Hi stranger! Signing up for MypetMD is easy, free and puts the most relevant content at your fingertips.

Get Instant Access To

  • 24/7 alerts for pet-related recalls

  • Your own library of articles, blogs, and favorite pet names

  • Tools designed to keep your pets happy and healthy

or Connect with Facebook

By joining petMD, you agree to the Privacy Policy.

petMD Blogs

Written by leading veterinarians to provide you with the information you need to care for your pets.

Subscribe to
Nutrition Nuggets
Your cat's nutrition is important for a healthy & happy life. petMD experts help you to know what to feed your cat, how much food to feed, and the differences in cat foods, so your cat gets optimum nutrition.
Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Cat Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of cat nutrition.

Cats and Cattle... More Similar Than You Might Think

February 08, 2013 / (3) comments

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

Subscribe to Nutrition Nuggets

Comments  3

Leave Comment
  • Friday Chuckle
    02/08/2013 06:16am

    "(no, I don’t mean they’re thinking deeply, “ruminate” also means to chew cud)"T

    That certainly started my Friday morning with a chuckle.

    Interesting analogy. The biggest difference, in my opinion, would be the activity level. Cats are very active when hunting for food. Whereas, cattle walk from place to place. It doesn't seem to me that cattle truly get a lot of exercise.

  • Discarding uneaten food
    02/10/2013 04:11pm

    What is the rationale behind the instruction to discard uneaten food after about ten minutes or so? Is it just a common sense freshness thing (similar to if a child didn't eat a meal with meat in it after ten minutes or so?), or is there more to it than that?

    On a slightly different subject, I have a cat who always used to gobble down his biscuits too quickly. We got a feeder which is like a maze and he has to actually push the biscuits out with his paws before they drop to the bottom and he can eat them then. It works out really well because not only does it slow his eating of the biscuits individually, but he will also leave some biscuits for later in the day now, whereas he didn't when the same amount was put into a bowl for him. Success!

  • 02/13/2013 11:08am

    Canned food can be left out for several hours before worrying about freshness/contamination. I recommend picking up uneaten food after 10 minutes or so to encourage cats to eat meals rather than nibble throughout the day. This forces them into a more natural feeding schedule.




Photo of Jennifer

... graduated with honors from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. In the years since, she has practiced veterinary medicine in Virginia, Wyoming, and Colorado. She is the author of several books about veterinary medicine and animal care, including the Dictionary of Veterinary Terms, Vet-Speak Deciphered for the Non-Veterinarian .

Jennifer also writes short stories that focus on the strength and importance of the human-animal bond and freelance articles relating to a variety of animal care and veterinary topics. Dr. Coates lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband, daughter, and pets.