A healthier way to feed your cat
Enrique, a rescue cat at the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society, hunts for food. the group has been using NoBowl feeders for the last six months. CreditJessica Kourkounis for The New York Times
If you have a house cat, you probably end up dealing with cat vomit on a regular basis, says Dr. Liz Bales, a Philadelphia veterinarian and the owner of a one-eyed hairless cat named Carlos. But, she maintains, it doesn’t need to be that way.
One culprit is what is known as scarf-and-barf syndrome, in which the cat overindulges at mealtimes to a calamitous degree. Other common cat behaviors she has observed are the relentless stalking of food bowls in hopes of a refill, the nocturnal demands for food while owners are trying to sleep and a contentious relationship with the litter box that results in a hit-or-miss pattern of use.
As Dr. Bales views it, an underlying issue behind all of these problems is that living indoors suppresses cats’ natural hunting instincts. This dynamic has increasingly come to light at the professional conferences she has attended in her 16 years as a veterinarian. She has also discussed it with animal behaviorists and animal nutritionists.
“They need portion control. They need regular exercise. They really should be in charge of their own feeding schedule,” Dr. Bales says she has learned. “All these factors boil down to cats should not be eating from bowls.”
Two years ago, after she couldn’t find anyone offering a solution, Dr. Bales decided to come up with her own. Next month, the NoBowl Feeding System, a product she developed to simulate cats’ natural feeding habits, will start being delivered to her first customers, of which there are nearly 3,500 so far.
NoBowl eschews the traditional bowl. Instead, cat owners stuff small portions of dry food into five containers and hide them from the cat. The containers are made of hard plastic and wrapped in stretchy gray fabric, resembling a mouse. The idea is that when the cat is hungry, it will seek out the food and bat the pouch around, dispensing its contents through small holes in the fabric and the plastic.
In their natural environment, cats eat about 12 times a day, feasting on small prey like mice and birds that are appropriate for their stomachs, which are about the size of a table tennis ball. They also toss their prey around in a form of play that is essential to their well-being, says Dr. Carlo Siracusa, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
“No matter if you feed your cat or not, your cat has to do those activities that are related to the feeding behavior,” Dr. Siracusa says. “The behavior pattern is written in the genes of the animal, which means that this is a behavioral need.”
When we plop a scoop of food into a bowl and walk away, “there’s nothing of this hunting behavior,” he says. By contrast, cats are meant to play with the NoBowl.
“Some cats just roll it,” Dr. Bales says “But with other cats, it’s a full-on rodeo.”
Believing that the science behind the product is sound, Dr. Siracusa joined the NoBowl advisory board last spring.
According to research, about 58 percent of cats are overweight or obese. Most of the solutions have focused only on portion control and reduced-calorie diets. These include high-tech feeders designed to manage cats’ food intake. Wireless Whiskers and Pet Feedster are both automated feeders that release portioned cat food.
Dr. Bales is generally skeptical of tech-driven cat products, including the ones intended for entertainment and exercise. “I have a lot of concerns,” she says. “I don’t think your cat really wants to play with your iPad.”
And though it isn’t high-tech, Mr. Siracusa says that the NoBowl concept is, in fact, quite cutting-edge. “Paying attention to not just the amount of food, but to the feeding behavior is a very new concept for veterinary medicine,” he says.
That the NoBowl was created by a veterinarian should work to its advantage, says David Lummis, senior pet market analyst for Packaged Facts, a pet products news and trends site. Hill’s Science Diet dog and cat food and Greenies treats for cats and dogs both had huge success and benefited from ties with veterinarians, he says. Science Diet was developed by a vet, and Greenies received an endorsement from the Veterinary Oral Health Council.
Tierra Bonaldi, a pet lifestyle consultant with the American Pet Products Association, expects the NoBowl to thrive in the mass market, particularly given the recent focus on pet obesity. “Creating products that go back to their natural instincts and make them more active and not overeating is a good thing,” she says. She uses the Drinkwell Pet Fountain, a bowl with free-flowing water that she says her cats prefer because it mimics outdoor water sources.
But the NoBowl doesn’t have the same convenience as a cat water fountain or an automated food dispenser. “As a person with multiple cats, I just do not see myself stuffing these things,” Mr. Lummis says. “It’s not just the time it would take. It’s also the whole idea of trying to get them out from under the couch and trying to find them.”
Dr. Bales says cats are not prone to hiding things; for instance, when they hunt outside, they often deposit their prey on your doorstep, she says. She sent NoBowl systems to a test group of 25 cat owners and says the people with multiple cats reported that their pets adjusted well to the pouches. The feeding approach for them is similar to that for people with both cats and dogs — a situation that applies to Dr. Bales.
Her dog, a mutt named Plankton, would love to sink his teeth into the NoBowls, “but it’s not made for dogs,” she says. To feed her cat, Carlos, she hides the NoBowl pouches in a room and closes the door to keep Plankton out. Carlos then engages in a solitary hunt, as cats are meant to do.
Even if cat owners are willing to put in the extra work, there’s the issue of how much money they spend on their cats in the first place. According to Packaged Facts, dog products accounted for 61 percent of sales in the pet supplies market in 2015, while cat products accounted for only 31 percent of sales.
At $60, the NoBowl is a higher-price item. This could make it vulnerable to imitations that “could be a lot less expensive and offer some of the same kind of fun benefits,” Mr. Lummis says.
Ms. Bonaldi, for one, is unfazed by the price. Obviously, it would be easy to buy a cat bowl for $1.99, she says: “But for those who really want to take the extra steps, it’s like shopping at Whole Foods. It’s more expensive to eat healthy.”