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.
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).
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.”
- 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
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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.