Scheduled Feeding Time vs. Free Feeding for Cats

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What we feed our cats is critically important, but how we supply pet food is an often-overlooked aspect of the feeding regimen.

Whether you are considering free feeding, scheduled meal times, or a blend of the two, the single most important goal of any feeding plan should be to give your cat access to the appropriate nutrients and calories she requires. Age, overall health, activity level, and other factors can affect her nutritional and caloric requirements, and you should talk with your veterinarian any time you are considering changing your cat’s feeding habits.

Feeding: Cats and Dogs are Different

While the cat has been domesticated for approximately 6,000 years, dogs have been living with humans for twice as long. As a result, many of the natural instincts of cats as predators are still present today, much more so than their canine counterparts.

In the wild, cats evolved as intelligent hunters that would hunt nearly constantly, a necessity given that only one in three to five hunts ended in success. These meals were typically quite small in size, containing only a small portion of the cat’s daily need for calories and nutrients. While frequency would vary based on the availability of cat food, a typical day would include eight to twelve small meals spread throughout the day and night.

Today, feral cats continue this strategy of many small meals distributed throughout the day. While some parents of domesticated cats feel feral cats are often too thin, studies have shown that they have healthy weights and body fat distribution.

Unlike dogs, who are pack hunters and follow complex social rules, cats hunt alone and see no social value in meals. Food is simply a way to get the nutrients and calories she requires, rather than being an important source of entertainment or an expression of social status.

Feeding Requirements Change Throughout Life

Cats' nutritional requirements change based on life stage. Kittens need significantly more food per pound of body weight than adults do. Feeding multiple meals throughout the day can help avoid potential complications from less frequent but larger meals. At about a year, cats reach adulthood and are more able to adjust to irregular feed schedules. Senior cats, however, tend to respond better to consistency, meaning you should maintain the same feeding regimen once she reaches age seven and above.

Health Issues Can Affect Feeding Routines

If she is constantly begging for food, your cat may be exhibiting signs of a more serious health issue. Hyperthyroidism and diabetes can cause your cat to want food nearly all the time (polyphagia). In either case, working with your vet to address the underlying issue is the only effective way to get your cat back to health.

By far the most common dietary-related health issue in cats is obesity. Today, overweight and obese cats outnumber cats of normal weight in the US. While it may be difficult to deny a begging cat, the only way to return an overweight cat to health is to decrease the amount of food they have access to, increase the amount of exercise they get each day, or both.

While a restricted-calorie diet can be successfully managed through either scheduled meal times or free feeding, a recent study showed that more frequent meals had a positive effect on overall feline behavior, making weight loss or maintenance easier. The key to success is to know how much food your cat needs and to feed her only that amount and no more. Be sure to include any snacks or treats into your calculations, as these rich foods can throw off the entire diet quickly.

Can Food Choice Affect the Feeding Schedule?

Free feeding works well for many households, but not all cat foods are well-suited to free feeding. Raw, fresh, and wet foods, with their higher levels of moisture, will spoil more quickly than dry or semi-moist foods. If you choose to mix dry food in with other food types, limit the time the food sits out before storing it in the refrigerator to keep it fresh.

Palatability can also play a role in food selection and meal frequency. Many cats find dry food to be less desirable than wet, raw, or fresh foods, which may actually help decrease the tendency to eat more than is necessary.

Your Routine Matters Too

The makeup of your household can impact how successfully you manage your cat’s diet. If multiple people in the household feed your cat and they are not careful about noting when and how much they fed her, it would be easy for overfeeding to occur. If you live in a multi-cat household, it is more challenging (but not at all impossible) to keep track of which cat eats how much throughout the day.

Another factor in when and how often you choose to feed your cat is your household schedule. It is absolutely fine to work around other things happening in your home, as long as your cat is getting the daily nutrition she needs and has free access to fresh, clean water. If you find that your mornings are filled with getting your kids ready for school and yourself ready for work, it may not be practical to add a morning feeding time for your cat. In that case, an evening feeding routine makes perfect sense.

Find What Works and Stick With It

While a cat’s natural inclination is to have many small meals spread throughout the day, a healthy cat will be perfectly content eating once or twice per day as long as she is getting what she needs from those meals. A cat’s stomach is less distensible than a dog’s, so if you’re feeding just one meal per day, give your cat sufficient time to eat what it needs, or switch to twice-daily feedings.

Be practical, find a routine that works for you and your household, and try to stick to it over time. Take note of your cat’s weight and overall health, and check in frequently with your vet.


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