Kelly Swanson and his lab at the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences found increasing the frequency of meals fed per day, as well as offering meals that contained added dietary water, promoted more physical activity among cats.
Neither method involved decreasing the overall amount of daily food intake, Swanson said.
In the first experiment, cats were divided among four rooms. In one room they were fed four times a daily, in another they were fed twice and in a third they were fed once per day. Cats in the fourth room were fed a random number of meals per day.
The overall amount fed to each cat in each room per day was the same; but feeding frequency varied.
In the second experiment, the cats were divided between two rooms and were fed twice per day with a 70 percent hydrated diet, using similar amounts of dry kibble used in the first experiment to maintain body weight. Water was added to the kibble an hour before each meal time, Swanson said.
The cats were placed in individual cages only during mealtimes so researchers could accurately monitor their food intake.
The researchers evaluated the cats' food anticipatory activity, which included the activity of each cat 2 hours before meals were given. During the dry kibble experiment, the cats were much more active during those anticipatory times, especially those fed four meals per day and those given meals at random times.
"If they know they are going to get fed, that's when they are really active, if they can anticipate it," Swanson said in a statement.
The study, published in the Journal of Animal Science, found cats showed an even greater spike in physical activity in the second experiment, when they were fed meals with the added water, but this movement occurred after the cats had eaten.
"Owners often overfeed their cats, assuming that the small amount of food needed isn't going to fill their cat or dog," Swanson said. "Because most pet foods are so digestible and nutrient dense, owners see that small bowl of food and think there's no way they can survive on that but they can."