Anyone who’s watched “My Cat From Hell” is familiar with Jackson Galaxy’s mantra: “HUNT. CATCH. KILL. EAT.” It what is in the cat’s nature to do, and thwarting those instincts is at the root of many behavioral problems that cats exhibit… problems that land many of them back in the shelter.
Keeping your cat indoors, is of course, preferred to allowing your cat outdoors. Unless you have an enclosed catio or cat fencing to keep your cat safe, your cat is safer and healthier if she stays inside. And it’s less lethal for denizens of your backyard bird feeder.
But keeping your cat indoors deprives her of many instinctual behaviors, like stalking, tree climbing, and hunting. Opening a can of Fancy Beast for Fluffy does not engage her primal need to hunt, catch, kill and eat her dinner.
And, the working lives of cat owners often means that the cats are left alone to their own devices many hours a day. Unless your crib has been catified and filled with interactive, enriching toys and furniture, your cat may get bored. Which often spells trouble. She may become anxious and overeat. She may become stressed, which can result in respiratory, GI, or UTI issues. And behavioral issues can arise, many having to do with inappropriate elimination and scratching.
But you can’t just quit your job to spend all day at home playing the Red Dot Game with Fluffy. Instead, experts recommend helping her tap into her “inner wildcat.”
Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behaviorist and popular cat writer explains, “These are little predators and they’re used to hunting.” Krieger recommends encouraging cats to work for their food, just as they would in the wild. Hide their food and have them hunt for it. Get rid of the feeding bowl.
Turn mealtime into a game, a puzzle they have to work through for a payoff. Krieger recommends stuffing kibble into old tennis balls or wet food into inexpensive PVC pipes. Or, try some of the puzzle feeders currently on the market. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I have not had a lot of any success with puzzle feeders, mostly because hubby ALWAYS breaks down after about three minutes and drops the payload into their food bowl, worried that they will starve if they have to work for their food…so more hubby training is in order. )
What does this have to do with Good News Tewsday?
Well, the good news is that the San Francisco SPCA is ditching bowl feeding for many of the cats in its care so that the cats can experience more natural behavior. If the program is successful (and it’s looking very good at this point), it could make a huge difference in the number of cats they are able to adopt out, and a decrease in adoptions that fail because of health/behavior issues.
SF-SPCA’s Rescue and Welfare Programs Coordinator Frances Ho is testing the “No Bowl Feeding System” that was created by veterinarian Liz Bales.
Small amounts of kibble are put in holes found on containers that resemble mice which are placed around a cat’s environment. This encourages the cat’s natural foraging behavior, using their senses of smell, sight, and touch to interact with the food rather than passively lapping it up. The cat finds the mice, bats them around, then devours the kibble that pops out the holes.
“We’ve been using it for a little over a month and we’re seeing great results especially with cats who need a little extra stimulation in their lives and some of the longer term cats as well,” Ho said.
Dr. Tony Buffington, professor emeritus at UC Davis, authored a study of 24 cases of dysfunctional house cats, in which various food puzzles were introduced to encourage them to “hunt” for their food. Many of the cats lost excess poundage, became more social, less destructive, and no longer urinated in inappropriate places.
“What you get in return is a real cat who interacts with this environment in a way that people get cats in the first place to enjoy,” said Dr. Buffington.
He emphasizes that introducing food puzzles to cats who are used to bowls should be a gradual–and not mandatory–process.
“We think being able to hunt for food in the house is just as important as a good scratching post and a good place to climb and all those other crucial resources that cats need,” explained Dr. Buffington.
If results of the SF-SPCA trials are successful, this method could spread across more shelters and to more adopters, resulting in more successful adoptions and happier, healthier kittehs!