Normal Eating Behaviour in Cats

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Eating Habits of Cats

Cats and dogs are both classified as carnivores. However, from a dietary perspective dogs are omnivores. They are opportunistic eaters and have developed anatomic and physiological characteristics that allow them to digest and use a varied diet. Cats on the other hand are truly carnivorous, flesh eating animals. They demonstrate unique anatomic, physiologic, metabolic and behavioural adaptations to prove this fact.

Cats have evolved from mouse catcher to household companion but still share many eating behaviours with their wild counterparts. Unlike most mammals, cats do not display a regular daily rhythm in sleep-wake cycles, activity, feeding and drinking. Cats typically eat 10 to 20 small meals throughout the day and night. This eating pattern probably reflects the evolutionary relationship of cats and their prey. With the exception of African lions, all cats hunt alone. Small rodents ( mice, moles and voles) make up 40% or more of a feral domestic cat's diet. Young rabbits and a variety of other prey, birds, reptiles, frogs and insects are also taken. The average mouse provides approximately 8% of a feral cat's daily energy requirement. Therefore, repeated cycles of hunting throughout the day and night are required for the average cat. This pattern has evolved into the normal feeding behaviour for our pet cats.

Cats show very strong predatory behaviour. They will stop eating to make a kill. This strategy optimizes food availability. It also explains behaviour that can be very frustrating to some cat owners. Many owners believe that their well fed pet should stop hunting. They are very disappointed when their housecat kills a songbird or other small animal. However, being well fed may reduce hunting time but does not alter hunting behaviour in many cats.

Cats are very sensitive to the physical form, odour and taste of food. Wild cats consume their prey in a very consistent manner, influenced by the tactile sensation in their mouth caused by the prey's body covering of hair or feathers. Thus the way food feels in their mouth must be considered when feeding cats. They prefer solid moist foods, typical of flesh. They accept poorly foods with powdery, sticky or greasy textures. Cats that become ill with respiratory disease or for some reason are unable to smell their food will usually have a marked decrease in their appetite.

Cats find certain flavours very attractive which likely reflects the nutritional characteristics of their natural foods. Cats prefer the tastes of various animal products including fat, protein, meat extracts and amino acids found in muscle tissues. Cats, in general, unlike dogs, are not attracted to the taste of sugars and flavours derived from plant products. Nevertheless, there are cats that choose to defy any rules and I know of cats that enjoy cantaloupe, pumpkin, bananas and celery. The flavour and texture preferences of individual cats are often influenced by early experience. Cats accustomed to specific texture or type of food (i.e. moist, dry, semi-moist) may refuse foods with a different texture. As a result of this, I recommend new kittens be exposed to both dry and moist foods. If cats develop certain urinary tract disorders it may be quite important that they convert to a primarily moist diet. This can be difficult in some cats that have only ever eaten dry foods.

The temperature of the food also influences food acceptance by cats. Cats do not readily accept foods served at temperature extremes. Foods offered near body temperature (38.5 C or 101.5 F) are most preferred. This is logical, also, if you consider the eating habits of their wild relatives and their recent ancestors.

These feline food facts may not make it any easier to feed your cat, but at least you may be better able to understand why they eat as they do.