Visiting Vet: Taking the hunt to your indoor cat

There’s a little math, but only a little.

An indoor cat still has a drive to hunt, even when not hungry. — Dorothea Oldani

When I was a child, my family had cats. There were Puss, Eloise, Gorilla, and Stinky. There were Pywacket, Farfel, and Nobody, and others whose names elude me at the moment. We lived on a dead-end road with little traffic. Behind our house was a small “forest” and a few vacant lots we called “the desert,” where we hunted for mica in summer and went sledding in winter. The cats went in and out at will, getting plenty of exercise and fresh air, just like us kids. Feeding was simple. A bottomless bowl of “cat chow” on the counter. A portion of canned wet food twice daily — more often if one of the clowder was particularly insistent. None of the cats were overweight. None had behavioral problems like overgrooming or inappropriate urination.

Back then, we didn’t think about the impact outside cats have on wild bird populations, nor did we consider much the dangers the great outdoors poses for the felines themselves. But times have changed. Many animal organizations and wildlife conservation groups advise keeping all cats indoors. Indoor cats are safe from contracting most infectious diseases. They don’t get hit by cars or become dinner for coyotes. They don’t kill wild birds. But indoor cats are at risk for obesity, as well as other issues related to lack of exercise and entertainment. Obese cats have a higher incidence of diabetes, constipation, joint disease, and behavioral issues than cats with healthy body weights. They often have poorer quality of life and reduced life span. Since it is easier to prevent obesity than it is to get a fat cat to lose weight, let’s talk about feeding indoor cats. 

In the wild, cats live by hunting small prey. Their natural diet thus consists of little packets of protein and fat, with minimal carbohydrates, which they consume in eight to 16 mouse-size meals daily. They get exercise and mental stimulation by hunting, catching their calories one morsel at a time. The instinct to hunt is strong, even when not hungry. Since not every attempt is successful, this drive to hunt improves wild cats’ odds of getting enough food. Now imagine a theoretical cat named Artemis, an average young adult weighing around nine pounds. Since science likes the metric system, let’s call her four kilograms. Assume she’s spayed, and currently a healthy weight. Imagine Artemis is an indoor cat. She doesn’t have a job. She has nothing to hunt other than the occasional spider or dust bunny, but her body still tells her to eat 16 times a day, just in case. On one hand, feeding just two meals daily is unnatural. On the other hand, feeding “ad libitum” may lead to obesity, especially when combined with a sedentary lifestyle. To be proactive in preventing obesity, we start by determining Arty’s appropriate baseline caloric intake. You can find this info online, or consult your veterinarian. Her daily recommended caloric intake is around 234 calories per day, to be adjusted up or down after monitoring Arty’s body weight over time. 

Now let’s pick what food(s) to feed. Unlike dogs, who can safely be fed a vegetarian diet (if prepared carefully with the guidance of veterinary nutritionists), cats are “obligate carnivores.” This means they must eat meat. Her natural diet is primarily protein and fat, with very little carbohydrates. Many veterinary endocrinologists advise feeding only canned food to indoor cats. Dry cat foods are higher in carbs and lower in protein than canned. Discuss these choices with your veterinarian. If Arty has no major medical issues, I generally go with a combination of wet and dry. Some veterinarians feel feeding fish-flavored foods may lead a cat to be more finicky, but I personally have no flavor preferences. Use a high-quality-brand food that has had clinical feeding trials, is labeled as meeting the standards of the Association of American Feed Control Officials ( AAFCO), and is suitable for Arty’s stage of life, i.e. kitten, adult, or senior. 

Now comes the math. Don’t be scared. Get a nerdy math friend to help you if needed. Figure out how many calories of each food to feed daily to hit that 234-calorie goal. A quick example. Let’s decide Artemis will get two-thirds of her calories from wet, and one-third from dry. That’s roughly 156 canned calories, and 78 dry. Research and learn the selected canned food has 150 calories per 5.5-ounce can. Perfect! She can have one can portioned out throughout the day. The dry food is harder. It has 500 calories per cup. Measuring accurately to get a 78-calorie portion is hard. Know what’s easy? A WeightWatchers gram scale. Look again at the nutritional contents information for the dry food. Ah, they also give “calories/kg.” More math. Hang on, we’re almost done. At 4,000 calories per kilogram of dry food, weigh out 200 grams on that handy scale for an 80-calorie potion. I know that felt complicated, but once it’s done, it’s simple. One can plus one easily weighed portion of dry food, fed daily. 

Now we have the menu and daily ration — what’s the feeding schedule? The more we can mimic natural hunting with multiple small meals and increased physical and mental activity, the better. Google “puzzle feeders for cats.” Check out Doc & Phoebe’s Cat Co. Indoor Hunting Cat Feeder Kit. These products can be used to offer small bits of her dry food allotment throughout the day, while satisfying her instinct to hunt. For canned food, pick a convenient schedule. Automatic feeders can be helpful, if needed. If used for canned food, you can assure freshness by freezing small portions before putting them into the feeder. Try to time it so it thaws and reaches room temperature by meal time. Otherwise, you can be Arty’s human “automatic feeder” for her canned food. Helping her count calories and get exercise will keep Artemis at the healthy body weight every goddess of the hunt deserves.