My cat used to be obese. With my veterinarian's help, I was able to get her to a normal weight. But now she has turned into a glutton! She inhales her food in seconds and then patrols the house looking for anything that resembles food. What should I do about her eating habits?
Today's cat foods are designed to be exceptionally delicious or palatable. High palatability increases the likelihood that the cat will eat the food, and that translates into more sales for the pet food company.
The good news about highly palatable cat food is that almost any formulation will be eaten by your cat. The down side of high palatability is that many cats will consume more food than they need if free-fed. This leads to excessive weight and obesity. Meal feeding with portion control is a critical step to preventing overeating, excessive weight gain, and obesity in cats.
Once a cat becomes overweight or obese, he has had the opportunity to develop a habit of overeating. Subsequent weight loss requires strict portion control which is quite different from the eating pattern that led to obesity. It is no surprise then to witness food inhalation, 'counter surfing', and constant begging.
What can I do to change my cat's eating habits?
There are many ways to cope with your cat who has become a glutton. Step one is understanding that cats will repeat behavior that gets rewarded. If they beg for food and we give in and feed them something, they learn that if they beg, they will get something to eat. As hard as it may be to resist those big dreamy cat eyes, it is worth not giving in. Instead, engage your cat in a play session with her favorite toy. Cats will eat out of boredom and often when they give us the ‘hungry eyes’, they are just seeking our attention – but they will take a treat if offered. Who wouldn’t?
If the habit of begging and feeding is already in place, there are two alternatives. Cats learn our habits and patterns, and one common linkage in begging behavior is begging during family meal preparation. One option is to have the cat situated someplace in the house away from food preparation and mealtime. She can remain in another part of the house behind a closed door until the meal is over and the coast is clear.
Option two for reducing a cat's tendency for gluttony is to provide a larger volume of food at each meal, and additional snacks throughout the day. This sounds counter-intuitive, but the extra volume should be made up of appropriate water-based vegetables. Your veterinarian can help you decide what might work best for your cat. The most commonly recommended snack veggies are green beans, broccoli, and cauliflower. Be sure to ask your veterinarian if any of these are not appropriate choices for your cat due to their calcium content. Another snack alternative is air-popped popcorn, with no butter or salt. There are also some prescription diets that are designed to make cats feel more full after eating.
"You can slow down food inhalers by using interactive food toys."
Finally, you can slow down food inhalers by using interactive food toys. These can be high or low tech depending on your preferences. Here are some ideas:
- One low-tech option is to use a muffin tin and place pieces of the cat's kibble, or bites of his canned food, into each muffin holder.
- Divide the cat's meal into several small portions and hide them in different places around the house. This allows the cat to hunt for his supper.
- Use an interactive food toy that releases a few kibbles at a time as the cat moves or rolls the toy around.
- Use a timed feeder that releases or presents a portion of the daily food ration at pre-arranged times or pre-timed intervals. However, be careful using a timed feeder with some cats, as they may grow impatient and simply work to pop open the food dispenser. Timed feeders can be very useful for those cats that like to wake their owner up in the morning. You can set the feeder for an early morning snack and be able to sleep a little later!
It may take some work, but it is worth the effort to reframe the eating experience for cats that have become gluttonous food inhalers. It will take patience, but cats can learn new tricks, and how to eat appropriately is something they can - and should - learn!