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Do You Let Your Cats Free-Feed to Keep Them Quiet at Night?

We tried it and the nightly yowling stopped, but my kitties starting gaining too much weight.

Heather Marcoux  |  Jul 27th 2015


I prefer scheduled feedings — to feed my cats at the same times every day — but my girls purr at the thought of free feeding. What’s right for my feline family?

It’s the ultimate question when it comes to cat care in my household — should we demand-feed or feed on a schedule? For most of my Ghost Cat’s life with us, the answer was straightforward: Ours was a scheduled-feeding household. Our little rescue kitty proved early on that she could not be trusted to eat sensibly when left to her own devices. Since she doesn’t like puking and I don’t like cleaning up puke, keeping Ghost Cat (and later her companion, Specter) on a portion controlled, scheduled diet was good for everyone in the family.

We humans could rest easy knowing our cats would have a properly portioned breakfast and dinner delivered via the automatic feeder (with a small wet food lunch and snacks delivered by me), and the cats wouldn’t be able to binge and bulk up. It was a win-win — until the day it wasn’t.

cats pouting

Ghost Cat and Specter have been pouting about scheduled feedings. They want to free feed.

Recently, Ghost Cat and Specter decided to revolt against our feeding regime. No longer content to wait until the automatic food dish released their first meal at five o’clock in the morning, the kitties launched a nightly campaign of hungry meowing starting about one hour before their food was scheduled to come. It didn’t matter if we set the dish to dispense the food an hour earlier at four — they would just start crying an hour earlier then that even.

My husband and I wondered: Are they just that hungry? It seemed ridiculous, considering that they eat five meals a day if you include the small portions of wet food I dish out. How could they be hungry with a schedule like that?

ghosty crazy face

“Are you kidding? Of course I’m still hungry!”

After a lot of debate and discussion, I agreed to let my husband try something radical. He took away the automatic feeder and replaced it with big bowls of kibble for the kitties to nibble on at their leisure. We agreed to give demand feeding a try for one month, and assess our cats for weight gain at the end of the 30 days.

As soon as we made the switch to demand feeding, the nightly yowling stopped. My husband and I were thrilled to get through the night without hearing hungry cat complaints (after all, that’s why we’d purchased the automatic feeder to begin with). Still, I was concerned about whether the cats were eating sensibly.  I would check the feeding station in the morning to find plenty of kibble still left in the bowl — and assure myself that they weren’t gorging themselves. Even so, I cut down on the amount of wet food I was mixing into their water because I was concerned about the cats consuming too many calories.

Despite my concerns, everything seemed to be going well. The cats weren’t hungry and they seemed happy — they were purring all the time — but as we crept into the second and third week of the experiment, we seemed to be going through our kibble supply pretty quickly. My husband was refreshing the dry food dish quite often and would return from cleaning the litter box with reports of excess poop.

As the weeks went on, I was noticing changes too. Ghost Cat would jump onto my shoulders and land with a heavier than normal thud, and Specter seemed to be getting fluffier by the hour. I plucked her from the table one day and was surprised at how hefty she felt. My husband noticed it, too, and soon we were noticing changes in our youngest cat’s behavior.

disinterested

Speck just wasn’t as energetic when she was feeding herself.

Normally an energetic hunter of birdy toys, Specter started tiring out quickly when we would play. She wouldn’t jump as much, and would do this kind of lazy reaching motion — like she still wanted the birdy, but not enough to really move for it. This certainly concerned me, but not as much as some of her other behaviors.

“Have you seen how Specter is getting onto the cat tree now?” my husband asked me over dinner one night.

I shook my head and he explained.

“Instead of jumping straight up onto it, she’s getting on the dining room chair, then up on the table, and then jumping onto her tree,” he told me, adding that she’d almost knocked the tree over when she got up there.

Seconds after this photo was snapped, Ghost cat jumped to the top of the tree. She may be older than Speck, but she is less lazy.

Seconds after this photo was snapped, Ghost cat jumped to the top of the tree. She may be older than Speck, but she is less lazy.

I watched Speck repeat her lazy assent to the top of the cat tree later that evening and my husband and I decided we were done with demand feeding, even though we weren’t quite at 30 days yet. We didn’t need to wait the entire month to see the effects of free feeding on our kitties. When a cat can’t climb a cat tree, there’s something wrong.

Ghosty and Speck may have been happy when they had access to snacks whenever they wanted, but I’ve come back around to my original position on the matter: These two can’t be trusted to not binge. Many other cats can do it, but Specter and Ghosty just can’t.

“Why is the autofeeder back? I demand to be demand fed!”

“Why is the autofeeder back? I demand to be demand fed!”

When I see them sitting at their feeding station, miserably staring at the automatic feeder, I feel bad. Part of me wants to give them back the freedom to graze, but I’m afraid that would lead to an early kitty grave. Just like I can’t be trusted to not eat an entire bag of potato chips, my cats can’t be trusted with a whole bowl of kibble.

The demand-feeding dilemma is a dilemma no more. Now I just need to figure out what to do about those 4 a.m. cries for kibble.

What about you? Are your kitties free feeders? Are you concerned about their weight? Tell us in the comments!

Read more by Heather Marcoux:

About the author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but Specter the kittenGhostBuster the Lab and her newest dog, Marshmallow, make her fur family complete. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google +