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We Chat With Cat Expert Tony Buffington About Cats, Food, and the Home Environment

The Ohio State University vet gives tips for making mealtime safer and more inviting.

Arden Moore  |  Dec 18th 2015


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.

For more than 40 years, Dr. Tony Buffington served as one of the planet’s dedicated champions of cats from inside the academic walls of Ohio State University. He recently retired as an on-campus professor, but he is far from abandoning his favorite pursuit: bringing out the best in cats, especially indoor cats.

Yes, Buffington is proud to be catty for a cause. Need evidence? One of the first things he did when he relocated to Woodland, California, was order a specialty license plate in the Golden State. It reads: BuffCat and sports a decal with this message: “Purr more. Hiss less.”

We tracked down the good professor, who has been a virtual goldmine of feline knowledge. One of his major accomplishments is leading the Indoor Pet Initiative — a worldwide campaign aimed at teaching people strategies that mentally and physically stimulate pets, primarily cats, who are indoors 24/7.

He was in the middle of unpacking boxes in his new home when I interviewed him but happily took a break to field some fetching issues facing our fine felines.

Tony-Buffington

Dr. Tony Buffington. Photo via Twitter @DrBuffCat

In looking at cat nutrition trends by the decade, what would you identify as the most important changes for the 1980s? 1990s? 2000s?

The 1980s was the decade when cats were finally recognized as not simply small dogs metabolically, but rather, obligate carnivores with different nutritional needs. Addressing taurine deficiencies in commercial diets was also big then. The 1990s seemed to be the start of the trend of premium diets and the misconception, in my opinion, that cost has a relationship to the quality of commercial cat foods.

The early 2000s marked an explosion of small companies entering the market to make cat food. This decade is also when companies heavily marketed their food based on the emotional needs of owners with more cats becoming indoor cats.

Why are some indoor cats picky eaters?

One reason I think that some cats are called finicky about foods is that they are in an environment that they perceive to be threatening. Cats in nature are more interested in foods in environments that they perceive they can control and feel safe in. The same applies to our indoor cats.

How can we make inside our homes feel safer for our cats, especially at mealtime?

Take the time to really assess the surroundings. If a cat is fed next to a dishwasher or a washing machine that comes on unexpectedly (to them), these sounds become threatening because the cat can’t control them. Avoid having multiple cats eat from one dish. Food is an important resource. Make sure one cat is not resource guarding the bowl and preventing the other cat from the food. Feed them in separate rooms, if necessary.

What’s the best way to introduce new food to an indoor cat?

Rather than gradually mixing in new dry food with the cat’s current food, place down two bowls of food. One contains the cat’s current food and one contains the new food. Let your cat decide which one to eat. When you give cats the power of choice for food, you can increase their perception of feeling more in control and feeling less threatened.

What type of proteins do cats tend to digest best – beef, chicken, bison, salmon?

There is no one best type of protein. Protein is protein.

Cat stealing meat.

Ginger cat eating raw meat by Shutterstock.

Why do you regard indoor cats as animals in well-managed zoos?

Indoor cats are captive cats in a sense because they are confined like zoo animals. People need to start thinking about adopting strategies employed in quality zoos that enrich the environment of their indoor cats. Animals in zoos work for their food. So, instead of always feeding your indoor cat from a bowl, encourage him to hunt for his food on occasion by using food puzzles. There is evidence in the research literature that stimulating activities like food puzzles stimulate the brain as well as improve musculoskeletal function.

How can people ensure that their indoor cats are drinking enough water to stay hydrated?

Cats can hydrate themselves as long as they have access to what they perceive to be safe drinking water. They need to be able to drink water without worrying that the dog or other cat in the house will sneak up and attack them.

Observe your cat’s water habits. Some cats like to drink from running water — that’s why they drink from a faucet. Others prefer drinking still water in bowls. Look for signs that your cat is hydrated: eyes are glistening, mouth is moist, and skin bounces back when lifted.

Several readers tell us that their homes have skinny cats and big, food-motivated cats. What advice can you give them to make sure their slender cats eat without interference from the bigger, bolder felines?

When one cat bullies another or guards the food bowls, that’s evidence of conflict between the two cats. One way to reduce the level of conflict is to get a big plastic storage box. Turn it upside down so that the lid is on the floor. Make an opening at the top that is only big enough for the smaller cat to fit through. The space inside the storage box is big enough for him to comfortably eat. You can also give the thinner cat an extra meal in a separate room while another person in the house plays with the fatter cat in another room.

To learn more about bringing out the best in your feline friend, visit indoorpet.osu.edu and download Buffington’s new e-book, Cat Mastery.

About the author: Arden Moore is a pet-behavior consultant, author, and master pet first-aid instructor who often teaches hands-on classes with her cool cat, Casey, and very tolerant dog, Chipper. Each week, she hosts the Oh Behave Show on Pet Life Radio. Follow Arden on Facebook and on Twitter at @ArdenKnowsPets. For Catster print magazine, she promises to give advice about healthy eating habits for your feline. Email your questions to arden@fourleggedlife.com