How to serve BARF and whole prey? About cat food from a behaviorist's perspective
How to feed and water cats? Let's look at the issue of feeding cats, as well as liquids in a cat's diet and their consumption. I won't talk much about what cats should eat, as that's the area of dietetics, I will focus more on this: how they should eat.
Biologically Appropriate Food for Cats
However, I must mention something that you, as cat caregivers, surely know very well. Cats are almost entirely carnivorous, so meat should form the basis of their diet. However, they should eat balanced meals. This means that a diet like whole prey for a cat* should be supplemented with omega acids and vitamin E, and the right amount of appropriate supplements should be added to the meat (this is what is called barf for cats).
It is also important that cat food is tasty, meaning acceptable to the animal and simply delicious. It is also crucial that dietary supplements, such as various treats, do not constitute another meal during the day, but are only an addition to the diet. I appeal to your common sense regarding the quantity of treats given throughout the day!
How Often Should You Feed Your Cat?
In the wild, cats feed on many small prey. There are between ten and twenty in a 24-hour period, quite a lot and of varying sizes. These include birds, lizards, rodents (interestingly, not just rats and mice), but also insects. This means that rare feeding, which I define as feeding less than three or four meals a day, is insufficient, regardless of the amount of food that is delivered to the cat's little stomach. Too few meals lead to a constant feeling of hunger, which turns into frustration and can be the basis of many behavioral problems. It also generates drops in blood sugar and destabilizes neurotransmitters, which often affects behavior. From mounting negative emotions, it's a short step to aggression, which should not be forgotten.
How to Choose the Right Food Bowl for Your Cat?
Besides the quality and frequency of food, from a behavioral point of view, it is also important what the cat eats from. And there are many options! From the floor, through ordinary bowls made of various materials, to complex feeders dispensing specific portions of cat food. These can be ceramic, plastic, metal, glass, or crystal bowls or plates intended for one cat or for several animals.
Cats, due to their build, prefer shallow and wide containers rather than deep and narrow ones. Cat whiskers cope better with the former. In the case of brachycephalic breeds, those with a shortened facial skull like Persians, it's worth getting very shallow bowls or even flat plates to make it easier for the cat to eat.
For longer absences from home, electronic feeders that open at a specific time are useful. There are those that, due to a cooling function, are suitable for wet cat food as well as prepared barf or the so-called whole prey model**. In cases where it is necessary to feed several animals different diets, in terms of type or composition, for example, due to the illness of one of the group members, more complex feeders are recommended, opening only for a specific animal. They can be programmed for the microchip number of a particular cat.
What we offer our cat depends on the caregiver's financial resources, imagination, but also, in reality, should depend on the cat's preferences. There are animals that will eat any food from any container. Others have strictly designated zones in the house for this. Some cats only eat food in the kitchen or living room or at height. Sometimes a cat will happily eat on a shelf or windowsill, but not necessarily on the floor. There are also preferences regarding the surface from which cats eat their food, like only and exclusively on panels or cardboard.
Similar preferences often occur in groups. Sometimes certain individuals do not eat a common meal with other group members and prefer to feed at a distance on another level, e.g., on a shelf or table in a separate bowl, which should be respected and facilitated.
Remember that food, as one of the inflexible resources, is very important for the biological functioning of a cat and therefore does not compromise, and even if it is ready for it, often pays for satisfying hunger with a lack of emotional stability. Therefore, meeting the need for peaceful and undisturbed eating, by nothing and no one, lies in the broadly understood interest of both the cat and its responsible caregiver.
Active Feeding Model in Cat Nutrition
An increasingly popular form of feeding cats is the so-called active feeding, borrowed from dog training. Active feeding is such that the animal is additionally engaged and utilizes its natural abilities and instincts. Besides filling the stomach, active feeding provides intellectual stimulation. This form of feeding is an excellent remedy for boredom, but also a range of behavioral problems, as it provides occupation for a longer time and, by activating the cat to act, takes it out of its comfort zone and ensures effort.
There are countless ways of active feeding, because apart from the 'ready-made' products we can purchase and implement, we also have imagination. Among the products available, I especially recommend 'treat balls,' into which food, dry treats, dried meat for cats fed a barf diet, or frozen fish and other small prey, if cats are fed according to the whole prey model, are inserted. Treats fall out of the ball when the object is moved with a paw.
Also attractive to cats are silicone mats, on which you can put wet food, barf, or crushed frozen rodents of small weight, such as fish bones of mice or rats. We can also venture to portion slightly larger prey that are part of the whole prey diet on the mat, such as one-day-old chickens, quails, and larger mice and rats. The necessity of scraping out the food with a little tongue occupies the pet for a long time.
An interesting alternative are scent mats. These are various mats with a lot of pockets, puzzles, tunnels, fringes, or other hiding places, providing the cat with the opportunity to take action and find prey. There are also various types of feeders of different levels of complexity, but the main goal is to motivate the animal to move its body and head to obtain the pleasure of a treat or prey, such as part of the whole prey diet model for cats.
Water and Cat Food
The type of cat food provided will affect the amount of water consumed. Eating wet food such as canned food, whole prey for cats, or barf, cats will drink less. By consuming wet food, hydrated meat, or elements of the whole prey diet for cats (rats and mice, quails, one-day-old chickens), our charges will primarily get their water from food, just as it happens in nature.
It is the caregiver's responsibility to ensure and take care that cats consume the right amount of fluids. Proper hydration is associated with good internal organ function and, consequently, long-term health.
Regarding the water container - cats have various preferences. These can be wide porcelain bowls but also cups, glasses, vases, crystal bowls, plastic or metal containers. For the caregiver, the most important thing should be that the cat drinks.
An active way of watering is offering running water from a tap in the sink or shower or from a water fountain. Cat fountains are an excellent alternative to the less attractive bowl. The water in them flows, sometimes at different heights, which is an additional plus. This can be particularly important for older cats with back or joint problems. It has been proven that 67% of adult and older cats prefer to drink from a fountain rather than a static container.
Regardless of the type of vessel, water bowls should be located on the cat's daily patrol route. From time to time, it is worth moving them or placing additional ones in another place. Such a find will be a valuable enrichment of the environment for the cat. It should also be remembered that in the summer, the number of bowls should be greater even for just one cat.
Water bowls should not be located near food. It has been observed that cats drink at times of the day unrelated to eating. Water permeated with the smell of food may discourage cats from drinking. There are also ways to provide water, e.g., adding aromatic herbs or meat flavor, which I do not recommend. Providing both water and food in one place can be a source of aversion, especially in the case of water, which we would not want.
*What is the whole prey diet? The whole prey diet is cat food that mimics the natural food of wild animals. It involves providing cat food in the form of whole prey, as if our domestic pet had hunted the prey itself. This type of food most often includes mice for cats, one-day-old chicks, frozen rats, and rat fishbones bought in whole prey stores. The whole prey diet for dogs looks similar.
**A proven practice is also leaving unfrozen whole prey in a regular feeder, such as frozen quail. The price of a feeder without a cooling function is lower, and by setting the mealtime appropriately, we can ensure that the cat gets fresh food in the form of so-called whole prey.
The article was prepared based on a lecture on feeding and watering cats by Joanna Rozwadowska, an experienced COAPE behaviorist, breeder and mentor of purebred cat breeders, author and publisher of guides about cats and best-selling webinars explaining the causes of behavioral problems in cats. We warmly thank Joanna for allowing us to share her information on cat feeding psychology on our blog!