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Eating is a bit more complicated for cats

By Sally Foote, DVM
This topic was suggested by one of my clients. I love it when readers give me requests so keep them coming!

The act of eating is actually a bit complex. For most of us, when we are hungry – we grab some food out of the refrigerator and start to eat. No one is taking the food away, we picked out what we liked and took as much as we wanted for a meal that will fill us up for a few hours. That is human behavior. For cats, eating has many more steps and risks.

First, we need to understand what is involved in the action of eating for a cat. While cats have been domesticated for thousands of years, the innate behavior of cats is still similar to the wild cat. In the wild, cats live alone not in large social groups. They hunt as individuals not in cooperative groups like dogs. This solo hunter is often eaten by animals larger than themselves. When a cat goes out to hunt, this predator is also the prey. To survive, cats evolved into hunters who prey quickly on small vermin that can be consumed in a few bites. After eating they rest until the next hour or so and do it all again. Cats are successful about 50 percent of the time when they hunt. So the cat needs to eat small frequent bits of food that moves and is very appealing.

The texture, flavor, smell, and ease of chewing is all a part of what makes food appetizing to a cat. If the food would move like a little mouse or bug, it would be more appealing to the cat. Then it would seem like prey that is to pounced upon. But cat food is not alive, so that is one challenge for our cats. Compared to dogs or people, cats take a long time to eat. They sniff it, move around, get into position, lick a bit then stop. Eat a bit then walk away leaving most of the food behind. This is normal cat eating behavior.

Some cats are very picky – if the shape of the dry food is triangles not stars, the cat will try a bite and then quit. Other cats may only eat dry and not want canned – they like the crunching of the dry. Some may like one flavor one day then refuse it others. The pickiness is related to a few things. One that is not well appreciated is that many cats actually have mild intestinal inflammation. When they eat, they may vomit later or have a loose stool. Vomiting is not normal for cats, even though the cat looks and acts normal. In the wild, cat vomit would attract a predator. There is likely a tummy ache after eating a food, so now the cat associates that food with discomfort and will avoid it in the future. Cats are also very sensitive to taste. If medication or supplements are added to the food, the cat may taste this and now reject the food.

Aging cats often have shrinkage of the lining of the intestine where they do not have enough vitamin B 12 to help with appetite and digestion. For many of our older cats, we use B12 injections to help them and it often helps appetite. This needs to be determined by your veterinarian, so if your cat is consistently picky about food, be sure to bring your cat in for an exam and approve blood and stool tests that can determine how well the cat digests food.

Some cats will eat better if they have daily play with a human for at least 10 minutes. Grabbing a feather toy, chasing a light, or a ball are all based on hunting skills so this helps activate the appetite in a cat. Using food puzzles can create that motion and interest to enhance appetite. For some cats, catnip may enhance appetite. Lastly there is a herb called Silver vine that can enhance appetite in cats. This herb is used like catnip as something for the cat to roll in and scent with.

Leaving the food out all day can create a finicky cat. They see the food all the time, and do not have the buildup of hunger to help them with appetite. By measuring out the feeding, for the morning only and not putting food out again until the afternoon, the cat will be hungrier and eat better by evening. Tossing the food pieces to make a game out of pouncing and “killing ” the food can also increase appetite. I have a video at my YouTube channel drsallyjfoote showing how to split up the feedings and use food for games.

If after a good report from your veterinarian about your cat’s health, you are still dealing with a picky eater there may be some stress in your cat’s life that is affecting appetite. Cats do not pace and pant like dogs when they are nervous. Mild anxiety will often show as sleeping a lot, only eating in the night, or not playing. Often a housemate cat can be staring or considered to be a competitor by this cat so the cat does not eat. The one food bowl for all cats is not the way to feed your cats. Be sure to have multiple bowls is separate areas, multiple litter boxes and multiple perches. You can read more about feline enrichment at my website to help you provide more for your cats. If that is not helping enough, there are supplements, pheromones and diets to help reduce stress in your cat. If your veterinarian is not sure of how to approach this from a behavior point of view, my clinic takes referrals for behavior cases.

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