If you own more than one cat, chances are that at some point, you will need to feed them different diets. This is easier said than done. Inevitably, one cat will want the other cat’s food. Here are several strategies you can use to troubleshoot feeding different diets in the multi-cat household, from the least successful to the most effective.
Many people start by trying separate feeding stations in the same room. This is a good idea for cats that are on the same diet as cats are by nature solitary hunters and prefer to eat alone. However, the pitfall for cats that need different diets is that most people don’t adequately supervise mealtimes, and the cats end up sampling each other’s food.
Another solution is to physically separate the cats by feeding them in separate rooms. Leave the food down in each room for at least half an hour both morning and evening to give the cats time to eat. This method is relatively foolproof, other than the time-management aspect. It requires starting your feeding routine early enough in the morning so that everyone has plenty of time to eat before you take up the food, let everyone out, and leave for work.
Alternatively, you can quickly train your cats to eat in their carriers, which provides positive reinforcement that carriers are happy places. I will occasionally do this when I have multiple foster cats on different diets. I’m always surprised at how rapidly even kittens learn to run to their carrier when they see me getting out cans of food. Locking the carrier doors serves to keep everyone in place for the duration of mealtime. The down side of these methods is that cats prefer to eat several small mouse-sized meals a day and restricting their access to food promotes gobbling their food and hurts the development of self-regulation based on hunger signals.
Luckily, there are ways to provide cats on different diets free access to their respective food while still preventing them from eating each other’s food. The best device that I have found is the SureFeed Microchip Pet Feeder, a feeding bowl with a lid that recognizes microchips and only opens for a preselected cat or cats. I had one client whose diabetic cat went into remission after the client started using one to ensure the cat only ate his prescription diet. The main caveat is that it will only work if your cats are microchipped, and there is an upfront expense. It also solves the most frequent objection that I hear from clients, which is that they want some of their cats to have dry food available at all times. (Note: there is good evidence that cats, especially older ones, benefit from eating mostly or all wet food, but for various reasons — from personal to cat preference — some people choose to feed mainly dry food).
The real challenge is finding a way to feed cats separate diets and also make mealtime stimulating by implementing food puzzles (see November’s fabulous column for more on food puzzles). To do this really requires feeding in separate rooms. The SureFeed company also makes a microchip recognition enabled pet door that can be used to restrict access to certain rooms for specific cats. This means you can set up puzzle feeders, an indoor hunting feeder, or hide treats throughout a room and only pre-designated cats can access the food throughout the day, which is more natural and healthier way of feeding. It takes a little planning, but it is totally possible to meet the needs of having cats on different diets and simultaneously provide a more hunting-like feeding environment.
Shira A. Rubin, D.V.M., is a relief veterinarian in the South Bay. She regularly consults for several local rescue groups and fosters through Four Paws to Love. She is currently fostering a kitten with a broken pelvis and another kitten with multiple birth defects. She enjoys challenging cases and helping solve problems of all kinds, particularly in multi-cat households.
Are you a San Francisco Bay area cat behaviorist, cat consultant, or cat expert who would like to contribute to this column, Kitty Corner? Send email to Editor@BayWoof.com.
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