Grubs up! Find out why little and often suits most cats – and the reason why play should be part of your feeding routine…

How often should you feed your cat? Once a day? Twice a day? Or, more than that? According to feline experts, feeding frequent small meals is more beneficial to the welfare of cats. Members of the International Cat Care veterinary community and Feline Wellbeing Panel have gathered together compelling evidence as to why feeding cats little and often is the
Featured image for Grubs up! Find out why little and often suits most cats – and the reason why play should be part of your feeding routine…
6th August 2021

How often should you feed your cat?

Once a day? Twice a day? Or, more than that? According to feline experts, feeding frequent small meals is more beneficial to the welfare of cats.

Members of the International Cat Care veterinary community and Feline Wellbeing Panel have gathered together compelling evidence as to why feeding cats little and often is the best approach. The team looked at several considerations, using findings from previous scientific studies, and came to some very interesting conclusions.

The experts found that that more frequent feeding encourages cats to be more active, exhibit more natural behaviours, thereby improving their mental wellbeing, and allowed for more positive interactions between cats and their owners, building a strong feline-human bond. Here’s what the experts discovered:

Consideration No. 1: Naturally, cats prefer to eat several small meals a day

For nearly 50 years, several scientific studies have provided evidence that when given free access to food, cats naturally ingest several small meals per day

Consideration No. 2: Feeding time, and mainly its anticipation, is a major factor of cat activity

Several studies provided evidence that going from one meal a day to several meals a day, increased physical activity. Feral cats or individuals with outdoor access spend a lot of time and energy on predatory behaviour including searching and attempting to capture prey

Consideration No. 3: Cats seem to associate their water intake with their food intake

Because of their propensity to drink little, from both a general hydration and more specifically the urinary health perspective, splitting the daily food ration into multiple small meals may be beneficial

Consideration No. 4: A higher meal frequency helps build and maintain a better cat-human relationship by increasing the positive interactions between cats and humans

The meal can be a privileged time between a cat and its owner. Giving food can initiate a relationship between a cat and a human. Perhaps unsurprisingly, humans that give food regularly are preferred by outdoor cats and food givers are also perceived to be preferred by the cat in a home setting. Cats also exhibit anticipatory behaviours such as begging, meowing, seeking owner’s attention. Feeding time can be considered a moment of communication with their cat and behaviours around feeding helps the building of the cat owner relationship. Therefore, a higher feeding frequency may strengthen the bond between cat and owner, offering more opportunities to interact

Consideration No. 5: A higher meal frequency gives the cat opportunities to show natural behaviours; decreases frustration and thus improve the cat’s mental wellbeing

Feeding can be an opportunity to provide mental stimulation, which is especially important for indoor cats. Here, smaller meals and plenty of opportunities to work for food must be favoured, and in multi-cat households, restrictions around feeding can lead to frustration and associated behaviours such as antagonistic interactions between feline members of the household by increasing competition between them

iCatCare states: “Being fed in a bowl in the same location every day removes the mental and physical stimulation that cats would have whilst hunting. A lack of opportunity for cats to interact with the environment can lead to boredom, which may develop into apathy or anxiety and can lead to the development of problem behaviour.”  

Making feeding time a fun and stimulating experience

The charity recommends taking a more creative approach to feeding, explaining it like this: “Wild living cats spend about 70% of their daily activities on feeding-related behaviours. They’ll hunt no matter how well-fed they are, because less than 50% of attempts to catch prey are successful. Their natural prey is limited to what they can catch alone, which tends to be small rodents. Each small rodent typically provides about 8% of their calorific needs, so they eat small but frequent meals. Modern domestic cats have hardly changed in appearance or behaviour from their early ancestors. The way that some pet cats live, and how they obtain and consume food, isn’t representative of how they would naturally do so. Obtaining food, the activity that they’d normally dedicate so much of their day to, is done for them and taken out of their control, and this can negatively impact their welfare.”

iCatCare has a whole host of suggestions for making feeding time a much more fun and stimulating experience for your cat, including:

