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Does Letting Your Cat Graze All Day Help Him Lose Weight?

A new study says yes, but my experience has shown the opposite. Have you done this?

 |  Mar 10th 2014  |   21 Contributions


The quest to rein in feline obesity is almost as obsessive as the quest to lower the rate of obesity in humans. The sheer number of “exciting findings” and “new discoveries” in obesity research is enough to make anybody’s head spin.

Take, for example, recent research from the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, which, according to UPI, found that letting cats "graze" all day may lead to helping overweight kitties slim down.

"Oh, really. You don't say." Photo CC-BY Fraser Reid

I’m all for exercising cats: It’s critical for good health whether or not said feline is obese. But the trouble is that a lifetime of experience with cats has shown me that allowing them to nibble all day does nothing to reduce obesity. In fact, a lot of the time it does just the opposite.

The fattest felines I’ve ever seen were indoor-only cats who were given a huge dish of kibble and allowed to eat from it at any time they wanted.

Back in the days when I fed my cats exclusively dry food, my Siouxsie got heavy enough that my vet threatened to put her on a diet if she gained any more weight. But since I began feeding my gang wet food, Siouxsie slimmed down to an ideal weight for her size and has stayed there for 10 years. I’m not the only person who has had these results.

Fat gray cat CC-BY Randen Pederson

Why? Well, here’s my thought process. The types of animals that graze are herbivores: goats, cows, horses, sheep, and so on. They graze because their bodies are built to chew, digest, regurgitate, chew again, and digest again. That’s how they get the nutrition they need from grass and leaves.

Cats, on the other hand, are carnivores. Their stomachs are not designed for grazing. Have you ever seen a wild cat poke around and have a nibble of mouse here and a bite of rabbit there? No; they hunt a big meal, eat as much as they can, wash up, and then go to sleep for a while.

Orange and white cat eating. Photo CC-BY Michael Himbeault

To be fair, the authors of the study didn’t use the word “grazing” -- the article’s headline did. The researchers actually fed the cats a varying number of small meals of kibble per day, and they observed that the cats who ate more smaller meals were more active. They didn’t say anything about whether this increased activity caused the cats to lose weight. But that’s how UPI interpreted the scientists’ findings to generate a spicy headline and lead paragraph.

What really causes feline obesity? I’m not a scientist or a veterinarian, but I’ve got some ideas.

First of all, I think most people don’t understand how small a cat’s stomach is. Even fully gorged with food, a cat’s stomach is no bigger than an egg. There’s no need to feed a cat more than a few ounces at a time, especially if you’re feeding a nutrient-dense wet food.

Fat cat Moe. Photo CC-BY Dan Perry

Secondly, since you can’t put out canned food all day and expect it to remain edible, the food commonly used for “grazing” cats tends to be dry and high in carbohydrates. Cats’ bodies can’t digest and metabolize these carbohydrate-heavy foods very well, which could lead to obesity, diabetes and other health issues.

Third, I believe that feeding cats only on kibble is the human equivalent of living solely on bread, potato chips, pizza and cookies. It tastes good and it's filling, but it's not exactly going to keep you fit and trim.

Also, I think this “four or five small meals a day” thing is a projection of the health advice offered to people. Once again, cats’ digestive systems are not designed like humans’ digestive systems. Their metabolism has some similarity to ours, but the differences are significant enough that it’s no saner to project human dietary needs onto cats than it is to believe that cats are small dogs.

Kibble can bought in bulk. Photo CC-BY KOMU News

If your cat needs to have food available all day, try placing his kibble in a rolling puzzle ball so he has to work for his meals. I have a good friend who had some success with this method, since at the time her cats refused to eat anything but dry food. But don’t just load up a huge bowl full of kibble and go on about your merry way.

And, of course, when you’re checking out the news, don’t forget to read beyond the headlines and buzzwords.

What do you think? Would you feed an adult cat four or five small meals a day? Have you had to help a cat lose weight? What worked best for you? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Learn more about your cat with Catster:

About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.

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