It'd be an understatement to say that cats tend to play their owners hot and cold — one minute they'll prefer a total stranger to you, then the next they'll beg for a head scratch. So it's only fair that owners would be worried about swaying their feline friends' affections any more than they need to, especially when it comes to what many know is the one thing guaranteed to elicit lots of love: feeding time. This concern lays at the heart of a recent study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Is your overweight cat going to be mad at you if you put him on a diet?
In fact, the researchers found that putting your portly kitty on a much-needed diet might actually be a way to help convince him you're worthy of his affection. Of course, no one can ever know what your cat is really thinking, but the evidence is pretty convincing: Researchers began with a group of 58 obese cats and put each of them on one of three calorie-restricted diets; each diet included the same amount of calories, but one was high-fiber, one was high-protein, and one was a control. The researchers then had owners record how the cats' weight changed at four weeks and eight weeks, as well as how their behavior changed in the same amount of time. Specifically, the behaviors they looked at included begging, following, meowing, and pacing before meals, which were interpreted as the cats' way of communicating their hunger. They also asked about post-feeding behaviors that reflect satisfaction and affection (or at least, what we humans think of as affection) — jumping into owners' laps, purring, resting, sleeping, and also, using the litter box (because nothing says "Thanks, love you" like a present in the litter box). After eight weeks, about three quarters of the cats lost weight, regardless of which diet they were given. Researchers also observed an increase in the cats' pre-feeding behavior (perhaps because they were hungrier), but they didn't start begging any earlier than they did before starting their diets. Most importantly, owners reported receiving more post-feeding affection from their cats during the diet, particularly in how much their cats purred and sat in their lap. Emily D. Levine, DVM, veterinary behaviorist, and the study's lead author, explained to the New York Times that many owners are inclined to overfeed their pets. "People feel good feeding their cats and don’t know other ways to give them affection," she says, adding that a better thing to do might be to play with your cat to reduce boredom.