How to Feed a Cat–Naturally

How cats eat plays a pivotal role in their day-to-day satisfaction with life. Here’s what to know about letting them eat the way nature intended.

The cat hears the rustle of grass and the ultrasonic squeak that tells her there’s a mouse nearby. Her ears swivel to home in on the location of her prey. Keeping low to conceal her position, she silently creeps up on the mouse, calculating where she needs to be for one swift pounce to land her in exactly the right spot for an instant kill. When the moment is right, she pounces, firmly biting the mouse behind the neck; a swift shake and it’s dispatched. She’ll spend a few minutes eating, then groom, rest, and get ready to hunt again.

Free-roaming cats spend anywhere from 15 to 46 percent of their day seeking, stalking, and killing prey. An average mouse is only about 30 calories, so they need to eat about ten a day. In up to half of their hunting trips, the mouse gets away, so that means a cat may have to hunt 20 times in a day just to feed herself.

This natural pattern of small, frequent meals, preceded by bursts of intense activity, is very different from the way our pet cats eat: often two large meals a day, always offered in the same place, and, in a multicat household, typically fed right next to all the other cats.

New advice on feeding cats

How you feed your cat is as important as what you feed him, according to a new Consensus Statement from the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). The statement looks at how cats eat naturally, the medical and behavioral problems that can arise when we don’t consider their natural behaviors, and what we can do to facilitate more natural ways of feeding.

Feeding cats in a way that is so unlike their natural behaviors can lead to a lot of problems. One of the biggest is obesity. Putting down one or two meals in a dish means the cat doesn’t have to be active at all to eat. Eating cat food—wet or dry—also means the cat doesn’t have to tear and rip up her food, so she’s making a lot less effort to eat than she would naturally. And if she’s eating canned food exclusively—or a raw or home-cooked diet—she’s not even really chewing. Calories are going in, but they’re not being burned.

We like to think cats won’t overeat, but boredom—no work to do to find or eat food—can result in overeating, when cats eat just because they have nothing else to do. There’s another reason, too, that cats might eat when they’re not hungry: In nature, animals never know where their next meal is coming from, so they’re hardwired to eat food whenever they find it.

The AAFP statement says, “The goal of a feeding program should be to mimic the cat’s natural feeding behavior.” How do we do that? The first recommendation is puzzle feeders. These are toys that require a cat to figure out how to get food out of the feeder and then physically manipulate it to release the food. Working out a problem, followed by a burst of physical activity, sound a lot like the hunting scenario at the start of this post. Nothing could be more natural and more satisfying for a cat.

Make eating fun and challenging

There are puzzle feeders for wet food and dry food, types you can buy, and types you can make yourself out of items you pull from your recycling bin (check out Food Puzzles for Cats). The AAFP statement recommends mixing up puzzle types so the task remains challenging

They also recommend feeding frequent small meals. You can do this using timed feeders or by hiding puzzle toys or small amounts of food in different places around your home to mimic natural hunting and foraging behaviors and space out the time between meals.

Slow food, safe food

We cat caregivers sometimes see our cats snarf down a huge meal and then throw it right back up. That’s a cat eating too much too fast. Smaller, more frequent meals can help with this problem, and puzzle toys force a cat to pause between bites to get more food.

Why would a cat eat so fast when we keep the food coming? The presence of other cats can cause a cat to eat too fast. Free-roaming cats eat very small prey, and it’s not big enough to share, so they hunt and eat alone. In a multi-cat household, being forced to eat near other cats can be stressful, even if dishes are spaced well apart in the same room.

To avoid a stressful encounter with another cat, a dog, a toddler, or any member of the household, a cat might gorge just because he’s in a hurry to return to a safe place. Then he ends up vomiting. For some cats, this means they don’t get enough food.

It’s also important to remember that just because a cat eats willingly or seems to calmly step back and let another cat take his food doesn’t mean he isn’t stressed about the situation.

Each cat in the household needs a private place to eat and drink water, in a spot where they feel comfortable hanging out and where they don’t have to cross into another cat’s core area. Think about which cats spend time together and which cats actively avoid each other and plan your feeding stations accordingly.

If the cat can climb up, feeding her in an elevated space adds a sense of security: No dogs or humans can do a run-by while she’s eating, and she’ll see another cat coming from across the room.

The AAFP statement also reminds us that neutered cats and indoor cats need fewer calories than intact cats who hunt for a living. They urge cat caregivers to work with their veterinarian to figure out how many calories a day is right for each cat. If your vet decides your cat needs to lose some weight, frequent small meals are especially important so she doesn’t feel anxious, hungry, and deprived.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.