In honour of September being National Cat Month in Canada, I’m going to try to sprinkle in a few more cat episodes!
Today we are going to talk about a topic that might get some of you up in arms, why you really shouldn’t be free-feeding your cat (or dog, but this is cat month, so we’re not going to talk about dogs today – much, haha). But FIRST, I want to stress that I am not here to make anyone feel bad about how they feed their cat. That’s not my jam. We do not shame people making the best decisions they can with the knowledge & resources they have at the time.
In case you haven’t heard the term, “free-feeding” is when you give your cat constant access to an entire bowl of food so they can eat as much as they want, whenever they want. Typically this is done with kibble as other foods would spoil too quickly. This leads perfectly into…
Reason #1 for not free-feeding. Oxidation.
Contrary to popular belief, when left exposed to the air, the fats in kibble do “spoil,” or to use the scientific term, go rancid & it can happen rather quickly too.
According to Steve Brown, a fantastic pet health author & pet food formulator, once a bag of kibble is opened & exposed to the oxygen in the air, you have 14 days before it will oxidize.
What is oxidation?
- Oxidation occurs as soon as the oil comes into contact with oxygen from the environment. Since pet food is loaded with different fats and oils, it is extremely sensitive to oxygen. The oil reacts with the oxygen in the air, and through a series of chemical reactions, it will make the oil rancid (1).
Most of the free-feeding systems on the market are made of a large storage container with a bowl attached in front. As the cat eats, the food will flow from the larger compartment through a small opening into the bowl. Unfortunately, these containers hold more than 10 days of food in them, meaning the risk for oxidation is very high with these.
Why do we worry about oxidation?
- Studies show that frequent consumption of oxidized fats may cause cancer and contribute to many chronic health problems.
- When we know that the cancer rate in dogs is 1 in 2 for dogs over 10 years old (and this is likely under-reported), we need to consider factors like oxidation. I’m using dogs as the stat example here because even the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says that there is just less information available about cancer in cats (2).
- Consuming rancid oil may increase your risk of heart disease, atherosclerosis and blood clots. When you consume rancid oils, your body must use its stores of antioxidants such as vitamin E to neutralize the rancid oils, leaving fewer of these resources available to your body for cellular repair (aka anti-aging) and disease prevention.” – Livestrong.
To top that off, most (if not all) of these free-feeding systems are plastic. This is a BIG problem because, with its microscopic pores, the walls of these plastic food containers are the perfect place for rancid fats, bacteria & moulds to live. All these things can significantly affect your pet’s health & longevity.
If you’ve heard me talk about kibble & rancidity before, you know that I am a strong advocate for storing kibble in the freezer to slow oxidation.
People often ask me: How can you tell if your kibble has oxidized?
- Unfortunately, it can be very hard to tell. Visually, oxidized kibble will look the same as when you opened the bag.
- Your pet will be able to smell or taste a difference long before you can, but that doesn’t always stop them from eating it. This is why I recommend never forcing your pet to eat. Pets can sense things we can’t.
Reason #2 It Can Lead to Weight Issues
- 50–60% of pets were overweight in Canada in 2020 (Kabo)
- The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has stated that the number of pets in Canada that are overweight or obese is on the rise.
- Health risks associated with obesity:
- many types of cancer, diabetes mellitus, heart disease, and hypertension
- osteoarthritis and faster degeneration of affected joints
- urinary bladder stones
- anesthetic complications (3)
The best way to know if your kitty is overweight is to familiarize yourself with a Body Condition Scoring Chart & perform frequent assessments at home. I will have one in the accompanying blog post for this episode.
An important note about weight loss with cats
“If your cat is obese, she’ll need to lose no more than 1/2 pound a month because overweight kitties are prone to a serious condition called hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease. This condition never happens in nature because animals in the wild never become obese. Captivity has created some really strange metabolic diseases in animals, and fatty liver disease in kitties is one of them.
As an obese cat’s body senses weight being lost, it begins to mobilize accumulated stores of fat very rapidly. If weight loss occurs too quickly in an obese cat, the flood of fat can overwhelm the liver and shut it down. Very overweight cats are more prone to this life-threatening condition because their percentage of body fat is so high” (4).
Reason #3: It’s Easier to Miss Things
- Eating less or stopping altogether can indicate that a cat is in pain or dealing with a severe illness. Having a constantly filled bowl or one that is self-filling can make it easy to miss the early warning signs.
What to do instead of free-feeding?
- Ideally, cats should eat several small portioned meals per day, but twice a day is fine for most cats.
- Consider using mealtime enrichment to help alleviate boredom & help with behaviour issues – I recorded an excellent episode with veterinarian Dr. Liz Bales about how enrichment at feeding time can impact your cat’s health.
- If you aren’t already, try incorporating at least some moisture into your cat’s diet. In my opinion, a balanced raw food diet is the best thing for cats as obligate carnivores, but every little bit you can do helps!