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A Fun and Easy Way to Eliminate Common Bad Behaviors in Cats

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dr. Liz Bales is a veterinarian with an extraordinary commitment to improving the lives of cats all over the world
  • Felines and humans couldn’t be more different, which is why most cat parents don’t fully understand what their pet needs most from them
  • To be optimally emotionally and physically healthy, indoor cats need daily opportunities to practice their innate feeding behavior, which is to hunt-catch-play-eat small, frequent meals
  • Dr. Bales invented the Indoor Hunting Feeder to make it easy for cat guardians to provide kitties with a way to hunt-catch-play-eat
  • Individual cat owners as well as shelters have given her very rewarding feedback on the tremendous difference the feeders make in kitties’ lives

Today I’m very excited to talk with Dr. Liz Bales, who developed one of my most favorite creations for cats — Doc & Phoebe’s Indoor Hunting Feeder — which we’ll get to shortly.

Dr. Bales is a fellow veterinarian. She started out as a horse vet, but quickly switched to her real love, feline medicine. She was fascinated by the way in which behavior and health are so tightly linked in cats, and was also very interested in how kitties fare during veterinary clinics.

So THIS Is Why Our Cats Are Such a Mystery to Us!

Dr. Bales was way ahead of her time in understanding that the way cats have traditionally been handled at veterinary clinics has the potential to inflict long-term emotional damage. Fortunately, over the last decade or so, the veterinary community has recognized the desperate need for fear-free and low-stress handling of animal patients, especially cats.

“I really endeavored to learn as much as I could about feline behavior,” Dr. Bales explains. “I wanted to know about their emotional lives and what instincts drive their behavior. I wanted to know how we could make a better connection with cats both at home and during vet visits.

What I found is that humans and cats are very different in how we approach the world. Humans are pack animals. We’re low-frequency, high-intensity interactors. We’re hunter-gatherers. Cats are solitary hunters. They’re high-frequency, low-intensity interactors. We’re pretty much opposites in terms of our instincts. We don’t really get cats because we don’t naturally live the way they naturally live.

When we treat them like they’re our babies because we love them so much, we’re kind of doing exactly the wrong thing even though our intentions are good. So we’re causing our own problems in our relationships with cats. When I learned that, I wanted to help fix it. Cat parents are very devoted and want to do the very best for their pets. I wanted to figure out how to communicate what I knew in a way that wouldn’t make them feel guilty or bad for mishandling things.”

The Way Most Cats Are Fed Eliminates 3 of 4 Natural Feline Behaviors

When it comes to the best way to feed kitties, Dr. Bales believes that how we feed our cats is every bit as important as what we feed them. Cats are solitary hunters who naturally play with their prey before eating it. They follow a hunt-catch-play-eat cycle that is very important to their metabolic health, their emotional health and all facets of their well-being.

Just this month, the American Association of Feline Practitioners released a consensus statement saying that a cat’s emotional health requires that they get to enact their hunting behavior at mealtime.

A cat’s stomach is the size of a ping-pong ball. A portion of food for a cat is a mouse, and the edible portions of a mouse are between 1 and 2 tablespoons. Dr. Bales believes kitties should be eating that amount of food many times a day versus meals or free-feeding from a bowl.

Dr. Bales thinks this is a primary source of our misunderstanding about what cats need from us. She would like to get research funded to look at how feline feeding behavior affects their overall health. If you remove hunt-catch-play from their natural feeding cycle and just give them food to eat, how much are they missing and what’s the short and long-term impact?

“Cats are crepuscular hunters,” Dr. Bales explains, “meaning they hunt opportunistically. In the wild, 80 percent of their waking hours are spent hunting, mostly at dawn and dusk. Feeding our own cats at dusk tends to work with most people’s schedules, but the dawn thing, not so much. We can either work with nature or against it. If we give our kitties a way to hunt in the morning, we get to sleep.”

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From Inspiration to Invention

I asked Dr. Bales to talk about what types of cat patients prompted her to design her feeding system. Was it her obese patients, or perhaps bored kitties?

Dr. Bales says that in her practice she sees every type of kitty. There are the chronic vomiters, cats who pee outside the litterbox, obese and lethargic kitties, cats with dandruff and skin disorders, and more. She quickly realized she didn’t have all the tools she needed to help every cat.

Then a few years ago she attended a feline internal medicine and behavior conference, and at the end of the three days, a lecturer said something that upset her deeply. What the lecturer told the audience of 150 cat vets, all of whom were just as surprised to learn it as Dr. Bales, is that the No. 1 cause of death for cats is euthanasia. Cats with behavior problems wind up in shelters, don’t get rehomed and are euthanized.

Dr. Bales thought to herself, “Wait a minute. I’m not treating the [No. 1] cause of death for my patients. None of us are. Why isn’t some veterinary organization fixing this? Well, I think I’m going to fix this.”

On the two-hour drive home from the conference, Dr. Bales invented her Indoor Hunting Feeder in her mind. She thought about the natural feeding behaviors of cats. She thought about the shape of prey. She wanted something kitties would be able to fully interact with and use their teeth and claws to carry around.

She wanted to be able to put it in different locations, because mice don’t hang out in the same spot every day. And she wanted it to be safe and easy for people to use.

