How You Feed Your Cat Matters: an Interview with Dr. Liz Bales

In this interview, Dr. Liz Bales talks about why HOW you feed your cat might be even more important than WHAT you feed them.

To hear the full interview on iTunes CLICK HERE To listen on Spotify CLICK HERE.

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Amanda: Today I’m joined by Dr. Liz Bales, a veterinarian and the founder of the company Doc and Phoebe’s. Thanks so much for agreeing to come on the show today, Dr. Bales.

Dr Liz: Thank you for having me.

Amanda: I’m really excited to talk about this topic. I feel like cats are such an untalked about topic and there’s a lot to talk about.

So for anyone who doesn’t know, the American Association of Feline Practitioners, the AAFP recently released a consensus statement that said in summary basically interactive feeding methods can help reduce stress-related and over-eating issues in domestic cats. They recommended using puzzle feeders and forge feeding and having food and water in multiple locations for your cat. And this is really what prompted me to reach out to Dr. Bales because anytime you Google anything about interactive cat feeding, her name comes up. So I’d really like to know what started you on the path of linking how we feed our cats relating to their health and wellbeing.

Dr Liz: Yeah, that is a great question. So I think your point about cat sort of not being talked about in the pet space is really true. And it’s true in the veterinary space as well, except for special places like the AAFP. I’ve always had a really strong interest in the science of cats there. They’re just fascinating.

So way back in school in 1996, I would be hearing that cat should not be eating from bowls. Cats should be hunting for their food and everyone would sort of furrow their brow and agree and then go get a bowl of food for their cat. So it’s one of those things that we’ve known for a long time, but nobody’s made the change. And over the years as a practicing vet, I would have cats come into my office regularly that had problems like gobbling up their food and throwing it back up.

Over the years, increasingly as we’ve been keeping our cats indoors, obesity has become an epidemic in cats. And then lots of behaviour problems like peeing outside the litter box, which is sort of a mix between a behaviour problem in a physical problem, which it turns out is more behavioral than physical. And we should talk about that. Being aggressive, being destructive, waking their parents up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning to be fed.

And these, if you talked to cat owners, this is their list of concerns. And I did not have a prescription food, any kind of diet, any kind of pill or medicine that was addressing these issues. And so I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what these issues had in common if anything and what the solutions were. Is it training? Is it a medicine that I can fix, is it that they should be eating wet or dry or raw? And the answer is now with the AAFP has put in that statement, the cats actually need to be hunting for their food and there are some pretty important reasons as to why that is.

Amanda: Right. Okay. So let’s maybe rewind a little bit. Could you give us a little bit of a background on kind of the nature of the domestic house cat and a little bit about their wild counterparts just so we have some backgrounds can understand them?

Dr Liz: Yeah. So cats are really different than people and really different than dogs. Dogs and people have a lot in common. So we sort of innately understand them better. Cats are really different. We domesticated dogs for different reasons. Like you have a German Shepherd to guard your house and you’d go hunting with the bird dog. Cats, we did not domesticate. Cats sort of co-evolved with humans because they were good at hunting the vermin that ate the food stuffs that we were trying to store. And they were also cute and adorable and we ended up being companions for one another. So we really evolved together. We didn’t domesticate them.

So their innate behaviours are still really strong. And if anything we selected for cats that were better hunters and had a stronger prey drive because those were the ones that were most useful to us. And so what does that mean? Cats will hunt. 80% of their waking hours is spent hunting. That’s how strong that prey drive is. They will hunt even when they’re not hungry and they go through this cycle called the seeking circuit where they hunt, catch, play with their prey, eat, groom and sleep. And this goes on 24 hours a day.

A mouse has between 30 and 35 calories. Depending on your activity level for a cat, you need a between 250 and 300 calories a day. Depends on a few different variables. So you can see if you do that math, a cat needs to be eating upwards of eight mice a day just to sustain life. They’re also not successful every time. So a cat in nature, I’ve seen different statistics in this, a great hunter, maybe a successful about 35% of the time, most cats more 10% of the time. So their whole reason for being when they’re awake is to hunt.

