All cats need to eat, so you would think the process of feeding them would be simple—but you’d be wrong there. First, you have to choose between a multitude of food options (canned or dry, premium vs grocery store brand, etc.). Once you settle on a diet, you’re faced with another dilemma: should you feed your cat on a schedule or free-feed?
In this article, we’ll look at the details, pros, and cons of each feeding method. We’ll discuss the overall consensus of most veterinary authorities, along with some exceptions to that rule. Look for a summary of our findings in a handy chart at the end of the article.
Overview of Scheduled Feeding:
How it Works
Scheduled feeding is also known as meal feeding. In this feeding method, you start by calculating the total amount of food your cat should be eating each day. The most specific way to do this is to ask your vet for a recommended daily calorie intake.
Subtract any treats you feed from your cat’s calorie count, and what’s left should all come from their diet. You’ll find calories per cup or calories per can listed on the packaging of your cat’s food. Use this information to determine how many cups or cans of food they should be eating each day.
Once you have your amount, divide it into equal portions to be offered at scheduled meal times. For example, if your cat needs 1/2 cup of food each day, you might offer 1/4 cup at two meals—morning and evening. You could also just feed the full 1/2 cup once per day.
The key is that your cat gets only the measured amount of food at a scheduled meal time.
What it’s Good for
The primary advantage of this type of feeding is that your cat’s calorie intake is controlled. You don’t have to rely on your cat to only eat their fill and no more to keep from gaining weight. If your cat needs to lose weight, this method allows you to keep careful track of how much they’re eating.
Scheduled feeding also makes it easier to see if your cat happens to stop eating or has decreased food intake. Your cat is more likely to finish their whole meal without leaving food behind to attract ants and other pests.
Overview of Free-Feeding:
How it Works
Free-feeding is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of offering food only at certain times, your cat always has access to something to eat. You may just keep a full food bowl around, or use an automatic feeder. Your cat has the option to eat their fill at any point or to graze periodically throughout the day.
Free-feeding canned food is not advised because this type of diet shouldn’t be left uneaten and unrefrigerated for too long or it may spoil (and will certainly attract flies.)
For successful free-feeding, your cat will need to exercise a certain amount of self-control by eating only what they need and no more. Otherwise, there’s a very real possibility that the cat will overeat, leading to obesity and all its accompanying health concerns. You’ll also need to pay careful attention to ensure the food is switched out before it gets stale, moldy, or full of bugs.
What it’s Good For
The primary appeal of free-feeding is its convenience. Cats can be left alone for long periods because you don’t have to worry about getting home to feed them. It’s also a good method for picky or shy cats who may prefer to eat at odd hours, such as when everyone in the house is asleep.
Multi-cat households may find free-feeding allows each cat to eat on their own time, without competition for the bowl. Young kittens may need to eat multiple times per day, which can be tricky to accomplish by scheduled feeding if you’re away from home for long hours.
If you’re trying to get your cat to gain weight, such as when they’re recovering from an illness, free-feeding may be suggested. However, free-feeding also makes it harder to gauge how much or if your cat is even eating.
Which Feeding Method Is More Cost Effective?
This answer depends somewhat on how much food your cat eats if you allow free-feeding. In general, scheduled feeding is not only more cost-effective but easier to budget for as well. With scheduled feeding, your cat eats a consistent amount of food, making it easier to calculate how long a bag or case of food lasts.
Say you need one bag of cat food per month. Your monthly cat food budget is easy to calculate and should stay consistent. On the other hand, free-feeding makes it hard to judge how long a portion of food will last.
You also run a higher chance of wasting food with meal feeding, given the increased risk of pests invading the food or it growing moldy while waiting to be eaten.
Which Feeding Method Do Vets Prefer?
Based on the information we found, it seems that most vets prefer scheduled feeding over free-feeding. Scheduled feeding makes it easier to control the cat’s calories and prevent overeating and obesity. Cats who are on a diet especially need to eat on a schedule.
If you’re struggling to meal-feed your cat due to time constraints or other difficulties, talk to your vet. They can help you work out the best feeding option to keep your cat healthy and keep you from getting stressed.
Options for Modified Scheduled Feeding
If you really want to feed your cat on your schedule but also have a busy school or work schedule, you have a couple of options.
First, you can offer your cat’s entire measured food portion once a day and just leave it out for them to eat at will. This allows the kitty some control over when and how much they eat at a time, while still keeping their total intake measured. Plus, you only need to be home to do this once per day.
Another option is to use a timed automatic feeder. These machines release a pre-measured portion of food at selected meal times. Again, you don’t have to be there for mealtimes, you just have to keep the feeder full and set to the correct times and amounts.
|When to Schedule Feed||When to Free-Feed|
|When you’re home at consistent times||When your schedule is unpredictable|
|When your cat needs to lose weight||When you have multiple cats|
|When you have a household pest problem||When you have a picky eater|
|When your cat eats canned food||When your cat eats dry food|
|When you’re on a strict budget||When your cat needs to gain weight|
For most cats and owners, scheduled feeding is the better method because it allows more control over how much the kitty eats. While it offers less flexibility than free-feeding, it is the preferred choice for preventing overeating and obesity. If your schedule makes free-feeding a necessity, consider one of the modified methods we suggested. Keep a close eye on your cat’s weight when free-feeding, and be aware your vet may recommend you switch to scheduled feeding should your kitty become overweight.
Featured Image Credit: Left – Milles-Studio, Shutterstock; Right – Jaromir Chalabala, Shutterstock