Thinking about how to feed your domestic cat to improve health and welfare

The domestic cat is a solitary hunter/eater of multiple small meals. How to feed a domestic cat is perhaps as important as what you feed them. It is argued that on the Internet there is a lot of discussion about the type of food people give their cats but not enough discussion about how it is delivered in order to better replicate how a domestic cat would normally feed.

Puzzle cat feeder.
Puzzle cat feeder as recommended by Mikel Delgado, PhD in a Twitter tweet. Photo: Twitter.
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Replicating hunting

Domestic cats would normally spend a lot of time hunting. It is said that cats can naturally spend half of every twenty-four hour period looking for and obtaining food (study: Hunting behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations). If they are full-time indoor cat and if food is freely available such as dry cat food then they might fill a void in their lives by overfeeding because they can’t hunt. Classically, it is said that cat owners often feed their cats at perhaps two sittings and in multi-cat households the cats feed together. More naturally, cats feed alone and at multiple times in the day because the food that they would eat naturally is low in calories. Dry cat food is calorific as it has to be to make kibble.

More indoor cats – more cat caretaking responsibilities

The concept of full-time indoor cats is growing and even in the UK where historically people let their cats go outside there is a gradual shift towards keeping them indoors in the interests of safety. This places an added burden on the human caregiver to as best as possible mimic the domestic cat’s natural hunting and foraging behaviour. It’s been documented in a research study called Potential Risk Factors Associated with Feline Behaviour Problems published in 2009, that behavioural problems are more common in cats without access to the outdoors. Without in any way being critical because I fully understand the issues, this points to cat owners of full-time indoor cats not filling the activity void that there cats encounter when confined indoors. In fact it points to a great difficulty with cat domestication. Outdoor cats can behave more naturally but under added danger while indoor cats are safer but they struggle to behave naturally.

Void in time budget

The experts call this cats being left with a “void in their time budget”. What they mean is their cats have less to do because they are fed freely and therefore they curl up and snooze and do nothing and become bored. Or they might entertain themselves by eating. Dry cat food is highly palatable because they add flavourings. It is basically flavoured ‘protein cardboard’ and slightly addictive. This promotes overeating which feeds into the “obesity epidemic” among domestic cats in the Western world. Obesity can lead to diabetes and other health issues. Dry cat food can encourage urinary tract health issues.


One issue is that convenient free feeding of cats through dry cat food in multi-cat households, when they feed together, can create tension or stress in some of the cats which goes unrecognised by their owners. One expert says that in an attempt to avoid a stressful encounter at the feeding station in a multi-cat household, a cat might gorge on the food which might result in vomiting.

A feeding programme should replicate a cat’s natural feeding behaviour. This should reduce begging for food, conflict between cats and frustrations. It can also help to improve the human-cat relationship and diminish the possibility of cat abandonment to rescue centres.

Puzzle feeders

Puzzle feeders are recommended by some experts because they challenge domestic cats and help to mimic the real world. They can provide mental and physical stimulation and help to improve weight management. If puzzle feeders work they can help the human caregiver as well because they know they’re doing something good in pleasing their cat and it helps to maintain a better cat weight which may be of concern to them. Puzzle feeders vary in their complexity and I have found they don’t work for my cat but that doesn’t mean that they do not work in general. The devices also rely on dry cat food which is a partial failure but nonetheless they are recommended and they are a decent compromise.

Cat owners can also place food in different places, sometimes in elevated spaces, to enable their cat to search it out i.e. forage and use their sense of smell to find it thereby replicating to a certain extent the real world. Perhaps my failure on puzzle feeders is that I wasn’t patient enough. It can take a while for a cat to acclimatise to this way of feeding.


Providing a variety of food is quite important. In my experience domestic cats like variety. It also helps to mimic real world predation. It encourages them to eat which may be important. Not all cats are obese or overfeeding. In addition, providing variety also helps to stimulate the mind which is an underlying goal of almost everything that the cat caregiver should be doing.

Detective work

Can owners realise that they should not place food near litter boxes, and feeding bowls should be left in a place which is considered safe by their cat. In multi-cat homes owners should observe their cats’ behaviour to figure out which cats avoid each other, where they spend time and which cats spend time together. This reflects Jackson Galaxy’s method of cat ownership which he says requires a lot of detective work.


I think this (a lack of obeservation and analysis) is a problem with some cat ownership if we are honest. Often it is too casual and not enough thought goes into it. Adoption of pets can be too casual as well. I am referring particularly to the adoption of puppies during the coronavirus pandemic. There’s been a surge of adoptions by people who want a pet to keep them company in long lockdowns. This is a problem waiting to happen in terms of abandonment later on when we get back to normal.

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