Food flexibility in cats Print E-mail
News - Rubrieke
Monday, 27 July 2015 23:44
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Dr Liesel van der Merwe is a small animal medicine specialist. Send her your questions: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Dr Liesel van der Merwe

Cats are finicky eaters, but how much of this is inherent and how much is behaviour that could be modified? Food flexibility does not imply yoga around the food bowl, but having a cat which doesn’t keep you shopping all over for the only kind of food it will deign to eat.

We need to manage our cats, not the other way around. Cats are obligate carnivores – they have to eat meat. In the wild their diet is composed of a variety of small mammals, with some birds, reptiles, insects and very little vegetable matter.

When food availability is not restricted, cats eat small, frequent meals, the number and size varying with the individual, but averaging about 13 small meals per day.

Domestic cats are exclusively solitary hunters, and thus usually take prey with much lower body-mass than their own, necessitating several kills per day. This is also reflected in their meal patterns.

Restricting food availability to meal times means that the cat eats larger, less frequent meals to which they adapt.

One way to mimic their natural hunting behaviour is to use a foraging feeder or food puzzle where your cat has to interact with the feeder to get small pieces of food. You can also hide small amounts of cat food around the house for your cat to seek out, perhaps in shallow plastic containers or egg cartons.

Other factors influencing what cats eat, and how much they eat, include neophobia (reluctance to eat different kinds of food) and monotony, where they seek out different tastes and food (neophilia).

If cats are repeatedly fed a single food, its palatability decreases and the cats start eating less at each meal due to the monotony of the diet. The evolutionary basis of monotony is probably to prompt the animal to seek a varied diet to prevent nutritional imbalances.

When first offered a new food, cats can be neophobic. They may only eat a small amount on the first occasion. Alternatively, the cat may reject the new food, particularly if it is unusual, or undertake extensive sniffing first. Neophobia is more evident when the cat is in a new environment and can usually be overcome by repeatedly offering the new food. Don’t give in too easily. When changing a diet it is always advisable to do it gradually over a week or two.

Initially kittens will prefer to eat the food their mother has been fed. This preference is based on taste, smell and texture. They might even be affected prior to weaning due to dietary dependent taste changes in the queen’s milk. These preferences can be modified within the first year of life by the owner’s input. Cat owners must make an effort to mix and vary the diet in these early days.

Stress can have a profound effect on feeding. Cats will be less likely to eat when stressed and less willing to try different foods. They will associate a food, smell or taste with a negative event, such as hospitalisation or the discomfort of illness. Dietary changes are thus never initiated in hospital, as the cat will probably develop a food aversion to that diet.

Apart from their nutritional completeness, prepared pet foods bear little resemblance to the natural prey of domestic cats. Foods that have a high level of protein and fat in general are much more palatable to cats and more nutritionally correct for their carnivorous nature. 

The factors that influence palatability of food for cats are complex, but include texture, smell, taste, and temperature. Although they prefer to eat alone, healthy cats may not mind the presence of others. In times of illness or stress, this tolerance may decrease.

Cats prefer food that is close to their body temperature (about 38° C). If you are taking canned cat food from the fridge, it should be warmed before feeding. The smell of food is particularly important and this is also enhanced when food is slightly warmed.

Don’t feed your cat near the litter box and resting areas. Don’t place feed on or near appliances which might scare the cat into developing negative associations with feeding.

Ideally each cat should have its own food and water station, preferably in a quiet, low-traffic place where your cat likes to spend time.

Cats prefer to eat from shallow bowls so that they can see around them while eating and so that their whiskers don’t brush against the sides of the bowl. Plastic bowls can pick up unpleasant odours.

Water bowls should be wide and shallow; water should be fresh daily; and some cats prefer to drink from a dripping faucet or a water fountain.

Separate food and water bowls; cats seem to drop pellets into their water and dislike the sour, dirty water.

Measure the food allowance for each cat according to your vet’s recommendation; monitor daily cat food intake and appetite. You do get automated feeders.

Feeding highly palatable foods may lead to excessive food intake, and having a ready supply of food means that they have to use little energy, unlike in the wild. Neutered cats tend to consume more than is required.


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