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Cat feeding behaviours

Cats are unique and fascinating animals and it’s crucial that we understand them so we can provide our feline friends with the best possible care. What works for dogs won’t always work for cats in many areas, and one of these is feeding.

Domestic cats descended from the North African wildcat, so despite being wonderful companion animals they retain the instincts of their forebears when it comes to eating patterns. It’s important to be mindful of this when feeding your cat or kitten because whilst the traditional schedule of feeding two larger meals a day might suit us, it is unnatural for cats compared to their evolutionary behaviour and physiology.

Natural cat feeding behaviours

So what is the natural feeding pattern of cats? Our understanding of this is based on the behaviour of cats in their wild state.

Firstly, cats are ‘obligate carnivores’, which means they must have meat in their diets to survive. Secondly, cats are solitary hunters, which means they traditionally feed off smaller animals. Wild felines could spend up to 12 hours per day hunting, including at night when nocturnal prey is active. This has several implications for feeding your own cat – cats naturally eat small amounts frequently throughout a 24-hour period and eat their prey immediately after catching it, which means the food is at body temperature.

When cats in the wild hunt and feed, their behaviour is regulated by internal states (such as hunger) and environmental cues (such as the type of vegetation). It is not a social activity influenced by the presence of other cats. Cats develop strict individual routines for how they hunt and feed. In general, they are solitary eaters, so they prefer to eat alone although they will also share food with offspring. They also prefer to eat in a private, isolated area away from distractions. Free-ranging cats may ‘store’ any surplus food by burying it in dry leaves or dirt. This may explain some of the feeding behaviours in domestic cats, such as chasing small animals or ‘digging’ around their food bowl after a meal.

General mealtime guidelines for cats

Feeding your cat or kitten should provide them opportunities to mimic these natural eating behaviours. The way most domestic cats are fed, with large meals twice a day in the same bowl and location, may not always be ideal. Without the opportunity to seek out food, which requires mental and physical exertion, cats are at risk of boredom, frustration, stress and even obesity. Cats can be finicky eaters, so the RSPCA feeds and actively recommends Royal Canin as they go to great lengths to provide high-quality, balanced nutrition for kittens and adults cats alike.

Obesity is a major welfare problem in domestic cats and can lead to serious illnesses including diabetes and urinary tract problems, which are both common reasons why cats have to visit the vet. Being fed twice a day leaves cats with nothing to eat for the rest of the 24-hour period, so they may compensate by eating more than they feel comfortable with. A related issue with current feeding methods is that the tastiness and ease of eating commercial cat food encourages overeating and weight gain.

Common problems regarding cat feeding

Another common problem is when mealtimes are unpredictable, which can cause stress-related behaviours in cats such as hiding, reduced exploration or toileting outside their litter box. Cats also experience stress when fed with other cats in a multi-cat household due to competition and conflict, and they may respond by gorging and overeating their food. Importantly, many owners may encourage their cats to eat unnecessarily by offering treats too frequently, however it is common for cats to reject these.

The good news is that once you understand how cats naturally eat, you can introduce the following strategies to meet your cat’s behavioural and nutritional needs. This is based on a feeding plan called the ‘Five-a-Day Felix’ plan developed for International Cat Care by feline veterinary experts:

  • Introduce a variety of puzzle feeders (which may include timed feeders) for several of your cat’s food portions. These can hold dry or wet food and will encourage your cat to use their hunting skills by manipulating the puzzles to release food. Puzzle feeders have been shown to assist with weight loss and to reduce signs of stress, aggression, fearfulness, attention seeking behaviours and inappropriate toileting in cats.
  • Change the location of feeding spots and include some vertical locations to encourage exploratory behaviour and exercise.
  • Keep track of your cat’s weight and body condition.
  • Provide all cats in the household with their own puzzle feeder and feed in separate locations.
  • Feed your cat a balanced diet including a mixture of wet and dry foods.
  • Include multiple water stations with daily fresh water around the house, using shallow bowls and keeping these separate from feeding areas.

Remember that it’s normal for your cat to eat a small amount and return to their food later on. Consult your veterinarian if you feel concerned about whether your cat is eating enough or if you notice that your cat is over or under their ideal weight. Regular vet checks will assist you to monitor this. And rather than giving treats, find other ways to engage with your cat, such as by playing games, grooming, training sessions or encouraging exercises your cat will enjoy.

General guidelines for healthy eating habits and amounts

The best way to establish a healthy diet is to consult your veterinarian, as every cat is an individual and his or her needs will vary according to age, general health and pregnancy status. Your veterinarian will advise you about your cat’s daily energy requirements in kcal per kilogram based on their current weight, lifestyle and activity level. You can then break this down into smaller portions over the 24-hour period of feeding.

RSPCA Australia has produced a general guideline on what you should feed your cat. The most important points are to ensure a balanced diet with a mixture of wet and dry foods, safe guidelines for feeding bones and foods to avoid. Make sure to follow the instructions on food packaging regarding the quantity to feed your cat according to their weight and use scales to measure dry food. Cat feeding behaviours are strongly instinctual but are also determined by what they ate as kittens, so veterinarians now advise that kittens be introduced to a variety of foods of different flavours, sizes, textures and shapes. This is important to prevent picky eating as adults and makes it easier to change diets should this be required for medical or other reasons.

Strengthen the bond with your cat

Learning to understand your cat better in all ways will bring you and your furry friend many rewards. When it comes to feeding, an approach that allows your cat to engage in natural behaviours will reduce their risk of stress-related problems and obesity. It can also strengthen the bond you share and has been shown to reduce the relinquishment of cats, so widespread adoption of these strategies would be a positive step for feline welfare. Remember to always consult your veterinarian if you have any concerns or questions about your cat’s feeding, weight or general health.

Having pet insurance is a great way to help ensure your cat will receive veterinary treatment as needed by contributing toward your eligible veterinary bills. With RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first-year premiums helps support the RSPCA.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.