“It’s also very important to think about what cats don’t like,” Dr. Bales explains. “Some cats really don’t like things that move or make noise. What should I leave out that might be fun for people and seem exciting for people, but that could really turn some cats off? And then how can I make it into a system where I can train people and their cats to use it in a way that really gives us a chance to change the way we feed cats around the world?”

As soon as she arrived home, Dr. Bales sat down and started sketching a design for the feeder she envisioned.

The Indoor Hunting Feeder

That car ride was almost exactly four years ago. It took about a year to get the design right for the dry food feeder. Dr. Bales is currently working on a wet food feeder that she hopes to have ready in the near future. In case you’re having trouble visualizing this awesome little gadget or how cats interact with it, here’s a quick video:

You load the food into the feeder. The feeder is dishwasher-safe, the “mouse skin” can be washed in your clothes washer, and the whole feeder is toxin-free. I’ve actually used the dry feeder for raw, dehydrated and freeze-fried cat food with no problem. I especially like using it with rambunctious kittens who have tons of energy to burn.

I put the feeder in closets, up on shelves and other places so they have to really hunt for it. Dr. Bales offers a pro tip: put the feeder in a shoebox, put the lid on the shoebox and hide it. She’s also heard from people who are doing hacks to the feeder. One cat parent put a magnet in the nose so it could be stuck to certain surfaces around the house.

You can also use the drawstring “tail” to hang or dangle the feeder from, say, a doorknob, sort of like a kitty piñata. “I do get a little concerned with the safety of it when it’s hanging,” says Dr. Bales, “I worry that a paw could get hung up in there, so I only dangle it if I’m going to be home.”

Indoor Hunting Feeder Works for Fat, Feisty and Frazzled Cats, as Well as Kitties Who Are Just Plain Bored

Another thing I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see is how quickly very obese cats start to engage with the feeder and bat it around.

“The obese cat is really one of the most interesting,” says Dr. Bales. “I’ve been lecturing around the world about these cats. What I’ve learned from leading behaviorists is if cats aren’t able to act on their natural instincts — if they’re not playing or active — it’s cause for concern. The opinion of the world’s leading cat behaviorist is that those cats are shut down. If they were humans, they would lie on the sofa weeping all day.

You have to be patient as you try to get them moving again. For example, first put the feeder where the food bowl was, then move it behind the table leg next to where the bowl was, and so on. But what’s so exciting is hearing from owners that a month, six weeks or two months down the road, not only are these kitties now hunting for their food and losing weight, but they’re also playing with toys again. They remember what it means to be a cat again!”

I’ve also seen improvement in intercat aggression in multi-cat households when the feeders are used. Cats want to hunt and eat alone, and when we feed them from the same bowl or in the same space at the same time, we’re interfering with their natural preference in a multitude of ways.

We’re interfering with the hunt-catch-play-eat cycle, and we’re also forcing communal dining, which is incredibly stressful for felines. A stressed cat will sometimes pee outside the litterbox, which to humans seems unrelated to feeding behavior, when in reality it can be directly related to the cat’s eating situation.

There are cat experts who believe kitties that habitually knock things off counters and shelves are combating mind-numbing boredom by creating a little excitement in their environment.

“The best day in your cat’s life shouldn’t be that day a cricket or spider got in the house and she hunted it,” says Dr. Bales. “You can do this. It’s not hard. Just give your cat a way to hunt for her food. You can combine her need to eat with an eating cycle that’s emotionally fulfilling, suits her natural instincts, and provides mental engagement.”

Shelter Cats With Hunting Feeders Stay Healthier and Get Adopted Faster

I think Dr. Bales’ invention is all about natural wisdom and common sense. It’s a simple concept, but it can literally change a cat’s life emotionally, mentally and physically.

“I think, because humans and cats are so different from one another, it’s difficult to grasp how much our cats are suffering, and it took me awhile to deeply understand it,” Dr. Bales replied. “We’re not doing it intentionally. There’s just a lack of information available to the average cat owner, of just how important hunting and an enriched environment are.

Because cats are solitary creatures, they don’t show their emotions. Often, we don’t even know a cat’s sick until it’s very sick. They’re not great at telling us what they need. To think that we have an entire population of cats living in homes, not just in the U.S. but around the world, who are suffering emotionally from a lack of having their needs met breaks my heart. And it’s easy to fix.”

Dr. Bales is thrilled because she’s starting to work with organizations such as the National Animal Welfare Trust (NAWT) of the U.K., the Utah Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). These organizations are feeding the cats in their shelters with her hunting feeders.

Instead of sitting terrified or numb in their cages all day, the kitties get to interact and express their natural instincts even though they’re confined. They’re getting adopted more quickly, and dealing with less upper respiratory disease. If you want to learn more about Dr. Bales’ Indoor Hunting Feeder, you can find it at DocandPhoebe.com. Or you can just do a search for mouse-shaped cat feeder. Phoebe is Dr. Bales’ partner and the unsung hero of the operation who prefers to stay behind the scenes.

Obviously, Dr. Bales is the “Doc” behind Doc & Phoebe’s Cat Company, and I’m so grateful she decided to create something to improve the emotional and physical health of kitties. She’s making an enormous difference in the lives of cats all over the world, and I can’t thank her enough!