How to Feed Your Cat So It Stops Begging and Starts Losing Weight
Cats receiving an adequate number of calories per day will be hungry (in the wild, you look for food while you still have adequate calories). So feeding a cat until it is full is almost always overfeeding unless it is an actively growing kitten under eight months of age.
Naturally, cats eat multiple small meals a day by hunting and eating what they catch. Having a bowl of dry food available allows multiple small meals of a high caloric feed with no effort on the cat’s part, this is a recipe for weight gain.
Domestic Cats Retain Their Wild Appetites
Cats having their feed provided have a lower caloric need per day than if they had to find, catch and eat it for a living. As cats age, they have a significant drop in activity and metabolic rate without any decrease in appetite. This makes maintaining an ideal weight harder over time.
Your Cat May Have Trained You to Feed it
The act of feeding is a training exercise between the cat and the feeder. Cats often key on the behaviors and acts that are a preview to feeding them and try to get the feeder to engage in these. A good example is feeding the cats as soon as you get out of bed in the morning. The cats will very often try to get the person up in the morning so that they get fed earlier and earlier and earlier…
Another example is the cat running into the kitchen every time the fridge is opened since that is where they know you store the canned food.
A Hungry Cat Often Looks for Mischief
Another factor to consider is that a hungry cat is a busy cat, often seeking out food, stalking or grumpy towards the other cats (who it blames for eating the food that is not there), bothering the people around the house, or engaging in other destructive behaviors.
Being busy is good in that it makes the cat more active, which helps burn calories, but the nature of the business is often not appreciated by the rest of the house. By feeding a cat in response to these behaviors, the cat is encouraged to act this way. One of the hardest things to do is to let a cat be hungry without rewarding the associated behaviors.
Choosing Between Dry Food, Canned Food, Or Both
In general, you need not offer multiple flavors and textures to cats. They get very good at training their owners to add something else to the mix if the cat shows any hesitation to eat what is given. If the cat is otherwise acting fine, a choice to not eat what is offered can be normal, or a test by the cat to see if something better will show up. Very, very few cats need any encouragement to eat. The opposite is usually a goal.
Canned Food is the Best Choice For Healthy Cats
Canned food is more beneficial than dry food for several reasons. But, it is also more expensive and messier to feed. As fresh-kill hunters, cats in the wild consume most of their water along with fresh prey and do not have a strong drive to drink independently of eating. I believe most dry food cats under consume water resulting in stress on their kidneys and overly concentrated urine. Canned food mimics the water content of their prey in the wild. This encourages more dilute urine that is less likely to lead to bladder and kidney issues overtime.
Canned food also tends to be lower in carbohydrates compared to dry food (you can’t make dry food without flour) and thereby higher in protein. High protein, low carb diets are touted by some to be less likely to cause obesity in cats, but this has been disproven in feeding studies; total calories consumed is most important. Most cats need 4-5 ounces of canned food per day, total. Pate-style varieties tend to be higher in calories per can than the varieties that more resemble people food with chunks and gravies- this can be useful when trying to fine-tune the number of calories per day being consumed.
Dry Food: An Affordable, but Less-Healthy Option
Dry food is extremely calorie-dense. It has no water in it to contribute volume to the food. Because of this, feeding just dry food means your cat will be hungrier if getting an adequate number of calories in the food because of the smaller volume given. Based on this, free choice dry food, even a low-calorie version, will not prevent weight gain.
How to Control Your Cat’s Weight on a Dry Food Diet
Splitting the dry food into multiple small controlled volumes over the course of the day is most useful. That way, the cat is never full and never quite starving. With most cats, dropping below 1/3 to ½ cup of dry food per 24 hour day will make them too hungry even if adequate calories are being taken in. The actual amount needed by any given kitty is going to be unique to that cat and will likely change (decrease) as the cat ages.
Using canned green beans can add bulk to the diet to make cats feel more full. This should not be done with cats that have a history of urinary tract crystals (FLUTD) since the veggies raise the urinary pH, which predisposes to crystal formation.
Beware Feeding Your Cat Both Dry and Canned Food
The fastest way to get and maintain an overweight cat is to feed both canned and dry food. Even if a cat has just filled up on dry food, most will readily pack in any canned food offered (or vice versa). It is tough to regulate the amount of each type of food, so the cat is getting the correct number of calories.
Feeding Recommendations From Your Local Veterinarian
Canned food only is my first choice. For an adult cat, start with ½ of a 5.5 oz. can (Friskies/9 Lives-size can) twice daily and no additional food. This is the starting point and likely will need to be adjusted downward.
For little cats, a half of a 3 oz. can (Fancy Feast-size can) twice daily may work better. This amount is also cat-specific and often needs adjusting up or down. Feeding canned food seems to create the best balance between calories and feeling full, and the meal seems to tide the cat over better than a dry food meal.
Recommendations For Owners Who Stick with Dry Food
Dry food can be fed but must be done by careful measure, specific meals and no snacking. Today’s dry foods have much better ingredients allowing for a higher number of usable calories per cup, so even less is needed compared to the Little Friskies of 30 years ago.
Feeding multiple feedings a day is useful but can be a source of contention as the cat tries to get to be fed in between feedings. No open bowls of food should be available. Dry food is offered for a set amount of time, and any leftover food is removed until the next feeding. Sometimes, taking the bowls up, so there is no reminder of the lack of food is helpful to limit begging.
Pre-measure Your Cat’s Food to Keep From Overfeeding
The best method is to measure out a day’s (24 hours) ration in the morning and then feed out of that container to provide feedings during that day. When that container is empty, no more food until the next day. This allows multiple people to be involved with feeding while avoiding being tricked into providing extra food because the cat swears that someone forgot to feed them and they are about to die of starvation.
Using a kitchen scale to measure dry food by weight is much more accurate and repeatable than using a volume measure, so the amount is much more consistent from day to day and person to person. Measuring by weight can also allow much smaller adjustments in daily food amounts than can be accurately done by volume (a 10 percent change in a quarter cup is almost impossible to do accurately by volume measure). A good food scale can be bought for around 50 dollars at Target or Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
Weigh Your Cat to Ensure a Healthy Rate of Weight-Loss
Regardless of diet, limiting access is the key. And a scale to accurately weigh the cat on is handy. People’s digital scales can be used by weighing the person with and without holding the kitty. Monthly weights at the same time of day are sufficient.
We want about a pound a month of weight loss, not more. Sudden weight loss in a cat can result in serious health issues. Weight loss is hard to accomplish in a cat, no short cuts exist, and it takes an active process to achieve.
Just like people, it is an individualized program for each kitty and dealing with the behavioral consequences of a hungry cat can be one of the largest challenges. The hardest thing for people to accept is that a hungry cat is okay and healthy, it does not require fixing despite what the kitty may think.
– Dr. Matt McCormick, DVM
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