  • Toys – The way that cats play is similar to how they hunt, and this can be used to help them expend energy, have fun and be mentally stimulated when feeding. Playing with a wand toy in a ‘mouse- like’ way, or flicking a lightweight rolling toy or paper ball, and then ending the game with a ‘kill’, such as a food puzzle toy (see below), can be fun and provide exercise and mental stimulation
  • Puzzle feeders – These are a great way to for cats to receive food in a way that promotes physical activity and problem solving. There are a huge range of different puzzle feeders that can be bought or made at home easily and cheaply. They can be as simple as a small amount of dry food wrapped up in a piece of paper that the cat can work out how to get into, or a simple hide-and-seek game. Even the most basic of these give cats more stimulation than eating from a bowl
  • Variety – Changing up where and how they’re fed allows cats to use different physical and cognitive skills. For example, puzzles that encourage use of the nose or paws, and to push, pull and rip, can mirror the variety of skills they need to catch prey whilst hunting
  • Technology – Automated feeding systems can be set to a timer that dispense food several times a day when an owner isn’t around to do so. There are also feeders available which have microchip access and are connected to apps that help you to keep an eye on their feeding habits

The charity adds: “Many of the techniques involving creative feeding are an opportunity to interact with your cat in a way that’s fun for both parties and they can help cats to remain happy and healthy.”

More playtime and a meaty diet can reduce hunting behaviours in pet cats

If you find the little ‘presents’ your favourite feline brings home one of the toughest parts of being a cat guardian, then you’ll be intrigued by some new research.

A study by the University of Exeter found that introducing a premium commercial food where proteins came from meat reduced the number of prey animals cats brought home by 36%, and also that five to 10 minutes of daily play with an owner resulted in a 25% reduction.

“Previous research in this area has focused on inhibiting cats' ability to hunt, either by keeping them indoors or fitting them with collars, devices and deterrents,” said Professor Robbie McDonald, of Exeter's Environment and Sustainability Institute. “While keeping cats indoors is the only sure-fire way to prevent hunting, some owners are worried about the welfare implications of restricting their cat's outdoor access. Our study shows that using entirely non-invasive, non-restrictive methods, owners can change what the cats themselves want to do. By playing with cats and changing their diets, owners can reduce their impact on wildlife without restricting their freedom.”

Stalk, chase, pounce, and play

Play in the study involved owners simulating hunting by moving a feather toy on a string and wand so cats could stalk, chase, and pounce. Owners also gave cats a toy mouse to play with after each ‘hunt,’ mimicking a real kill. “Some cat foods contain protein from plant sources such as soy, and it is possible that despite forming a 'complete diet' these foods leave some cats deficient in one or more micronutrients, prompting them to hunt,” said Martina Cecchetti, the PhD student who conducted the experiments.

Dr Sarah Ellis, Head of Cat Advocacy at iCatCare, which is part of the advisory group for this research project, said: “We are really encouraged by the findings of this study. While many cat owners are wildlife lovers and find the killing and injuring of wild animals by their cats upsetting, many owners also feel that keeping their cats indoors or restricting their outdoor access would impact negatively on their cats' quality of life. At iCatCare, we are particularly excited about the positive effects of play – this is an activity that owners can easily introduce at no or little cost, takes little time and is very cat-friendly. The mental and physical stimulation of predatory-like play are likely to help keep a cat in tip top condition and provide an appropriate behavioural outlet for its predatory behaviours.”

Is your cat a Burgess cat? Join the Burgess Pet Club for exclusive offers and rewards.

At Burgess, all our cat food is made using premium ingredients and is high in protein, to ensure excellent quality and superior taste to help keep your cat happy and healthy – from kitten, to adult and mature

What’s in our recipes?

  • Advanced Protein– High in protein for natural carnivores
  • Heart Health– Taurine helps support a healthy heart
  • Skin & Coat– Omega fatty acids support healthy skin and a glossy coat
  • Digestive Comfort– Prebiotics support beneficial gut bacteria
  • Immune Protection– Contains antioxidants to support your cat’s immune system
  • Dental Defence Technology– To reduce plaque formation and support healthy teeth and gums

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