Feeding the Felines: Does Food Intake Change with the Seasons?

Do you ever feel like you want to eat more in the winter than in summer? It could be that your cat is the same.

Black and white cats in the garden in Spring
Photo: Nadezhda Nesterova / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

New research by Samuel Serisier et al (2014) investigates how much cats choose to eat at different times of year. The results show seasonal variations in food intake in cats that were allowed free access to food.

The study took place over a four-year period in the South of France. 38 cats took part, including 7 Bengal cats, 6 European shorthairs, 5 Maine Coons and a range of other breeds. There were 17 male cats (almost all neutered) and 21 female (of which ten were spayed).   The cats were all healthy, although 16 of them were overweight at the start (and end) of the study. 

The cats were resident at the Royal Canin Research Centre. 8 of the cats were indoors-only, and the rest of the cats had an indoor pen with access to an outdoor run. They lived in colonies of 8 cats. There was a two-hour period each day when a caregiver initiated play with each group of cats, and the rest of their time was free for the cats to do as they wished.  

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The living quarters received natural daylight, and during 7.30am-5.30pm a human would turn the lights on if, in their opinion, it was gloomy.

Over the four years, the cats were fed different foods, but the type of food did not change with the seasons. Basically, these are cats that test cat food, so at times they were given a choice of two different foods, and the rest of the time they were fed their regular food. The exact amount that each cat ate was monitored every day. The hours of daylight and the temperature were also recorded. Then some complicated statistics were performed on the data, including something called Artificial Neural Network modelling.

The results showed that cats ate the most in late autumn and winter (Oct – Feb) and the least in the summer (June to August). In the intervening months, they ate a middling amount. Despite the change in food intake, their weight did not change with the seasons, suggesting they were expending more energy in the winter. Although they may have needed energy to keep warm, the inside of their residence was always 18-24C. Future research could investigate the cats’ actual energy expenditure.

The researchers were not able to separate the effects of temperature and daylight length, since they correlated so closely together. It is not known if it is one or both of these that affected the cats’ eating habits.

Interestingly, although the overweight cats were not able to regulate their food intake to keep themselves at a normal weight, they still showed seasonal variability in food intake, like the normal weight cats. The researchers say, “whilst physiological cues driving seasonal variation appear to function effectively, other physiological mechanisms governing food intake (e.g. appetite regulation) do not.”

Another interesting finding is that the cats all gained some weight during the course of the study. 

Because these cats were living in a colony, it’s not known if the same eating patterns would be found in pet cats. But these results are interesting because they were found in cats fed ad libitum over a long period of time. Plus, of course, it’s always interesting to know about the lives of cats that test pet food.

Have you noticed seasonal changes in your cat’s eating habits? 

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:
Serisier, S., Feugier, A., Delmotte, S., Biourge, V., & German, A. (2014). Seasonal Variation in the Voluntary Food Intake of Domesticated Cats (Felis Catus) PLoS ONE, 9 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0096071 

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