The Fat Cat Proof Feeding Station
By Cheri Valle
January 18, 2016
My IBD kitties Gracie and Geordie have to be tempted to eat. They must have their dry food out at all times so they can “graze” whenever they want. But free-feeding meant my former feral Leo was getting fatter and fatter and fatter. So I created the Fat Cat Proof Feeding Station out of an old playpen. The bars are exactly 3-1/2” apart, which is wide enough for the skinny cats to get through easily but fatty Leo can’t reach the food. In the first 2-1/2 months after setting up this feeding station, Leo has lost 1-1/2 pounds.
Leo is a former feral who believes that if there is food in a dish, it must be emptied. Immediately. I’ve had this problem with ferals and abandoned cats before – if they have ever been starving, then once they find a food supply they overeat to the point of serious obesity. My vet said Leo had to go on a diet, and told me to quit free feeding. So I tried it. Unfortunately, my IBD kitty Geordie got way behind on his food intake, which meant his gut shut down and he got constipated, which made him nauseated and he quit eating entirely….I almost lost him. It took 2 or 3 days of hospitalization and weeks of special care for him to recover and regain the weight he lost. So obviously I went back to free-feeding.
I tried various alternatives. Train Leo to eat in the bedroom while the others eat in the kitchen. (FAIL – requires cat-herding, and we all know how easy that is!) Feed Gracie and Geordie extra, many times a day, and let everyone else including Leo eat only as much as they can in a half-hour period twice a day. (FAIL – no matter how often I fed them, I could not keep the weight on Gracie and Geordie if I required them to eat on my schedule and not their own.) Leo kept eating, and was up to almost 18 pounds at his last annual visit.
One day the Royal Canin representatives happened to be at the vet’s office while I was there, so I asked what to do. They suggested keeping the food in a box with an opening only big enough for the skinny cats. But I didn’t think a box would work at my house. I have a bunch of ferals who won’t go into anything where they can’t see a way out. I also have Percy the Schmuck who guards things – like litterboxes – so the others can’t use them. I could visualize him guarding the door and preventing all other cats from eating. So I thought about making an enclosed feeding station that appears visually open, but prevents fat cats from reaching the food.
Step 1: Measure Your Cats
To do this, you need to identify the width of your widest cat who is allowed into the feeding station, and the width that will prevent your fat cat from getting in. It’s (relatively) easy to measure your cats! All you have to do is put the cat behind a closed door. The cat immediately wants to be on the other side. Open the door by small bits until it’s just wide enough for your cat to slip out, then measure the opening. This is the width of your cat. I found that a width of 3-1/2” is wide enough for all my cats except Leo to get through. Leo needed at least 4”.
Step 2: Find or Make an Enclosure
So I wanted something that appeared very open, so my more paranoid cats would go inside, and with many openings so Percy the Schmuck couldn’t guard all of them! I visualized something with bars. I spent a month or so measuring the width between bars on everything I saw that might work: Child gates. Pet gates. Pre-fabricated balustrade panels for decks (which work, by the way). One day I was at a thrift store and saw a very old playpen. It’s perfect! The bars are exactly 3-1/2” apart. It folds when not in use. The front is meant to fold down to remove the baby, so it’s easy to access the inside to fill food dishes. It’s sturdy, so Leo can’t break in.
If you can’t find a playpen or you object to something as large and (AAAARRRGGH!) ugly as a 50 year old playpen in your dining room, I later thought of making a similar thing from a plastic storage bin, the kind you buy at Walmart. You could cut a series of openings that are the right width, leaving bars behind. Remember that cats are sneaky and your fat cat is going to try to fish out food – so I would suggest placing the food in one narrow end and cutting several doorways around the other narrow end.
Step 3: Make a Top
My old playpen obviously had no top – and since even a fat cat is more agile than the average infant, a sturdy top was needed. I measured carefully and had my local hardware store cut the top out of half-inch plywood. I installed a piano hinge in the middle so the top hinges open for easy access to the food. The entire top lifts off – it is just resting on L brackets that I screwed to the uprights of the playpen. That way I can take the top off and still fold the original playpen for transport or storage.
And I also added some plastic – it’s bubble-wrap, actually, since that’s what I could easily find – between the bars on the side where I meant to put the food. That’s to keep Leo from sticking his feet through the bars and fishing out some food.
Step 4: Put Leo on a Diet!
When I first set up the feeding station, I watched to make sure all the cats were using it and eating properly. I shouldn’t have worried…. Something new???? Must check it out immediately! Some of the cats were a little hesitant, but figured it out within maybe half a day.
Leo gets a carefully-measured ¼ cup of food twice a day. This is the exact quantity that my vet instructed me to feed him. We visit the vet frequently to make sure his diet is going well. Too-fast weight loss in cats is horribly dangerous – causes fatty liver disease – so we started with weigh-in’s weekly and now we are at every 3 weeks or so. Leo eats the same food as the others – I tried him on diet food, but this was not a success because the others figured if it’s different they should like it better than their own and Leo got nothing! Feeding the same food as the others means they aren’t all that interested in his. But just to make sure, I have trained everyone else to go to the kitchen for a treat while Leo is getting his breakfast and dinner in the bedroom.