Free Feeding? 4 Reasons Why Grazing Is Harming Your Cat
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
Many cat owners leave their cat’s bowl full of food so that their pet can nibble whenever they please. However, their digestive systems are not built to withstand grazing, which is the type of behaviour typical of herbivores like cows and sheep. Cats are carnivores, so their daily routine in the wild consists of a rotation of three main activities: hunting, eating, and sleeping. The digestive system of a cat is built to eat 2-3 small meals a day. Grazing or free feeding is a term, which refers to allowing your cat access to dry food all day, everyday - can severely impact the longevity of their lives. It increases the risk of many health issues such as urinary tract issues, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, and physiological issues.
Top 4 Reasons Why Free Feeding Kibble Is Harming Your Cat:
1. Chronic Dehydration
Cats have such a low thirst drive, much lower than that of a human or dog, seeking out a water source in order to drink is actually not a natural behaviour for cats. Cats being a desert-dwelling species for millions of years, their metabolic processes have adapted to absorb most of their daily hydration needs from feeding on the bodies of their prey.
As a result of rarely needing to drink water, cats body signals that communicate the urge to drink to their brain are so delayed that they are already at the point of dehydration when they finally feel the need to drink. Not only does dry kibble lack the moisture that cats greatly need everyday to stay hydrated, but every time they graze feed, they are using up essential moisture from their system just to be able to digest the food, therefore keeping them in a cycle of systematic dehydration.
Dehydration is dangerous because it slows down every function in the body, and when that is allowed to occur on a daily basis for years it will have major health consequences such as kidney disease or even kidney failure. Chronic dehydration is one of the leading causes of kidney disease in cats as ‘almost half of cats aged 6-9 years old are already showing signs of kidney deterioration on wellness blood testing, and some reach 40% function loss as early as age 3’.
Important: A domestic cat drinking one to two times a day is a warning sign that they may not be getting the moisture they need from their food and could be suffering from chronic dehydration. Feeding your cat wet or raw food will give them the moisture they need to thrive, thus reducing the risk of developing health issues later in life.
2. Obesity and Diabetes
Most dry pet foods contain large amounts of highly processed carbohydrates in the form of refined starches that have been stripped of almost all of their nutrients and fiber during processing. They contain empty calories and provide zero nutritional benefit to pets. Carbohydrates such as grains, potatoes, and legumes are composed primarily of starches, and are essential for pet food manufacturers to keep costs low as the ‘main function of carbohydrates in the processing of extruded dry diets is to provide structural integrity to the kibble’. For pets and humans alike, as soon as this type of starch hits the digestive system and becomes moist, it's quickly converted into sugar which promotes spikes in blood sugar.
For cats who are constantly free feeding on kibble, their blood sugar levels are spiking and crashing all day, triggering pancreatic stress that will eventually lead to obesity and diabetes. Cats are very sensitive to sugar, so processed starches should be completely eliminated from their diets.
As the pet food industry in Canada is unregulated, companies don’t have to disclose what percentage of their food's carbohydrate content is from starch and fiber. Since ‘starches in commercial cat foods are included up to 35%’, it is easy to see why our pets are suffering from so many chronic health issues today. While high carb diets should be avoided, you shouldn’t eliminate carbs from your cat’s diet altogether. Fiber, on the other hand, is a good type of carbohydrate which is part of a healthy diet for pets and humans, as it helps to stabilize blood sugar levels. Unlike starch, fiber cannot be broken down into sugar molecules, and instead it passes through the gut undigested.
3. Increases Stress
A high starch diet can cause fluctuations in your cat’s mood and energy levels. The constant spikes and crashes in their blood sugar levels, a result of eating starchy foods all day, will disrupt their sleeping and brain patterns. For instance when blood sugar or insulin crashes, this produces increased levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. As a result your cat can become unusually irritable and stressed. You should look for these sudden mood or behavioral changes in your cat as this is an indication of nutritional issues that need to be addressed. Stress wreaks havoc on cats who are extremely sensitive to stress because it can cause many issues ranging from constipation to affecting their immune system.
4. Lack of Appetite
It is especially common for cats who graze on dry kibble to become picky eaters, making it difficult to encourage them to try new foods. If they have access to food all day and are always eating, they never really experience hunger and don’t see food as something valuable.
Slowly introducing mealtimes by feeding them 2-3 times a day with small meals in the morning and evening, rather than allowing them to eat all day long, will help to stimulate their appetite. Cats will learn that their food will not always be available and food will become more valuable, increasing their appetite.
Jackson Galaxy explains the physical, psychological and behavioural effects of free feeding your cat.
How to Stop Your Cat From Grazing
It is important to note that making any changes to your cats meals or feeding routine can be very stressful for them so it is important to make the following changes as slow as possible.
Here’s a simple 3 step process on transitioning your cat away from grazing:
Start with putting food out in the morning and taking it away in the evening. Thus meaning during the evening hours your cat won’t have access to food!
The next step is to put food out 3 to 4 times a day, but only for 30 mins intervals. Put your cat’s food down, leave it out for 30 mins, and put any leftovers away. Try this at breakfast, lunch, and dinner time. Remember to refrigerate if you’re feeding wet or raw food.
One they start getting more used to this routine (willingness to eat more at these set times), reduce this to two times a day. Eventually your cat will be meowing and waiting for you at mealtime, especially if you’re running behind that day!
If you’re still feeding kibble, we highly recommend that you also consider this a good time to start adding wet or raw food into your cat’s diet. You can start to add a little bit of wet canned food, or add a tiny bit of raw food and see what they do. Try a teaspoon at first as some cats aren’t easy to switch!
Read our blog about how to feed your picky feline for help
Precautions While Transitioning
If they get on a schedule where they're eating raw, their blood sugar will remain stable and their energy levels will also be less sporadic throughout the day. Their metabolism changes since they don’t have sugar anymore. If your cat is super hyper, this may point to blood sugar problems and you should speak to your vet.
How and what cats eat is vital, especially since stress for cats related to food can be very dangerous to your cat’s health. This is why it’s important to be mindful when you’re trying to make this switch. If your cat gets really stressed from you making changes too quickly they can stop eating altogether, and become seriously ill within 48 hours if they don’t eat.
Importance of Gradual Changes
If they don’t eat and become ill, this results in a dangerous condition known as hepatic lipidosis, which can lead to liver failure. We cannot repeat this enough, but any changes for cats MUST BE gradual! It is important to reduce the amount of times food is given per day, but don’t introduce too many changes too fast and always observe your cat’s comfort levels.
This is particularly important with overweight cats. Their weight loss has to be very gradual and extremely slow. The earlier you start cats (or dogs) on raw the better because they will get their moisture requirements as well as being less picky when it comes to eating a variety of fresh foods.
At Red Dog Blue Kat, we believe it’s important to feed animals how they are naturally designed to eat. Take a look around our Learning Hub to learn more about feeding fresh, whole food and we’re always excited to chat! We’re available through telephone, email, and social media.