Cats Catch and Eat Frequent Small Meals
The most common method of feeding for pet cats is the provision of two or three meals per day in a feeding bowl. For cats in the wild, feeding is purely a functional behavior to refuel. Food capture is a time-consuming activity requiring many efforts during the day.As a result, cats are designed to take in small amounts of food frequently throughout the day. Fixed meal feeding is not natural for cats.
Food is the ultimate survival resource and for cats it is an individual affair. Given the choice cats will search, acquire and consume their prey in solitude and, with the exception of mothers providing opportunities for their kittens to learn preyhandling techniques. The feeding process is not a socially interactive one – cats prefer to eat alone. Neutering and being kept in an unnatural environment disrupts the self-regulation of food intake for owned cats.
Understanding natural drinking behavior can help to ensure the cat gets enough. In the wild the cat eats prey, which has high water content so the actual water consumption of cats may be low.
Take Home Message
- While cats can survive being meal-fed, in the wild they typically consume 10-20 small meals throughout the day.
- Cats should be provided with both canned and dry food early on, so that they won’t be fixated on one type of food. Feeding canned food reduces the calories provided to the cat, and is best given in multiple small meals, with small amounts of dry food provided in puzzle feeders. Canned food is helpful in cats with certain medical conditions.
- Feeding dry kibble gives a greater opportunity to space the feeding. It also offers variety and interactivity through hiding kibble, using food puzzles and food balls, which all add valuable stimulation for the cat, as well as avoid unnaturally large and infrequent meals.
- Cats often eat a few mouthfuls of food and walk away because they do not normally eat large meals (prey is usually small). This may not be a sign that the cat does not like the food. Replacing it with something more palatable may result in an initial increase in food intake but the pattern then begins again. It may also teach the cat to reject food for higher value food, which can lead to obesity. Use of feeding toys filled with food can provide small regular meals as well as environmental enrichment.
- For cats, the feeding process is not social. Behaviors such as leg rubbing and vocalizing are actually initially signals of initiating social interaction, rather than signs that a cat wants food but they are often interpreted in this way. The cat will quickly learn that it can use these behaviors to control the supply. Since owners derive comfort and pleasure from their pet seeking them out in this way, they will often increase the amount of food that they offer to reward the social interaction or simply to keep the cat quiet. This action can increase the risk of overfeeding and obesity.
- Cats prefer to eat alone.A house with lots of cats needs many feeding places so that each cat can get to food freely, quickly and on its own. A willingness by cats in the same household to come together at feeding times is often taken as a sign that they get along with each other. However, it is important to remember that food is a vital survival resource and since food delivery is controlled by owners at certain times and places cats may have to share space to gain access to food. Cats may suspend hostility for long enough to eat their meal but eating together is stressful and the level of tension between the cats at other times may actually increase.
- The placing of food can be important. Placing it in a corner can make it difficult to access, next to a cat door can be threatening because other cats can come in, and next to a glass door can lead to eating food too quickly in order to get away from a vulnerable position.