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5 Steps to Following the New Feline Feeding Guidelines

By Dr. Patty Khuly

orange cat eating food

Every kitten that graces my exam room gets treated to a litany of recommendations on a variety of topics. Vaccines, parasite control, basic hygiene, proper scratching behavior, litterbox issues, exercise, environmental stimulation, and, perhaps most significantly, the ideal way to feed a cat.

Over the past few years, new feeding guidelines for cats have finally made their way into the mainstream. The Association of Feline Practitioners has recently released a document explaining these recommendations and the benefits cat owners can expect.  

The gist of it is this: Don’t let cats graze! Instead, feed them several small meals throughout the day. Doing so mimics the natural behaviors a cat’s digestive, endocrine, musculoskeletal, and metabolic systems are biologically attuned to.

Cats are hunters. Small cats like ours go for small game. That means their metabolisms respond best to a multiple-times-a-day feeding style. Leaving food out for cats to access freely means that cats expect food to come to them whenever they please. Instead, cats should be taught to seek out their food so that their metabolisms can get into a more active, engaged style of eating.

What’s more, our housecats don’t do very much. Exercise is the bane of most indoor cats’ existence. This makes weight gain and lack of mental stimulation a permanent risk. Consider this:

Hunt, catch, kill, eat, groom, sleep. Repeat.

That’s how cats should eat. But it’s not just about frequency Also significant is the increasingly popular recommendation that cats should be fed wet diets. Now that we know that kibbled diets don't do much for our cats’ teeth, we’re beginning to accept that wet foods, which improve cats’ hydration status (even if they drink lots of water), are likely the better option.

All of this raises the question: How is a dedicated, responsible cat owner supposed to manage these new recommendations? After all, feeding several times a day might seem onerous compared to simply replenishing the cat dish twice a day. What’s more, switching diets can be stressful for cats. More so for those cats who seem fundamentally opposed to the concept of a moistened diet.

Then there’s the other problem to consider: Most cat owners keep more than one feline. That typically means shared bowls. But that’s not ideal for several reasons, not just because it makes portion control untenable and weight gain almost inevitable. The ability to monitor appetite and eating style (which can offer early evidence of illness), administer medications or supplements, and feed individualized therapeutic diets are also factors.

If it sounds too difficult to feed this way, consider that dog owners manage this just fine. Despite our culture’s conventional wisdom, cats are also capable of being trained to accept these new guidelines. 

Now, for practical considerations, here’s how you might go about switching a cat (or a bevy of them) from a dry, kibbled, all-day diet to a moister one that’s served in several installments:

1. Start by feeding cats in separate bowls.

Enclose them in different rooms if you have to so they don’t wander over to their buddy’s half-eaten bowl, or worse, crowd their housemate out of the way.

2. Offer a set amount of time for eating.

Fifteen minutes is typically fine, but you can adjust this depending on your cats’ eating habits (if she’s still actively eating after fifteen minutes, give her a chance to finish). Remove bowls afterwards. And don’t worry if they skip a meal or two at the beginning, that’s normal. Be patient!

3. Decide how many times a day you can feed.

Be sure it’s at least three times a day. Early morning, lunchtime (or after work), and at bedtime are the most common choices. If you can do breakfast, lunch, dinnertime, and bedtime that’s even better.

4. Offer them a third of what they normally eat at each mealtime.

Or a fourth if you can feed them four times a day. You can always adjust the feeding quantities to meet your cats’ weight loss goals later on, but know this: Cats will often consume more calories when fed several times a day and still lose weight! This is because they’re more active overall.

5. Transition to wet food by adding water to kibble.

Once you’ve got them hooked, slowly add in the moist diet. Some cats will never accept anything but a watered-down kibble and that’s okay. As long as they’re taking their liquids with their solids, their hydration status gets the boost it needs for optimal health.

The best time to start feeding cats the modern way begins at kittenhood, but it’s never too late to teach old cats new tricks. It might take a while, and I can’t promise you won’t see a few skipped mealtimes, but the vast majority of cats will come to accept and even enjoy their new feeding style.

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