Feeding Cats 101: How Many Calories Are In a Mouse?

Have you ever wondered what a house cat’s ideal meal should be? In a cheeky quote attributed to esteemed veterinary cardiologist and feline nutrition pioneer, Dr. Paul Pion, the recipe goes as follows: “Take one vole and put it in a blender.” 

That’s it. Done. This blenderized meal is nutritionally complete and, to employ pet nutrition’s newest buzzword, it’s “biologically appropriate” too. 

A small mammalian meal is gross, for sure (and perhaps not very humane … for the vole), but it’s undeniably what every cat aspires to eat. After all, our cats are obligate carnivores; they must eat meat. What’s more, their evolutionary origins as desert creatures suggest that whole prey is an ideal source of hydration, too. 

Unfortunately, we humans haven’t been doing a very good job of mimicking this diet on behalf of our house cats. Not lately, anyway. 

Once upon a time, our cats were prized for their stealthy way around a barn or field. They kept creatures from grazing on our grains, feasting on our seeds, stealing food from our farm animals’ troughs, and spreading diseases to our families. This practical relationship met its end in suburbia when our relationship to cats evolved and they became emotional investments reserved for those who could afford them. 

Feeding indoor cats economically and easily became the holy grail for early pet food companies like Purina. Kibbled food was especially valued by owners for its convenience and by pet food companies for its high profit margin along with consumers’ profligate ways with a scoop. 

Makes sense, right? If your cat asks for food, you feed her. If she keeps asking, you might as well keep the bowl brimming. Convenient, isn’t it? Absolutely! … more so when you have several noisy mouths to feed. Before you know it you’ve gone through a whole bag of Meow Mix — or four. 

Given this common pattern, it stands to reason that our house cats might tip the scales at some point. And they do! According to most of the available research, just over 50% of owned cats are overweight. Which seems like something of an underestimate to me. That is, if my own patients are any guide. 

Indeed, in my estimation, about 80% of my adult patients would be way better off if they lost a tenth of their body weight. And well over 50% of my patients could stand to lose 20% or more. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get cat owners to see things my way. 

Many cat owners simply don’t agree. They’ve become accustomed to the look of a satisfied house cat. They’ve come to associate feline health with a deep padding of fat and a plush, Morris-the-cat appearance. Quite distinct from the lean, rangy look of an active mouser, this “style” of cat has almost completely replaced the sleek hunter. In fact, we’ve come to associate leanness with an undesirable feral status. 

Thing is, pet owner perception of feline weight desperately needs to change if we want our cats to live longer, more active, less painful lives. After all, the truth is that our cats are uncomfortably overweight. While we’ve been busy adjusting our worldview of the ideal feline form from a lithe stalker to a semi-inert sofa pouf, our cats have become slower, sicker, achy and (worst of all) bored. 

All of which brings me back to the primary reason why our cats are so fat: Because they’re easier that way. Sure, we love them and we believe we’re willing to do what’s best for them but we also fill their bowls indiscriminately because … 

  1. it’s what we’ve always done, 
  2. it’s what our cats seem clamor for, 
  3. there’s no pressing reason to do otherwise, and  
  4. it’s too hard to change!

So what’s a responsible pet owner to do? Here’s my primer, in five simple steps:

#1 Feed moistened food. Even if that food is a kibbled diet you pour water over, it’s better than feeding dry crunchy stuff. Pouched or canned is even better. Now, I'll concede that this recommendation is still not recommended by all veterinarians, most progressive practitioners I follow are adopting it.

Here's more controversial stuff on this subject:

Home cooked is ideal (though by no means recommended by all veterinarians) –– that is, as long as you stick to a recipe. I recommend a consultation with the University of Tennessee’s pet nutrition service for customized recipes. Raw is controversial (even more so!) but as long as no one in the household is immunosuppressed, I’ll help my clients go there. 

Note: It may be hard to switch to wet but here’s an article that should help you make the transition. By the way, crunchy food is only minimally helpful for their teeth. You really want to help their teeth? Brush them!

#2 Feed individual meals. Forget the bottomless bowl! That’s a surefire recipe for excess poundage in almost all but the most active, metabolically gift cats. 

#3 Feed at least three meals a day. Cats are not dogs. As small prey eaters, they need more meals. I recommend feeding first time in the morning, when you get home from work, and half an hour before bedtime. If you can squeeze in a fourth at lunchtime, bully for you! (This recommendation, by the way, is NOT controversial at all.)

#4 Feed a customized amount. In other words, don’t rely on the can or pouch to tell you how much you need to feed. Ask your veterinarian for an individualized amount based on your cats’ size, activity level and body condition score and make adjustments to that amount as needed. 

Note: Check out how many calories are really in that mouse-sized meal for some perspective on ideal meal size.

#5 Feed your cats separately. This should go without saying but I end up having to say it all the time. If you need to feed in separate rooms until the cats have adjusted to this new world order, so be it. Trust me, the benefits to your cats’ health are worth it!

This transition may be difficult but all my motivated clients eventually manage. The key is to teach all my new kitten owners to adopt this approach early on. So far that’s been working –– mostly, anyhow. Some cat owners seem to value convenience over all else. (“That’s why I got a cat not a dog!”) 

I get it. Really I do. But that doesn’t mean I’ll happily tolerate those who say they want the best for their cats yet continue to feed them “conveniently." How about you? Will you make the switch? Will it be your New Year’s Resolution? Or will you wait 'till there's more research on the subject before helping your "pleasantly plump" cats adopt a new way of life? 

-Dr. Patty Khuly