutrition132(6), 1735S-1739S.

Robertson, I. D. (1999). The influence of diet and other factors on owner-perceived obesity in privately owned cats from metropolitan Perth, Western Australia. Preventive veterinary medicine40(2), 75-85.

Rogues, J., Mehinagic, E., Lethuillier, D., Bouvret, E., Hervera, M., & Lepoudere, A. (2020). Reduction of cat voluntary feed intake in the short-term response to the sugar cane fibre supplementation. Journal of Applied Animal Nutrition, 1-12.

Russell, K., Sabin, R., Holt, S., Bradley, R., & Harper, E. J. (2000). Influence of feeding regimen on body condition in the cat. Journal of Small Animal Practice41(1), 12-18.

Sadek, T., Hamper, B., Horwitz, D., Rodan, I., Rowe, E., & Sundahl, E. (2018). Feline feeding programs: Addressing behavioural needs to improve feline health and wellbeing. Journal of feline medicine and surgery20(11), 1049-1055.

Taton, G. F., Hamar, D. W., & Lewis, L. D. (1984). Evaluation of ammonium chloride as a urinary acidifier in the cat. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association184(4), 433.

Thorne, C. J. (1982). Feeding behaviour in the cat—recent advances. Journal of small animal practice23(9), 555-562.

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3 thoughts on “The Evidence for Frequent Feeding of Cats to Promote Positive Welfare

  1. Jasmina Separovic says:

    Hi everyone
    I have five cats and I’ve been having cats for a long time in my life.
    I also have three children.
    I’d like to share my experience with cat feeding.
    I must also say, that my cats are all adopted from a shelter.
    They are all neutered too.
    I’ve been feeding them several times a day, small intakes.
    They love each other, are very playful and there is no weight gain.
    When my children were small, they proved to be great playing and cuddling companions.
    We all adore cats and cannot imagine our life without them.
    Many greetings, Yasmine

  2. floridaborne says:

    Our cats and dogs have always had a “perpetual food bowl.” They eat when they’re hungry, a little here and a little there. That’s the way my mom fed our dog and I was surprised to find that people often give their dogs and cats a meal only twice a day. It seems that science proved something my mother knew 60 years ago.

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