When living independently in the wild, domestic cats spend half of their waking hours prowling for food, sustaining off many small hunted or scavenged meals eaten in solitude throughout the day. When living with humans, most cats are given large quantities of calorie-rich food just a few times per day, and the food is typically piled in one location of the home – no searching or effort required. And though most of us cat lovers are aware of the discrepancies between these two food-related lifestyles, according to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), few of us are aware of the medical and emotional problems that may arise when cats are too far removed from their natural circumstances.
In a consensus statement published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, representatives from the AAFP identify these problems and offer straightforward, science-backed tips for responsible cat owners hoping to steer their furry companions from the same issues that plague the modern sedentary humans – obesity, stress, and fraught relationships with food.
"Currently, most pet cats are fed in one location ad libitum, or receive one or two large and usually quite palatable meals daily," the statement’s first author, Dr Tammy Sadek, said in a news release. “In addition, many indoor cats have little environmental stimulation, and eating can become an activity in and of itself. This current type of feeding process does not address the behavioral needs of cats.”
“Appropriate feeding programs need to be customized for each household, and should incorporate the needs of all cats for play, predation, and a location to eat and drink where they feel safe."
Dr Sadek and her colleagues recommend placing portions of your cat’s daily food in different parts of the house, preferably in elevated locations. This forces the cat to “forage” for their meals and also helps ensure the food is in an out-of-the-way spot, which allows the cat to eat in peace. Past studies have shown that food placed in busy locations may lead to serious behavior issues.
“In an attempt to avoid a stressful encounter with another pet or even a household member such as an active toddler, a cat may develop the habit of gorging, with subsequent vomiting, in order to quickly return to a safe place,” the authors write.
The experts also recommend using puzzle feeders – objects that store food and must be manipulated in certain ways before it is released – wherever possible. These devices and the scattered/hidden food approach mentioned above both increase cats’ activity and mental stimulation.
For multiple-cat households, creating separate feeding stations and placing several water sources is key for avoiding conflict and aggression. The authors note that prolonged stress from such interactions can lead to unhealthy coping behavior, such as prolonged intervals between litter box visits, which in turn may cause or aggravate illnesses such as bladder infections.