Meal Feeding vs. Free Feeding Cats: What's Best?

Do you struggle with figuring out the right way to feed your cat? Are you asking yourself, "Should I free feed my cat?"

How are you feeding your cat now? Do you currently have free feeding cats? Do you set strict meal times, or do you do a combination of both? Read on to find out about the three different ways pet parents feed their feline friends, along with the advantages and disadvantages to each method.

Meal Feeding Cats

Cat Eating

Meal feeding means you're providing food to your cat only at specific meal times during the day. Both canned and dry foods can be fed in this manner.

Advantages: Food intake can be closely monitored, which means it will be easy to tell if your cat has had a change in appetite. In addition, if you have the joy of having a multiple cat household, all cats will have access to food without one being dominant over the others — one cat could be eating all the food and gaining too much weight, and the other cat(s) could be missing out on the nutrients they need to stay healthy.

Disadvantages. Cats might beg for food between meals. Your cat cannot control how much she eats at a certain time. However, if you are following your veterinarian's advice with proper amounts and regular feeding, you can rest easy that she is indeed getting the right amount of food and nutrients.

The bottom line. While kittens should be fed up to three times a day, once a cat becomes an adult (at about one year of age) feeding once or twice a day is just fine, says the Cornell Feline Health Center. In fact, feeding just once a day should be acceptable for the majority of cats. "Once cats reach adulthood, once a day feeding is fine as long as they are healthy and have no disease problems suggesting a reason to feed differently," Cornell reports. Again, always check with your vet before deciding on a feeding regimen.

If you have multiple cats, ideally each cat should have her own food and water station in a quiet, low-traffic place where the cat likes to spend time, The Cat Doctors advises. That's because cats are solitary eaters — they prefer to be alone when they eat.

Free Feeding Cats

If you're not considering other options, you might be wondering if free feeding is an acceptable method. When you free feed your cat, her food is available at all times. Keep in mind that only dry foods can be fed in this way because wet food should not be left out throughout the day. If you're noticing that your cat is leaving dry food in her bowl for more than a day, you should still throw it out to maintain its freshness.

Advantages: Your cat can eat multiple small meals per day on her own schedule.

Disadvantages: Free feeding cats can lead to overeating and obesity. It can also be difficult to tell if your cat's appetite has changed, for the better or worse. It's also difficult to tell, if you have multiple cats, how much each one is eating.

The bottom line: While free feeding can lead to extra weight if not correctly managed, there are ways to allow free feeding that keeps your cat's weight and food take into account. Make sure to properly measure the amount of food necessary for them for the day. When the food is gone, don't fill it back up until the next day. This will teach your cat to feed throughout the day, rather than gobble it all down at once.

Another option for free feeding cats, it's a good idea to use a food puzzle with pre-measured food so you control how much and how often your cat eats. In an interview with Scientific American, cat behavior expert Mikel Delgado says she likes food puzzles not just for rewards, but as a way to feed cats every day.

"The thinking is two-fold: the first is that food puzzles provide activity and mental stimulation for cats; the second is that as obligate hunters, cats would naturally work for their food. No one would hand them a bowl of mice," Delgado says.

Combination Feeding

White and orange cat with collar on eating out of metal bowl

Mixed feeding can be defined as serving canned food as a twice-daily meal and dry food is freely available.

Advantages: Combination feeding allows your cat to eat multiple, small meals per day on her own schedule. You can monitor appetite at least partially when you feed her wet food. It also gives cats the nutritional benefits of both wet and dry food.

Disadvantages: Combination feeding, like free feeding, can often lead to overeating and obesity, so it is important to measure the food out and not refill her bowl until the next day. If you have multiple cats it can be difficult to monitor each one's total food intake, so any form of free feeding may not be the best option.

The bottom line: Both wet and dry food have advantages and disadvantages, when it comes to your cat. For instance, cats diagnosed with certain medical conditions — such as urinary and kidney issues — might benefit from the higher moisture content in wet food. Dry food, meanwhile, is better for a cat's teeth and is easier to store.

If you do try combination feeding, consider using a food puzzle so your cat feels challenged by playing with her snacks.

If you have a multi-cat home, keep in mind that the volume of food offered should not exceed the total calorie requirements for all the cats each day. Otherwise, your cat or cats could become overweight, leading to a higher risk of developing other health problems.

No matter what method you choose, measure food out each day to best track how much your cat is eating. You can find guidelines for how much your cat should be eating each day on every Hill's cat food bag and in feeding guides on the product pages on the Hill's website.

Remember, these are only guidelines. A cat's needs will vary depending on her size, energy level, and health issues. Consult your veterinarian about the amount of calories your cat should be consuming each day.

No matter what method you choose for your feline friend, make sure to choose a high-quality food to provide her with the nutrients she needs to live a happy and healthy life. If you feel like your cat is struggling with weight management, or just eating in general, we highly recommend setting up an appointment with your veterinarian to come up with the healthiest game plan.

Contributor Bio

Kara Murphy

Kara Murphy

Kara Murphy is a freelance writer and pet parent who lives in Erie, Pa. She has a goldendoodle named Maddie.

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