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A Cat Tale – Being Mindful of the Cats’ Eating

I’ve been on quite a journey with my cats and their eating, and lately it’s been more of an adventure than I’d like. But it’s also been a fascinating learning process, making me more aware of what they want and need for food – not just what I think they should have.

In the beginning

Way back when I first got Salem in the fall of 1999, she was around a year old and quite small, only 7 pounds. She didn’t stay that way, though. When she had free access to dry food, she took full advantage of it.

By the time she got up to 13 pounds, the vet suggested I limit her food intake. This was a new concept for me, since we never had to do that with cats when I was growing up. And I didn’t even have to worry about it with Osiris, my other cat, since he self-regulated.

Are cats emotional eaters?

What’s interesting is that my cats don’t just have different eating habits, but also completely different personalities. And I can’t help but consider whether those things are connected.

For example, Salem has always been a more fearful and easily startled cat than Osiris. It was years before she got to the point of not hiding under the bed when other people came over. And for a long time she didn’t even play – it seemed like she didn’t know that was an option.

It makes me wonder sometimes if she was an emotional eater. Maybe she even came from a background of scarcity, since I got her at the shelter, and that contributed to both her fear and her constant eating.

Osiris, on the other hand, has never been afraid of anything in his life, at least as far as I can tell. (I also wonder if part of this is because he’s deaf, so he can’t hear startling noises, but it’s hard to say.) He loves to play and get attention, and he always wants to investigate new things.

Food restriction

Anyway, I don’t know how much this has influenced their eating. But my solution back around 2005 was to get an automatic cat feeder. It gave the cats certain amounts of food twice a day, and that was it. The beauty of this was that I could also set it to go off before I got up in the morning, and before I got home, so the cats wouldn’t be clamoring for food first thing.

It worked, too, in the sense that Salem’s weight stabilized, and Osiris stayed steady. I did feel bad for them when Daylight Savings ended, and they’d be sitting staring at the cat feeder for an hour, wondering why it wasn’t going off. But at least I didn’t have to worry about their eating.

Until last year.

Unexpected weight loss

I didn’t know anything was wrong until this past May, when the cats had their bi-annual check-up. That’s when I found out both of them had lost weight.

They weren’t dangerously low, not yet, but at their advanced years, any weight drop is a concern. Which I find very ironic. Before, the problem was Salem gaining weight. Now, at 20, it’s losing weight. And Osiris, at almost 18, is right behind her in years. Sometimes you just can’t win.

The vet said that if both cats had lost weight, it was likely something environmental, not a health issue. Then I remembered that I’d changed their cat food in late 2017. A friend had given me some fancy organic food that her cat wouldn’t touch, and I thought my cats were okay with it. Apparently not.

But I didn’t go back to their old food. That had been an indoor cat formula, designed to help regulate their weight. I figured that if I wanted them to gain a bit, I should just get regular dry food.

Except as of November, they’d lost more weight. In fact, Salem was back down to 7 pounds. She really couldn’t afford to lose more because then if she got sick, she’d have absolutely no reserves.

Experimenting with food

So I decided to go back to their original food and see if I could get Osiris to eat more wet food. (Salem will eat some wet, but she nibbles at it more than anything.)

And the cats started eating a bit more. Not enormous amounts, but I noticed a difference in their food bowls – and something else.

Salem’s energy.

Unintended consequences

First, let me clarify that I also found out in May that Salem has congestive heart failure. It sounds scary, but it can actually be managed all right (for some cats) with a bit of medication to keep fluid from building up in her lungs. This medication came in the form of half a small pill, about the size of a popcorn kernel, or even a bit smaller.

Salem had been okay with getting the pill at first – not excited, mind you, but tolerant. It helped that I used a pill popper, so I wasn’t trying to force my fingers into her mouth. (She doesn’t have many teeth left, but she’s got some good sharp canines that could do damage. Plus all her claws.)

Except after the food change, she suddenly started fighting back more with the pill. She just wasn’t having it. She pawed at my arm and thrashed her tongue around to keep the pill from going in.

The irony! When she was under-nourished, she couldn’t be bothered to make much of a fuss. Now, with better nutrition, she didn’t want to take the medication that would keep her alive a bit longer.

Could I have experimented with wrapping her in a blanket to force the pill down? Yes. But once I found out I could get the medicine in liquid form, I decided that was the best way to go. It’s considerably more expensive, but I’d rather not have a fight with Salem every day, and realistically, she’s not going to need the medication for many more years (if even years).

She’s still not excited about getting her liquid dose in the morning, but it’s way easier than the pill.

Paying attention

I’ve also noticed that Osiris will happily scarf down quite a bit of wet food – although oddly, sometimes he won’t start until I sprinkle a few bites of dry food on it.

And Salem will eat a little more wet food, but I have to give it to her in tiny, periodic amounts. A tablespoon in the morning, another in the afternoon, and then again in the evening – and even then she might not eat all of it. But at the same time, she’s annoyed if she doesn’t have it as an option.

This has made me much more attuned to the cats’ eating patterns. Or, if I’m being honest, it means they’ve trained me very well. When Salem wanders into the dining room, all she has to do is look at her empty wet food plate and then look at me. I feel so guilty for spending a year of semi-starving them (even unintentionally) that I hop right to it and give her a dab more food.

Looking ahead

I’m still not quite sure where this will end up, although at least they haven’t seemed to lose weight over the past month, and Salem feels a bit more solid to me. It’s hard to get a real read, since my scale only measures in pounds, but at least I can tell general trends.

I also know I only have so much longer with them, so I’m okay with the extra measures. Hopefully it will give us a little more time together, and at least in their twilight years, they can eat when, what, and however much they want. Then they can spend what energy they have on the necessary cat things: lots of sleeping, watching birds and squirrels, and being patted.

Osiris and Salem sleeping

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