And then let’s talk about, you know I said that the average prey is a mouse about 30, 35 calories. What that equates to in kibble is about 10 pieces of Kibble, depending on kibble can vary quite a bit. It’s less than a tablespoon of wet food because our commercial diets are much higher in calories and designed to be super tasty. So a meal for a cat is more like a tablespoon of food, not half a bowl of food or a big bowl of food at a time.

Amanda: Yeah. Just to touch on that, I think,  I really liked your point that we don’t innately understand cats and I feel like it’s one of those things that’s kind of a topic for joke in the cat world, and in the pet world. There’s always memes saying things like I understand my dog and I just don’t understand my cat. Cats just do their own thing. So I think it’s a really interesting point to bring it back to their evolution in saying that they co-evolved with us but we didn’t domesticate them.

Dr Liz: One of the other reasons why we sort of get dogs. Dogs are pack animals. Humans are pack animals, dogs are meal feeders. Humans are meal feeders. So there’s so much about the way that we need to interact with each other, the world and our food is the same. Cats are what we call solitary survivors. So cats hunt alone, they eat alone and they spend more solitary time. That’s not to say cats don’t love their humans. We all know that they do, but they don’t require other beings to survive. They may like it, they may love it, they may want it, but they don’t require it to survive. Where really innately humans and dogs require it to survive.

And the other point there is that if a human or a dog, because we’re designed to be pack animals, has a need or a problem, it’s in our nature and in our best interest to express that need so it’s filled. So if I have a terrible headache, I would say to you, I’m not feeling well, and then you would want to help me. And then I would survive. In a solitary species that is different. So my innate instinct is to do everything I can not to express my need or weakness because it does not serve me because no one’s coming to help me. It only makes me weak.

Cats really don’t express, if you’re in the medical field, we know that by the time a cat is showing us medical science, things can be pretty bad off. They really don’t show what they need. So it’s really, it’s up to us, the cat lovers and the parents to understand their innate needs and meet them before they start asking for it.

Amanda: Right. So in touching on that, and you mentioned the calorie amounts that we should really be aiming to feed our cats per meal, can you touch a little bit and maybe explain to people why free feeding is really not the best practice and maybe some alternatives and we’ll kind of get into all that. But really if you could talk about free feeding because I think that a lot of people are doing with this with their cats,

Dr Liz: So it actually becomes extremely complicated. The downsides of free feeding are many. It’s too many calories and commercial pet food is available, it’s tasty and most cats have nothing to do all day. So I don’t know about you, but if I’m home with macaroni, cheese, pizza, French fries and Coca-Cola, and with nothing else to do all day, it’s likely I’m going to eat a lot more than I should.

So we’ve got a variety of problems there. But the biggest one is overfeeding and obesity. The ones that are less obvious there are scarf and bar. So a cat stomach is only the size of a ping pong ball. Nature made it to receive that tablespoon, a tablespoon and a half of food at a time. So when you have super tasty food and you gorge on it and your stomach is the size of a ping pong ball, it’s very common that cats will eat quickly and then throw up. In addition to the fact that we just end up with food obsession and those sorts of behaviour problems.

Now on the plus side, I will say have a free feeding is that the cat gets to control its feeding schedule. You have a species that has this innate desire to hunt and be a predator and when we take away their ability to do that in any way by meal feeding them tiny bits of food at a time that are on our schedule, that actually is a source of stress for a cat. So there’s upsides and downsides.

Amanda: Okay. That’s good to know because I feel like I don’t hear people talk as much about the upsides and it’s really always like, don’t free feed. That’s bad. But it’s nice to know that maybe depending on life situation, that might be a less stressful option.

Dr Liz: Yeah, well I think without a doubt it’s less stressful. But it also has a lot of terrible consequences. Obesity is probably the number one terrible consequence. And just want to talk about that for a second.

Amanda: Yes, please.

Dr Liz: We now know that 60% of cats in America are overweight or obese. Only 10% of people with an obese pet, cat specifically, know that their cat is obese. So it’s a big problem. You might just think, oh, he’s cute and fluffy and because many of our cats have this glorious fluffy coat, we don’t really see it. But it is a real problem and very few of us know it. And it’s serious.

So an obese cat has a four times greater likelihood of developing diabetes, which is expensive inconvenient and can be deadly. They also, a middle-aged obese cat is 2.6 times more likely to die than a healthy weight cat. And many other problems. Not to be, you know, scary. But what the veterinary specialists in weight management say is it’s not if your fat cat is going to get sick. It’s when.

