The good, the bad and the ugly of feline food and foraging

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The good, the bad and the ugly of feline food and foraging

Just like us humans, cats no longer have to live in a guns-at-the-ready world to survive, as in the Old West. Today's cats have it so easy! So easy, their waistlines are exhibiting way too much westward—and eastward, southward and northward—expansion. What can we learn from cats' feral roots?
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Apr 20, 2016

(Getty Images)Well shucks! With indoor lifestyles and dry cat food diets being two of the biggest risk factors for obesity in the feline pet population and all of the misinformation out there, it’s no surprise that many of our patients are getting a little (or a lot!) too big for their britches. Heed these sage words of advice from Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DACVB (feline), to get cats back in fine form.

Once upon the range: A cat’s natural instincts

Dr. Colleran says the nonneutered wild and feral cousins of domestic cats spend eight to 12 hours per day hours per day hunting. Of the hunting attempts per day, 10% to 40% percent will be successful, depending on whether the cat is hungry, has recently eaten or is nursing kittens. With a failure rate as high as this, a cat may expect to have periods during which the amount of prey captured barely meets energy expenditure. On successful days, the cat may catch a whole mess of food.

The result is that, in cats, hunting activity is not related to hunger or satiation. A cat would soon be vulture food itself if it took a break for several hours after every meal, because this would mean it would miss the best hunting opportunities. A hungry cat will hunt more vigorously, but even cats with a full tummy will hunt. Hunting is not related to the pleasurable taste of the prey, either. Small mammals and birds do not come in a variety of appetizing flavors. The type of prey is entirely related to availability and size. And, in any case, the cat's perception of flavor is geared to detect spoilage, not to enable it to be a gastronome.

Other feral factors, according to Dr. Colleran:

  • It is theorized that the satiety center in cat brains is more affected by amino acids than carbohydrates.
  • Cats in the wild feed themselves and are not fed by someone with ulterior motives.
  • Cats don’t have a posse. For cats, eating is not a social activity. They don’t hunt in packs. Sharing is not in their repertoire unless there are kittens involved. Besides, meal sizes are small for safety reasons. A solitary hunter can’t call for help if the prey is big enough to cause injury
  • Cats are more active when you don’t feed them ad libitum. The more well-fed our domestic cats are, the less enthusiastic they are about hunting and more sedentary they are. They’ll wait for the OK Corral to come to them, thank you very much!

Where the West went wrong

So what do we do to cats that messes all their instincts up? Colleran says:

  • We neuter them, which dramatically reduces their basal metabolic rates and increases their appetites.
  • We keep them inside, not providing enough opportunities for enrichment and expressing hunting behaviors.
  • We feed them food that is too high in carbohydrates. By the time they get enough amino acids to activate their satiety center, they have eaten too many carbohydrates and associated calories.
  • We love and misinterpret them. Turns out, having a close relationship with your pet cat is a risk factor for it being obese. Some theorize that people with the best of intentions frequently misinterpret what the cat is asking for. Specifically, when the cat is exhibiting attention–seeking behavior, it may be misinterpreted as food-seeking behavior.
  • We feed them in groups. This can encourage competitive feeding, leading to the cats eating more and faster than they would when fed by themselves. And we tend to feed them ad libitum—a big no-no.
  • We have to feed them commercial food for it to be convenient, safe and complete and balanced, but it truly is the wild wild West when it comes to commercial pet food and its labeling. In reading some feeding instructions on bags and cans of “light” cat food, Dr. Colleran has found that those recommendations are designed to make them fat. Some of your fat-cat-owning clients were just following the instructions on the bag.

It’s time to bring in the law

So what are the townsfolk to do? Look to the sheriff! (Psst! That’s you.) Ideally, prevention is key, say Dr. Colleran: When neutering cats, tell the owners that they cannot feed ad libitum—ever. She recommends using the phrases “This will save you money,” and “This will keep them safe and healthy.”

But once the deed is done and you have an obese cat on your exam room table, first and foremost, the owners have to agree that this is a health problem. You need to shoot down any excuses such as, “He’s just fluffy” or “She’s just big-boned.”

Address feeding strategies, both what is being done now and what is best for the weight health plan you would like to initiate. Find out who is feeding the cat. One person? Everyone? The neighbors? It works for Dr. Colleran to recommend that they measure the food once and then portion out the food for feeding three to six times a day. She says to tell clients to make sure to feed all cats in the house separately, especially if there is one fat cat and one cat that is normal-weight. (You may need to recommend that they lock Hoss in the bathroom during feeding time and feed Little Joe on the cat tree.)

Also, select appropriate food. We all know that cats don’t negotiate—they either like a food or they don’t, and you have to find something that works for them that they will eat. It has to have the correct feel in their mouth and odor for them. So keep in mind that labels mean next to nothing and you are the expert. You wear the white hat—er, white coat and can ride to their rescue.

Before you ride off into the sunset, consider this: There is no magic bullet for weight loss in cats. But it has been proven that the key to all successful weight loss programs is giving clients support. From the traditional “Yee haws!” and pats on the back to getting creative with supportive text messages or a “Biggest Loser” feline weight loss support group with incentive prizes.