According to new research, feeding your overweight cat more frequent, small meals throughout the day could help increase his physical activity and ultimately help him to lose weight.
“I think veterinarians will be interested in this information because it gives them evidence to be able to recommend something to pet owners that could help with feline obesity and diabetes,” said study leader Kelly S. Swanson, PhD, associate professor of comparative animal nutrition in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois. The study was published in the February 2014 issue of the Journal of Animal Science.
Swanson stresses that cat owners must play an active role in helping their pets maintain a healthy weight. “When cats are allowed to feed [freely], it’s difficult to prevent obesity,” explains Swanson. “It is important to identify the right diet. Many owners are accustomed to dumping a pile of food out for multiple cats, just once per day. It all comes down to energy in and energy out. It’s very simple on paper, but it’s not that easy in real life — especially in a household where there is more than one pet.”
In the study, the researchers measured the physical activity of the cats between meals with special monitors attached to their collars. In one experiment, the cats were placed in one of four rooms: They were fed meals of dry kibble four times, twice or once daily, or were given meals randomly. While the cats all received the same total amount of food each day, those that were fed more frequently were fed smaller amounts at each meal.
Another experiment separated the cats into two rooms, where they were fed twice a day. The amount of food the cats ate was the same, but water was added to one group’s food an hour before feeding.
The cats were placed in individual cages during mealtime, and received little human contact during meals. The researchers assessed the cats’ activity two hours before they ate. In the first part of the experiment, the cats were more active before mealtime — particularly those who were fed four times per day and those fed a random number of meals each day. “If they know they are going to get fed, that’s when they are really active, if they can anticipate it,” explained Swanson.
Cats were even more physically active when they ate food with added water, according to the researchers. The biggest spike in activity was found after the cats ate. (Although it is still unclear why the cats had this surge in activity after eating, the researchers suggested use of the litter box could have played a role.)
“Because most pet foods are so digestible and nutrient dense, owners see that small bowl of food and think there’s no way they can survive on that — but they can,” said Swanson. “It is tricky because labels on pet food provide ranges for how much should be fed. If you’re feeding a cat, that food is supplied to thousands of cats with different metabolism. Some are spayed or neutered, and of different ages.”
Although many pet owners won’t be able to feed their cats up to four times a day, it can still be helpful to convert them from one meal a day to two or even three. Researchers concluded that another way for owners to help their cats lose weight is to add water to their dry food, giving them a greater sense of fullness. Another option is to alternate between wet and dry meals.