At first glance, cats and cattle aren’t very similar with regards to their nutritional needs. Cats are carnivores and cattle are herbivores, but they are both designed to graze.
Take the example of a feral cat that has made her home on a dairy farm. The farmers are happy to have her because she is a good mouser, but they don’t put out any cat food. This cat, let’s call her Athena, is in prime shape and was spayed in a trap/neuter/release program. She weighs 4 kilograms, or 8.8 pounds.
On average, a cat like Athena might need around 250 calories per day to maintain her weight.
On her farm, Athena eats almost nothing but mice. Sure, there are some birds, bunnies, and lizards around, but mice are by far the most plentiful prey. A typical mouse will provide Athena with 30-35 calories. Therefore, she needs to eat around 7-8 mice per day to meet her nutritional needs.
Athena is an average hunter. She fails to catch a mouse more often than she is successful. So she spends a large part of her day hunting. Basically, she eats 7-8 small meals over the course of her day, with periods of exercise and rest in between.
Compare Athena’s life to the cows on the farm. This is an organic, grass-fed dairy, so the cows spend part of their day out on pasture (lucky cows). They alternate between walking around to graze for a while and lying in the sun to ruminate (no, I don’t mean they’re thinking deeply, “ruminate” also means to chew cud). The details are surely different, but in essence the cattle and Athena are living similar dietary lifestyles — multiple small meals throughout the day interspersed with periods of exercise and rest.
This is quite unlike a typical house cat’s day. If they are fed canned food, they probably eat twice a day (three if they’re lucky). Most cats that eat dry food have access to it all day long, which on the surface seems better since they can help themselves to small meals whenever they want. A house cat doesn’t have to work for her meals, however. Dry food is also much more calorie dense than are mice or canned foods. (I’ve heard it estimated that 11-14 pieces of typical cat kibble provides the same number of calories as one mouse). This combination of a lack of exercise and calorie-dense food is a recipe for obesity.
Short of releasing seven or eight mice a day in your house, what’s the answer? I think the best, practical option is to offer a little canned food two or three times a day, disposing of what is uneaten after ten minutes or so, and use an automated feeder that will dispense small numbers of kibbles at intervals throughout the day to provide the remainder of the cat’s calories. Ideally, the feeder should be located in an out of the way location so the cat has to get some exercise to reach it.
Does that sound doable?
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Image: Cat and cow by Jeff Tabaco / via Flickr