Foote Pet Talk cat pounce

Cat owners should come up with ideas for play that mimic a feline’s love of hunting.

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As a practicing small-animal veterinarian, I have witnessed the increase of housecat ownership. The expanse of knowledge in feline health and behavior allows veterinarians to help you provide the best care for a long and healthy life with your pet cat.

One of the biggest impacts on a cat’s mental and physical health is the amount of daily activity, as well as food intake. My “prescription” for a healthy cat is a minimum of 10 minutes of play with a human and small, frequent feedings that require your cat to search and pounce on their food.

In the wild, cats adapted to hunting small prey at least 10 times a day, successfully killing that prey 50 percent of the time. Lots of activity searching, pouncing and small tapas-like meals through the day.

People often think of cats as “maintenance-free pets.” Just keep the litter box clean and food and water available, and you are done. Basic needs for food and shelter are met, but that would be a boring cat life.

This lack of a natural behavior outlet causes physical and behavior problems in our general cat population at a higher rate than other species.

When cats cannot climb to high perches or hunt around the home for their meal, they become inactive.

Our cats will spend hours sitting on a perch, or if now anxious due to a lack of enrichment, they may be hiding under the bed or in the closet.

The full food bowl is an easy way to overeat, as they nibble through the day. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (Petobesityprevention.org) has run studies on pet obesity for the past few years. In a 2018 clinical survey, (petobesityprevention.org/2018) 59.5 percent of cats presented for veterinary exams were overweight.

The long list of health problems aggravated by obesity includes diabetes, arthritis, urinary track disease, liver disease and intestinal problems.

Behavior problems include inter-cat aggression, litter box avoidance, damage to the home and owner-directed aggression. The behavior problems stem from the obesity limiting the cat’s ability to get up on perches, reduced agility to engage in play and chronic pain leading to irritability or hiding to avoid touch.

The treatment — start simple and address your cat’s need to hunt for food. Hide small meals multiple times a day and get rid of the food bowl. You need to follow a plan, as sudden changes can cause intestinal problems, and major calorie reduction can also cause health problems. Your cat also needs to learn to hunt as they have not expressed this behavior in a long time. Here is a simple plan to follow to help your kitty:

— The first measure is how much your cat is currently eating of all dry and wet food. If you “fill the bowl,” measure the amount in that full bowl. Most healthy adult cats require 20 calories per pound every 24 hours for maintenance. Dry cat food ranges from 450 – 650 calories per cup.

— Ask your veterinarian how much your cat should eat every 24 hours. When reducing the intake, a 25 percent reduction in calories every two weeks is often best. If you cut back too fast, the cat may have problems with fatty liver infiltration.

— Make your cat hunt for the food. Put 1 tablespoon in small dishes, small puzzle feeders and place them around the house for your cat to find. Make it easy at first, then switch the hiding places daily.

— Remove the food bowl. If a food bowl is out, your cat will not bother to find the hidden food.

None of these steps are that difficult, yet few owners will do them. Tossing food for our clinic cat Binx and hiding food for Ranger to find prevented obesity in Ranger, and the two got along better. It was not difficult to do, yet it was an effort to do it at first. I understand that hiding food requires that you change. This is the hurdle. Give the process a try for two weeks and chart the difference. When you see your cat playing more and improved health, it will not be so difficult.

In short, obesity will shorten your cat’s life. Behavior and chronic health problems are all related to excess weight. As I would say to my clients, “A happy cat is one who thinks he killed something every day.” Hiding food and providing play based on predation is one of the best ways to keep your cat healthy and happy.

Dr. Sally J. Foote can be found at the Okaw Veterinary Clinic in Tuscola. She has articles on puppy socialization and other topics at okawvetclinic.com.