SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- Cats are the perfect pet. They are small, independent, furry and adorable. But are we feeding our cats in a way that's hurting them?
U.S. households are now home to nearly 100 million pet cats.
"Our cats are certainly our family and I love them very, very much," said Daniella Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld owns 2 cats, named Buddy and Greylock.
"They're just fascinating and they're wonderful and I don't know there's somethings about them that I've always been drawn to them," added Marilyn Krieger. Krieger shares her home with Sudan a Savannah, and two Bengals named Olivia and Janiya.
For a cat's health and safety, as well as for the health and safety of birds, we are encouraged to keep our pet cats confined indoors.
Most of us routinely feed them by scooping food into a bowl.
"We feed them in the morning when we wake up. I usually give them some wet food around 7 or 8 and then I give them a late dinner around 11." explained Hirschfeld.
But we often leave them "home alone."
"A lot of people work 40 hour weeks, and they're not home much," said Frances Ho, the rescue and welfare programs coordinator at the San Francisco SPCA.
Experts warn this kind of modern lifestyle can make cats fat, bored, destructive, even stressed-out.
And, no one wants a stressed-out kitty. They can become less active, anxious and may eat more food. They can exhibit respiratory issues as well as gastrointestinal distress. Not only that, stressed cats can experience lower urinary-tract problems.
"Some cats get stressed -- what happens is that their bladder begins to spasm and then they have difficulty urinating," explained Dr. Tony Buffington, professor emeritus at UC Davis, and a veterinarian.
Perhaps the best thing to do for your furry friends? Get them to tap into their "inner wildcat."
"These are little predators and they're used to hunting," explained Krieger. She's a certified cat behaviorist who writes columns for Catster, as well as an informative book on cat behavior called "Naughty No More." Krieger recommends getting cats to work for their food, just like they would in the wild.
"They didn't evolve to eat 50 percent of their food in the morning and 50 percent of their food at night. But what they do is they eat small meals throughout the day," she explained.
The idea: Hide their food and have them hunt for it. One way to do that is to ditch the feeding bowl.
Frances Ho agrees.
When it comes to cats, the SF SPCA is trying to get away from bowl feeding so that the cat has the freedom to experience more natural behavior.
Without a bowl, cats can tap into their natural ability to forage. Ho said in this way, they can use their sense of smell, their eyes, and their whole body to interact with food, rather than sitting or lying next to a bowl. With the cats here, Ho is testing out the "No Bowl System." The no-bowl system was created by veterinarian Liz Bales.
"We respect all of her research and the time she's put into it," exclaimed Ho.
Small amounts of kibble are put in holes found on containers that resemble mice which are placed around a cat's environment.
We watched as a beautiful black cat named Hairy Houdini gave it a whirl.
"He took to it immediately," said Ho.
Hairy found the mice, batted them around, and devoured the bits of kibble that popped out.
"We've been using it for a little over a month and we're seeing great results especially with cats who need a little extra stimulation in their lives and some of the longer term cats as well," explained Ho.
California researchers studied 24 cases of dysfunctional house cats, using a variety of different contraptions. Many cats lost weight, became more social and less destructive even stopped urinating outside their litter boxes. The review concluded if you use food puzzles, you'll get something great in return.
"What you get in return is a real cat who interacts with this environment in a way that people get cats in the first place to enjoy," said Dr. Buffington.
Dr. Buffington was a co-author on the study which was published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. He said introducing food puzzles to cats who are used to bowls should be a slow process and it is always a choice, not a mandate.
The researchers actually have a great website that shows you all the different kinds of puzzles and tips on how to show your cat how to use them.
"We think being able to hunt for food in the house is just as important as a good scratching post and a good place to climb and all those other crucial resources that cats need," exclaimed Dr. Buffington. As for food puzzles, you can make them yourself.
Krieger demonstrated some of her favorites which include stuffing kibble into old tennis balls or wet food into inexpensive PVC pipes.
You can also freeze a treat -- a tiny chicken morsel in cat-friendly broth -- using old-fashion ice trays.
"It takes them a long time to lick the cube," laughed Krieger.
Her Savannah cat Sudan attacked the puzzles with relish.
As for cat owner Daniella Hirschfeld, she is game and up for it.
"If there was an easy way to make it part of our lives. I certainly would be open to that."
She just sent KPIX a photo of Greylock attacking a puzzle and having fun.
By the way, Hairy Houdini is up for adoption and if you adopt Hairy in May, the adoption is free.
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