Amanda: Yeah, I think it’s important to emphasize that it’s something we really need to watch with our animals is their weight. It is our job to make sure they are maintaining a healthy weight.

Dr Liz: And it’s sort of embarrassing and sad when you maybe find out fat because we all love them so much and we’re really trying to do the best we can. But what happens is that we free feed because it’s convenient and less stressful. And then we humans really have a hard time replacing or showing love with food. So we become automatic treat dispensers every time our cat meows. Oh my God, they’re hungry and we give them a treat and we’re making them sick.

So all of this news is very bad and scary and sad. But the exciting thing is we now have real alternatives to help give back our cats their natural feeding behaviours and make them healthy again. And it’s working. And I think that is why the AAFP was finally ready to make that statement. I said at the beginning of our talk, this information has been in the veteran community for over 20 years, but there was no solution and now there is. So when you can identify the problem and give people the tools to enact a solution, things are really starting to change and that’s what we need to be focusing on. It’s really exciting.

Amanda: Yeah, definitely. And so flowing from that, let’s talk about, I’ve heard you say it in previous interviews that we as pet owners, cat owners, need to rethink the bowl. So can you explain what that means, please?

Dr Liz: So the bowl is for people. It is doing nothing to serve our cats needs. We already talked about cats need to hunt, catch and play with many small meals a day. This feeding behaviour, it goes on 24 hours a day, but really is most concentrated at dawn and dusk. Cats are what’s called crepuscular hunters, meaning they’re sort of opportunistic and their prey is most available at those hours. That really is the reason why they wake us up at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. Mother Nature says your prey is available. You’ve got to hunt now, even if they’ve been a domestic cat in your house for 15 years, mother nature is still telling them that.

So now we’ve got to find a way to meet those needs. Hunt, catch, play multiple small meals a day. The AAFP is my governing body. Um, you know, I support that organization. I’m a member of that organization and I’m on the Cat-Friendly Practise advisory board.

That said, I kind of object to the language of forage feeding. Cats are predators, people forage. Many, many animals forage. Cats don’t forage. They hunt. And to really meet the needs of our cats, they should be hunting for their food. So what does that mean? They need to be able to use their nose first, their eyes second, and then use their teeth and claws to actually engage with their, if you forgive the expression, prey before eating that small meal. So while I like puzzle feeders as an accessory to mealtime, I really strongly believe cats need to be hunting for their food. We could be releasing 10 mice are lizards into our house at mealtime, but that’s kind of a hard sell. So that’s why I created the indoor hunting feeder because no one else would do it.

I really only ever planned on being a practicing veterinarian but when I learned all of this and learn there was no solution, I actually got very upset because we now know, Amanda, did you know the number one cause of death for cats?

Amanda: I don’t.

Dr Liz: So I didn’t either until four years ago when my life changed forever when I learned that the number one cause of death for cats is euthanasia. And the number one cause of euthanasia are behaviour problems, behaviour problems that are the result of cats in the indoor environment, not having any way to express their normal behaviours of hunting, catching and playing with prey, which we now know is so integral to their well-being.

As a result of that, number one, they’re under great stress. And number two, they’re going to redirect that need and that stress into things we don’t like, like shredding our furniture, peeing outside the litter box, being aggressive, destructive. And those behaviours get them sent back to the shelter where most commonly there’s no room for them and they’re euthanized.

So it became my number one goal to educate people about this problem and to find solutions that were well designed, affordable people could use readily to give back cats their natural behaviour so that they don’t end up expressing those bad behaviours that ultimately end up with many of them being euthanized.

Amanda: That’s crazy. I had no idea.

Dr Liz: Isn’t it amazing? It’s just sad.

Amanda: It’s insane. It’s really, really sad. So I want to talk a little more about this interactive theatre that you’ve created because I honestly just recently kind of came across it after this AAFP statement and it’s really fascinating to me. So can you tell us a little bit about what the interactive feeder that you have is, or I guess you call it an indoor hunting feeder?

