Feeding time for most cat owners occurs in a few ways. The first involves cracking open a bag or container of food, and the cat you couldn't find comes running, ready to chow down. The second is an automated feeder that dispenses the food at a preset time, and your cat has learned the time and sits next to it, waiting. The last one is your cat meowing endlessly in your ear on a Saturday morning when all you want to do is sleep an extra hour.
None of these methods, however, are all that good for your feline friend — at least that's the word from the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). This group of veterinarians focused on cats' medical needs has released a consensus statement in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery that explains exactly how we should be feeding our cats, particularly with an emphasis on managing behavioral issues.
"Appropriate feeding programs need to be customized for each household," Tammy Sadek, the statement's chairperson, said in a press release, "and should incorporate the needs of all cats for play, predation and a location to eat and drink where they feel safe."
The AAFP explains that most indoor cats receive one or two large meals a day, often without consideration of the cat's actual energy requirements, and normally only at the same spot in the household. Pile on the fact that "modern pet food is highly palatable and easy to eat rapidly," and you have a recipe for an obese cat who stress eats only to run back to a safe space to vomit.
So what is a cat owner to do to make for a happier, fitter and less-stressed kitty? The AAFP has a few recommendations.
1. Puzzle feeders and foraging. Puzzle feeders encourage your cat to slow down and use their brains to get their food instead of just gobbling up the kibble from a dish. They come in a variety of designs, and there are plenty of DIY options out there as well. One of the retail options is shown in the video below. As for foraging, the AAFP recommends placing food in different locations around the house, allowing your cat to find the food while exercising a bit. Elevated spots, if your cat's health permits, are especially encouraged. Obviously, this process works mostly with dry food, and the AAFP doesn't have recommendations on what to do with wet food, apart from mentioning that some puzzle feeders accommodate wet foods. (A decent DIY way of handling conundrum this is wet food inside an old coffee mug.)
2. Break up meal time. Instead of feeding the cat only once or twice a day, food should be spread out across the day, "using puzzle feeders when possible." The puzzle feeders will slow down the cat's eating process already, but spreading meals out will also mean that those pesky meows when you're trying to sleep in will probably occur less often, too. Automated feeders can supply this — to a degree — but they don't afford opportunities for predation and foraging.
3. Know what your cat needs. Truth be told, many of us probably don't know how many calories our cat needs. Checking with the vet about the cat's health includes asking about their diet. Being aware of this will also allow you to adjust food intake as the cat ages or health conditions change.
And this is just for an indoor cat that lives alone! The AAFP encourages multi-cat households to ask questions about the dynamics between their cats. Do some cats avoid each other? Then they probably shouldn't share a feeding and watering location, let alone a litter box. Separating feeding spaces visually is also important in these situations, according to the AAFP.
If you have an outdoor cat, they may face similar issues as indoor cats, especially if you're feeding them. It "leaves a void in the 'time budget'" of cats that could otherwise be spending their time actually hunting for critter snack on over the course of the day.