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The Worst - and Best - Way to Feed a Chunky Kitty

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to reduce cat size

Story at-a-glance -

  • If your cat is overweight or obese and you’re looking for ways to help him slim down, an automatic feeder is probably not the answer
  • Automatic feeders require the use of kibble, which is the last thing too-heavy kitties should be eating
  • Instead, consider a very different type of feeder that triggers your cat’s natural feeding behaviors and gets him moving at the same time
  • When helping your cat lose weight, it’s important to know his daily calorie requirement and just as important is very slow, gradual weight loss — especially in kitties who are significantly overweight/obese

Occasionally I get questions from pet parents with overweight or obese cats about whether automatic feeders are beneficial in helping kitties lose weight. The theory behind this approach is that the feeders can be programmed to dispense small amounts of food several times a day, which is more aligned with the natural behaviors of felines.

A growing body of research suggests that allowing indoor cats to express normal feeding behaviors such as hunting and stalking prey and eating frequent small meals in solitude is very important in maintaining their overall health and wellbeing.

However, the problem with all the automatic feeders currently on the market is they can only be used with food that doesn’t spoil at room temperature, which means kibble. I have found a couple of automatic feeders that accommodate some brands of freeze-dried food, but I don’t recommend them as you can’t rehydrate the food as intended, which leads to the same kidney stress, long term, as all dry foods do.

Since in my opinion the pet obesity epidemic is a direct result of dry pet food — and since kibble has so many other issues — I don’t recommend feeding it to pets, and especially cats.

A Better Option: A Feeder That Triggers Your Cat’s Natural Hunt-Catch-Play-Eat Behaviors

In addition to the kibble-only problem, automatic feeders don’t adequately address other natural feline behaviors. Cats naturally play with their prey before eating it. They follow a hunt-catch-play-eat cycle that’s very important to their metabolic health, their emotional health and all facets of their well-being.

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. Ideally, indoor kitties should be eating that amount of food several times a day vs. one or two big meals or worst of all, free-feeding from a bowl.

My fellow veterinarian and feline enthusiast Dr. Liz Bales created an ingenious gadget, the Indoor Hunting Feeder that accommodates all types of cat food and encourages kitties to follow their natural 4-part feeding cycle. 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 prey (typically 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 explained in our 2018 interview. “Some cats really don’t like things that move or make noise. So, I asked myself ‘What should I leave out that might be fun and exciting for people, but that could really turn some cats off?’ And then I had to figure out how 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.”

The feeder has a shell you load the food into. Then you put the shell into the “mouse skin.” The shell is dishwasher-safe and the whole feeder is toxin-free. If you’re worried your kitty’s fresh or raw food will spoil before she eats it all, consider putting those foods in her feeder only when you’ll be home long enough for her to finish it.

I put the feeders in closets, up on shelves, and other places so cats have to really hunt for them. Dr. Bales also 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 Feeders Work for Not Only Fat Cats, but Feisty, Frazzled and Bored Kitties as Well

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see is how quickly even 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.”

To figure out how many calories your cat needs per day to maintain his ideal body weight, use the formula found in this article. His metabolism determines how well his body uses the calories he consumes. Generally speaking, cats who are significantly overweight or obese burn almost nothing through activity and therefore require very few calories in very small portions.

Very Important: Cats MUST Lose Weight Slowly and Safely

It’s extremely important that you diet your cat slowly. I recommend weighing her every week until she reaches her ideal body weight. Once that’s accomplished, you can weigh her every four to six months to ensure that she’s staying at her new healthy weight. And keep in mind that weight gain in cats happens in 1- and 2-ounce increments over time, so you must stay very firm on holding her at her ideal body weight.

If your cat is obese, she’ll need to lose no more than ½ pound a month, because overweight kitties are prone to a very serious condition called hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease. This condition never happens in nature, because animals in the wild never become obese. Captivity has created some really strange metabolic diseases in animals, and fatty liver disease in felines is one of them.

As an obese cat’s body senses weight being lost, it begins to mobilize accumulated stores of fat very rapidly. If weight loss occurs too quickly in an obese cat, the flood of fat can overwhelm the liver and shut it down. Very overweight cats are more prone to this life-threatening condition because their percentage of body fat is so high. If your cat is only mildly overweight, she can probably safely lose up to 1 pound a month.

What’s important is that your cat’s weight goes down and not up. But her weight loss should progress very slowly and steadily over time. You should see measurable weight loss every month, but some kitties should lose weight much more slowly than I’ve outlined here, due to existing medical issues, like diabetes or other chronic conditions.

Be sure to work with your veterinarian to determine a safe, healthy amount of weight loss for your individual cat, and the rate at which the weight loss should occur. It’s also very important not to change your cat’s food while she’s dieting. If she rejects a new food and won’t eat, it can trigger a whole host of metabolic problems, including fatty liver disease.

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