Dr Liz: Yeah. So I just recreated the hunt. So it’s three mouse shaped feeders that have a fabric skin on the outside. So it has sort of the tension that true prey skin would have. So if your cat has teeth or claws and wants to use them, they can interact with it. On the inside is a plastic container that has holes in the top and it’s super simple. Instead of filling the bowl for breakfast and dinner, you take that amount of food and split it between the three mouse feeders and then you hide them. So your cat actually gets to act out hunting, catching and playing with three small meals in the morning and three small meals at night.

Amanda: Okay, that’s really cool. Now I have a question because my cats are fed completely raw, so I was looking kind of at the design. So this is something I probably wouldn’t put raw in, but I could put like freeze dried treats or freeze dried food in the theatre.

Dr Liz: Exactly right. So I think the raw movement is really interesting and I think a lot more science needs to be done. But the focus on raw feeding is that you want to feed food that mimics pray, but what we’re doing is mimicking the prey but forgetting all about the critical piece that’s predation.

Amanda: That’s true.

Dr Liz: So how can you feed a diet that you’re comfortable with and you feel meets the needs of your cat, but also meet those behavioural needs that we now know are more likely to end up causing health and life-threatening problems than any physical problem that they may have? So exactly what you said, find a way if you can, in your home, split those raw meals into small portions and feed them throughout the day instead of one big meal or two big meals a day.

And if you’re comfortable with it, you can put it on little saucers and move them around so they’re not in the same place every day, is a really good start for that. I don’t really have a solution that is interactive for raw food that is sanitary right now. I’m working on it. I know it’s super important and I’m working on it, but as a veterinarian, I also have the public health concerns.

Amanda: Yes, absolutely.

Dr Liz: But I think it’s extremely important. So you feed the wet raw in that way. And then just like you said, Vital Essentials makes a really nice kibble that is a freeze-dried kibble that the size is awesome for the feeders, but you could also just use one piece of freeze dried chicken. And in fact, if your cat is having weight issues, do you know what Bonito flakes are?

Amanda: Yeah, I’ve heard of them.

Dr Liz: So it’s a dried fish flakes that is used in Japanese cooking and it has almost no calories, but it has a very compelling odour for cats. So you can just put a couple pieces of Bonito flakes inside those feeders and hide them and still give your cat that hunt, catch, play and a tiny little food reward to, to meet the behavioural needs of your cat if you’re not comfortable using a food that works with the feeder.

Amanda: Great. Okay. That’s awesome advice. Thank you. And then I also have a personal question here because everyone who listens knows that one of my cats, Bob, is blind. So how do we implement feeding him in an interactive way, but also working with he doesn’t have sight. He definitely has smell but he is a little thrown off by change. And this also kind of flows I guess into my next question. So to throw two at you at once, is this something we just kind of like implement instantly with our cats or is it something we kind of slowly move them towards?

Dr Liz: So I’m going to talk about Bob First.

Amanda: Okay.

Dr Liz: I love this question and it wasn’t really something I thought about to be honest with you because I just wanted to change the feeding behaviours of cats, actually feeding behaviours of humans for our cats. But after the AAFP meeting in 2016, I think it was where I got to it was, it was a behaviour was the focus of that meeting and I got to interact with lots of veterinarians there and it was super exciting. And two days later I got an email that was just a video and burst into tears. It was so moving to me of a cat named Elise who’s blind and was not able to interact very well with her environment. And that vet bought the feeders at the conference. And Elise was hunting in two days.

Amanda: Oh Wow.

Dr Liz: So your cat, even if it doesn’t have sight, if it has three legs, if it has no teeth, if for whatever reason it has no claws, although that is not my favourite, but some of us adopt cats that’s already been a part of their life, they still need to hunt and they still have that instinct and they can do it. The thing that’s so cool for a blind cat and it would make perfect sense they don’t like change, right? Because it’s scary and they could get hurt.

With the feeders, you can initially put them where the bowl was and gradually move them around, and so your cat is starting to use her that food lure to safely interact with their environment and that is really exciting. We had another cat named Hank. Hank is an Instagram celebrity. He’s called Hank the Blind and Deaf Cat and he would interact with his environment, but when his mom would leave for the day, she would come back and he would be exactly where she left him. When she wasn’t there, he didn’t move all day. And it kind of makes sense, right? Because they’ve come to understand that you’re going to make sure they’re okay and when you’re not there, they don’t feel safe and so they’re just going to stay where they are until you get back.

