Cats change their eating behaviour when moved from free access to restricted feeding

* From our partners at International Cat Care

Limiting caloric intake is the basis of the standard approach to prevent obesity. Researchers investigated how cats’ feeding behaviour changes when they are switched from ad libitum (free access) to restricted feeding. One of the researchers reports on this study on the website of International Cat Care. Below, we’ve summarised the most important points from this piece, which you can also read in full here. If you’d rather check out the research paper yourself, then click here.

What were the main findings?

We could identify dramatic changes in cat’s feeding patterns when under caloric restriction.

While the control cats’ feeding behaviour remained unchanged throughout the trial, the study cats ate fewer but larger meals, came back faster to the food bowl after each meal, and ate their meals faster on the caloric restriction regimen compared to ad libitum feeding. However, one month after returning to ad libitum feeding, the study cats’ eating behaviours had returned to their baseline levels, showing that cats were able to readjust their feeding behaviours back to normal.

In addition, cat-cat conflict increased during meal anticipation when on the caloric restriction regimen but returned to normal with resumption of ad libitum feeding. Such conflicts consisted of avoidance of each other, one cat displacing another from a location by staring or approaching, lifting a paw in a threatening manner, (i.e., as if to swat the other cat with its paw) and some cats actually made contact with another when swatting with their paws. Thus, it looked like cats, just like us, are no strangers to the “hangry” (hungry + angry) feeling of hunger-driven irritability! Although no physical harm occurred during the study period, these interactions have the potential to impact negatively on the cats’ mental wellbeing and therefore welfare during the caloric restriction period, at least at actual feeding times. These cats were housed in an enriched manner that allowed them to distance themselves from one another using space and physical structures, allowing them to avoid further conflict. In addition, their welfare was continually monitored throughout the study by veterinary professionals.

You reported that in the few minutes before the first meal of the day there was an increase in tensions between the cats when their food was restricted – why might this be?

We indeed saw an increase in conflicts between cats just before the first meal of the day. It is likely linked to the higher food motivation/hunger of cats when calorie restricted: they have less calories to consume and they consume it faster, leading to a longer period without food between the last meal of a day and the first meal of the next day. This higher food motivation surely creates tensions when several cats approach the food bowls for the first serving of the day, leading to an increased likelihood of negative cat-cat interactions. This type of aggressive behaviour has been named “irritability aggression” in other scientific studies (Moesta and Crowell-Davis 2011, Beaver 2004). For humans, such hunger-driven irritability is often termed “hangry” in current slang (a combination of hungry and angry).

Was there anything that surprised you?

We had initially set a specific calorie allowance for the entire day, but cats then impulsively consumed most of their calorie intake in the first morning wet food serving. What was surprising was that it was true even for cats who were not wet food lovers. This led to reduced access to dry food for the rest of the day and overnight which was of course a welfare concern for us. To account for this impulsivity and ensure cats had food in the morning and afternoon we adjusted the calorie allowance rule.  This is probably a situation that pet owners face too if they don’t divide their dieting cat’s daily ration into multiple servings.

In addition, even if we expected to see some change in cats’ natural feeding patterns when on caloric restriction regimen, the size of the change surprised me. As an example, cats’ average meal consumption almost doubled when moving to caloric restriction. We should really empathise with cat owners as their cats’ behaviour on a diet changes in such dramatic ways that if they don’t have the right tools and tips they may just give up.

What would be your top tips from the results of your study and who would they be for?

My top tips would be mainly for cat owners who must limit their cat’s food intake.

They should leverage feeding strategies to help cats be less impulsive and maintain baseline feeding behaviour, by favouring multiple, smaller meals throughout the day such as for instance:

  • Dividing the total ration into multiple small meals over the course of the day (manually or using automated feeders)
  • Providing puzzle feeders that slow down eating while favouring activity and mental stimulation
  • Changing food location for the cat to engage in searching

Those tips, of course, can also be used by veterinarians to best advise their clients and encourage owner compliance to weight management programs and subsequent cat welfare.

I think the above-mentioned feeding strategies should not be limited to weight management programs. They can encourage a natural cat feeding pattern and provide cats with mental stimulation and physical activity opportunities. So, all cats could benefit!

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