Updated January 3, 2021
Update 1 year later: read to the end for the good news!
Out of the box came a beautiful and regal young male Ragdoll cat. He was quite a sight; in the prime of life and nearly perfect in health and temperament. But not to his owners, who said, “he’s a monster, we’re going to have to get rid of him.”
It turned out that he was terrorising them, lying in ambush around the house, and being especially aggressive for food. Their hands, arms, and legs showed the evidence of violent encounters. They didn’t know what to do.
Here’s what I said:
- There’s a lovely cat inside him just waiting to come out
- If I had seen him as a kitten this shouldn’t have happened
- Though not your fault, his management is to blame
- He can still be saved.
You can tell from the title the main thing they did wrong. It’s unbelievably simple, and it started when he was little. They made sure he always had plenty to eat.
Free Feeding vs Meal Feeding
There’s a myth you can give a kitten a big pile of food and they will do fine. It’s just not true. Everyone knows about the obesity problem in cats but very few people understand the behavioural problems.
Cats in the wild might eat 20 to 30 small meals a day. Each one requires hard work and patience for a minimal reward. They aren’t in control of their food intake and in fact, will fail as many times as they succeed. Now compare that to a domestic cat.
Why Free Feeding Causes Aggression
You’re Training Them!
Yep, you are actually teaching your kitten to be aggressive. If you leave a bowl of food out for your cat, what do they always do when it runs out? Go and find you and ‘ask’ for more.
What do they do if you say no? Try a bit harder until you say yes. And so it escalates. All the while your kitten learns two things:
- I am in charge of getting these hopeless people to feed me
- Sometimes they need to feel pain before they agree
Your cat isn’t being a monster, just smart. If you want an animal that always does what they are told, that’s not a cat. We can still get them to see it our way without a fight though.
Lack Of Bonding
Think of every meal as a Kodak moment. That’s why in my house Grendel gets fed three times a day plus a kitty treat from me; because we all want to do it.
Before each happy meal he gets all slinky with his wide adorable pupils and prances about with his tail straight up waiting for mealtime. Uh-oh, Grendel, it’s only 9:28, you’ve got two more minutes to go!
Yes, we really do enforce it to the minute. He’s not complaining, in fact sometimes I think the anticipation is more memorable than the actual food. And it’s the anticipation that bonds him to us each mealtime and reminds him that we are his providers.
Boredom & Obesity
A cat with a steady food supply doesn’t have to work at all. However, their body and mind still need exercise, and so they will find an outlet. It may be your arms or legs that get hunted. Our guide to keeping cats indoors shows you lots of other ways to keep cats amused.
How To Start Meal Feeding
Think of meal feeding as teaching your kitten two separate objectives:
- That feeding times are out of their control
- That food bowls can be empty
Although problems occur more in certain individuals, such as male cats and Ragdolls, all kittens should be meal-fed. Scheduled meals are a big part of creating sociable, friendly cats and are very easy to start at 8 to 12 week of age. That’s why we always talk about meal feeding with kitten vaccinations.
If you don’t want to be woken up nice and early it’s also a good idea not to feed as soon as you wake up. How about doing it after a shower or breakfast for example?
If you have an older cat you can still successfully make the change. However, the transition can be challenging in the beginning. After all, your cat has learned to remind you when the bowl is empty, and now the gentle prompting stops working. For a while, most cats will just try harder (I know, I’ve been there too).
How Much To Feed Kittens
A big reason owners don’t feed their kittens in meals is not knowing how much to give. Here’s a simple way:
- Use the food instructions to calculate a total amount per day for your kitten’s age and size
- Divide this into the number of meals you want and start
- Monitor your kitten’s body condition (or ask a vet) and adjust the amount accordingly
Remember that although they usually won’t eat all the food at once, it should run out well before the next meal. Think of the time they’ll now have free. A cat who can accept an empty bowl isn’t just a nicer cat to know, but also a cat who can get back to chasing the butterflies.
What To Feed Kittens
Advice on which foods are best for kitten diets can be found in our page on feeding kittens.
You might also like our page on stopping cats waking you up too early. Thanks to Miss Sushi for posing in the photo above.
Now The Good News
I saw the same Ragdoll 1 year later and everything had changed. This year he was a pleasure to be around, there were barely any attacks and the owners’ arms and legs were injury free. He’d even been trained to high-5!
They’d followed my advice to the letter, and whether it was entirely this or also him getting older, he’d become a lovely cat. He’d even lost some weight! Stories like this are what make my job so satisfying.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!