So she got the feeders and started using them with him and eventually when she was home she could see what he was comfortable with and what he wasn’t. And so she would put a feeder up on the sofa because that was something that he could do and so he would then start going further and further and being more and more confident and understanding what was safe for him with her guidance. And then she started to put the feeders out when she was gone and he started to hunt while she was gone and interact with the environment while she was gone. Which is super exciting.

Amanda: That’s awesome. So for the average healthy adult cat or even kitten, is it something that we again have to do slowly or do they kind of just innately pick it up?

Dr Liz: The thing that’s so interesting as I’ve gone through this process because now we have 55,000 cats eating this way, eating with my feeders in over 40 countries and now on every continent except Antarctica. And the people who are using it give me a lot of feedback. And people do what people want to do and I think it’s our instinct to just go for it. So most people don’t follow the instructions and just put out and hope for the best. And I would say about 80% of cats will just go for it straight away.

The instructions are not to just put them out and go for it straight away. Although it usually is successful. In your kit, you’re going to have those three mice. You’re also going to have a trainer. The trainer is just the plastic and has lots of holes in it so the cat can see it and smell it and use it. All they have to do is bump it and the food will come out, that’s sort of the training wheels.

Amanda: Oh gotcha.

Dr Liz: And what we recommend is that an hour before mealtime, you pick up the bowl, put food and stinky treats in that trainer until they show you they can use it, and then replace the trainer with the feeders and make sure that your cat can use it before you take away the bowl full time. So you would give that hour with them and then give them their meal in the bowl if they can’t eat that way.

I also wanted to say, we talked about cats being solitary hunters and this is so counter to human behaviour, but your cat’s better off when you go out to work for the day or you go to bed at night, pick up the bowl and leave the feeders down. They’re much more likely to engage and explore with something that they’re a little nervous about they’re alone.

Amanda: Oh, okay.

Dr Liz: And so then once they show you that they know how to use them, then you start hiding them. In the beginning, you do it really gradually in the kitchen where the bowl was, maybe up on a chair in the kitchen. And you’ll find pretty quickly that your cat’s going to learn. And if they didn’t empty one, that means that they couldn’t find it. So you need to be a little more patient with them.

Dr Liz: But cats have been doing this now for years. Their parents have a hard time hiding them difficult enough. My cat is a one-eyed Sphinx named Carlos and I can put the feeder inside a shoe box, put the lid on the shoe box and hide the shoebox. Their ability to hunt is amazing.

Amanda: Yeah, that’s crazy. Anyone who listens to the show regularly knows that I’m a big advocate of just doing what you can, doing the best that you can. So even it sounds like to me, for some people this might be a good option that they just give this to their cat at night and maybe during the day for whatever reason, they can’t have them out all the time. Like maybe they have dogs and they have to have them in a special area where only their cats can access.

But it sounds like something that you could do even in addition to what you’re already doing with your cats, obviously as long as you’re mitigating their calorie intake, but just something to enrich their lives.

Dr Liz: I totally agree. You know, the gold standard is to get rid of the bowl, but anything is better than nothing. And I think that suggestion of just overnight or just when you’re at work if you’re not ready to make that whole leap yet or it doesn’t work with your lifestyle, find some way most days that your cat gets to be a cat.

Amanda: I think that’s great advice. So that’s kind of the summary of what I want us to talk about. I would love to ask you, I have a question that I ask everybody who comes on the show and it is, if you could give just one piece of advice to pet parents around the world, what would it be?

Dr Liz: My advice would be to meet your pet where it is and understand what its natural behaviours and needs are and try to love your pet the way your pet needs to be loved, not love them like a baby or a human. That’s real love.

Amanda: I think that’s amazing advice. Awesome. So where can people go to learn more about you and your company and what you do and I’ll have everything linked in the show notes.

Dr Liz: So docandphoebe.com is the website where you can get that information. I also have a blog there where I tried to give veterinary quality information in a way that is fun and easy to digest and you can send questions meow@docandphoebe.com. Blog post suggestions, questions, concerns, etc.

The most incredible part of this whole journey in addition to helping cats is learning so much about cat parents and what their needs are and their concerns are. So that’s a pleasure for me.

Amanda: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Dr. Liz: Thank you for having me. And thanks for all that you’re doing to help inform cat lovers everywhere.

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