Written by Michelle T. Bernard
Cats are not cows. That is an obvious observation but why do so many cat owners feed their cat as if it was a cow or other grazing animal? I'm talking about free-feeding, leaving a bowl of dry food in front of the cat all day.
Physiologically, the cat sitting on your lap is not much different from a lion. A lion has to hunt for its food. Luckily for most of our cats, they don't have to hunt to survive. Otherwise, many of them would probably starve to death. That doesn't mean modern day cats no longer have the tools and digestive system necessary to hunt, kill, eat and digest prey animals. A cat that has to hunt for its food does not know when or where its next meal is coming from. Candy-coated mice do not sit around in bowls waiting for the cat to come in for a nibble. Cats are designed to gorge on a meal, then not eat again for many hours or even days. This allows for proper digestion and elimination of the toxins associated with a meat-based diet.
A cat is not finicky by nature. A finicky cat is created, not born. If you had a particular type of smelly food left in front of you most of the day, would you remain interested in that food? How many times have you had to change the brand of food you feed your cat because she or he would no longer eat it? Smelling food all day can actually decrease a cat's appetite. Smelling food triggers a cat's digestive system to begin working. Constantly smelling food, even if it is only an empty bowl that the food was once in or a bag of dry food left on the counter will keep the digestive system primed and ready to go all day. Munching on dry food throughout the day does keep the digestive system working and the stomach never gets the chance to completely empty as it should. The digestive system requires quite a bit of energy to operate. Keeping it going throughout the day by allowing constant access or exposure to food is pulling valuable resources from other systems and possibly prematurely ageing the cat. This can also result in improper hair coat and the tendency towards cystitis.
A cat's digestive system needs a good long break on a daily basis. A 24-hour fast once a week is a good thing for a healthy adult cat. In the wild, this would most likely happen more than once a week. As efficient a hunter as the cat is, more hunts are unsuccessful than successful.
If you've got five or six cats eating from a community food bowl, chances are you are not going to know if one cat is off its food until you see a noticeable loss of weight. This could take days or weeks. I feed my adult cats once a day, at night. If one of my cats is off its food, I know then and there. If that cat appears otherwise healthy and doesn't eat for one night, or even two, I don't worry much, but if it goes beyond that, then I know I have a problem and address it.
As I'm sure you are aware, free feeding can lead to obesity. The pet food manufacturers have an answer to that problem by offering "less active" or "reduced calorie" food. If their food was proper to begin with, pet food manufacturers wouldn't have to offer so many different formulas, "for all stages of your cat's life."
Improper food set aside, what we are looking at here is improper feeding practice. I free-fed my cats at one time. Sure, it's convenient. You fill the bowl and run. Keeping your cat in optimum health and condition isn't always about convenience. There's a little bit of extra work you have to commit to doing.
If you want to let your cats graze, then grow them a pot of wheat grass to munch on at will. Most cats love fresh grass and it's very healthy for them. When it comes to their main diet, however, feed on a schedule. Put the food down and allow free access for 30 minutes or so. After that 30 minutes is up, clean up the food, remove the bowls and wash the floor if necessary.
Don't worry if you get home late from work a few nights out of the week. Your cat won't starve. Again, a cat in the wild doesn't eat on a schedule. He eats when his hunt has been successful. Your cat will be hungry when you get home, but that's a good thing. It is good for a cat to be hungry.
Think about when your best meal was. How hungry were you? If you had been nibbling all day, then were offered a wonderful steak dinner, would you enjoy it as much as you would if you hadn't eaten all day?
Feline Nutrition Education Society
Join us in helping cats to better health. Membership in Feline Nutrition is free. Learn how you can be a part of changing how cats are fed.
For more information, visit Feline Nutrition. http://feline-nutrition.org/index.php
We have a wealth of science-backed information on feline health and nutrition. To join the discussion, find us at RawFedKitty on Facebook.