All cats are natural hunters, so even though many house cats today live relatively sedentary lives, it doesn’t mean they don’t have the instinct to stalk and kill prey. In fact, this instinct, if left un-exercised can negatively affect your cat’s health. Even if you’re feeding them healthy cat food, if you’re not playing with them enough, you may be putting them at greater risk of developing life-threatening diseases, such as obesity and diabetes. Exercising their hunting instincts, on the other hand, can reduce your cat’s stress levels, and improve their overall health throughout their lifetime.
This is exactly what a study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley showed. In the study, cats who were given “food puzzles” to solve in order to get at their meal showed significantly lower stress levels and greater overall health than cats who were simply given their food. Significantly, cats who had to work for their food also became less irritable and demanding of their owner’s attention: in other words, cats that have to work for their food are happier cats!
The Cat’s Natural Living Cycle
In the wild, cats have to hunt and forage for food, and the amount of food they get from catching a typical prey is less than the amount that typically gets served to them in a cat food bowl. They get a lot more exercise, and less food at one time, than many house cats today. This pattern of working for food and catching several but smaller meals results in a natural living cycle in cats: hunt, eat, groom, sleep, and repeat.
Domesticated cats don’t have to do the hunting part of the cycle, and it’s this lack of exercise that largely accounts for the high number of overweight house cats in America today (almost half of all house cats). People keep cats indoors for variety of legitimate reasons, including safety and the avoidance of predators. But an average American apartment or home today may be the least natural condition for a cat to live in. Indoor living has been linked in studies to health problems like chronic urinary tract disease. So even if you’re feeding them healthy, high quality cat food, and protecting them from the elements, predators, and other potential dangers of the outside world, not giving them a way to flex their natural hunting instincts can make them restless and unhappy.
Your Cat’s Emotional Health
Making cats work for their food also has the added benefit of curbing their aggression and irritability. Remember that your cat’s physical health can affect their emotional health. Being able to exercise their hunting instinct keeps them alert, nimble, and more importantly, relaxed. In the Berkeley study, cats who had to work for their meal were less whiny and showed less needy behavior towards their owners.
This reduced stress level can be especially good if you live in a multi-cat household, as cats who live around other cats often tend to have higher stress levels. Cats are territorial animals, and they will fight over living space as well as food. In multi-cat households, the stress of competition can lead to overeating, a fate that usually falls to the top cat in the pack, since they’re the ones who have to do the most work to keep their rank.
Ways to Put Your Cat to Work
You can find food puzzles for your cat, like the ones used in the Berkeley study, in many pet stores today, both brick-and-mortar and online. They consist of prey-sized containers with holes in them where you insert the food, or with various simple opening methods that cats must figure out in order to get at their meal.
You can also help your cat work for their food by dividing their meals into smaller portions of premium cat food that you’ve placed in different spots around that house. These spots should be high places that your cat has to sniff out and climb over things in order to get to. This method of having multiple feeding areas in the house works to quell stress in multi-cat households as well, since it makes it so that your cats don’t have to fight over a single feeding spot.
You can also get creative and design your own ways of getting your cat to exercise their hunting instincts during feeding time. Just remember that to achieve premium health for your cat, you must combine exercise with a healthy diet. It’s worth investing in high quality natural cat food instead of relying on dry kibble. Dry food maybe more convenient for you, but it’s less healthy for your cat. As with getting them to exercise more, feeding them healthy cat food takes a bit more effort on your part, but it will pay dividends big time for your cat’s health.
UC Berkeley study, article abstract: