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How to Feed Cats: Are We Doing It Wrong?

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We’re feeding our cats all wrong. And they’re paying a price for it. To be clear, I am not diving into what we feed our cats; this is about how to feed cats.

A cat eating dry food from a bowl while a human pours it.
Most cat parents free feed their cats, which isn’t ideal. Photography ©HASLOO | Thinkstock.

How we feed cats now — and what’s so wrong about it

Most cat caretakers feed their cats from bowls. And most of those free feed, leaving food out 24/7. The idea is that cats don’t naturally scarf down meals all at once — and that is true. They catch what they can when they can.

However, given the open buffet, most cats eat unnaturally large meals all at once and then return for even more. Perhaps, exasperating the issue is that most cats have little else to do but eat.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the majority of people who have a cat actually have, on average, just over two cats. With two cats or more in a house, it’s difficult to gauge which cat is eating more. Though you may figure it out when eventually the veterinarian says, “My, lovely Susie here has gained 2 pounds since her last visit.”

And cats, being cats, are excellent trainers of humans; they train us to keep filling the food dish.

Feeding exclusively moist food doesn’t solve the problem. Caretakers put down the food at prescribed times, the cats eat it and it’s over. To survive outside, cats catch somewhere around eight to 13 small prey in a day. The edible contents of the average mouse or bird is about one to two tablespoons, not a heaping one-half cup at a time.

You see, cats are born with a prey drive and are hardwired to seek, hunt and pounce. In our homes, we don’t give them the opportunity. Absolutely, having toys to chase or pounce is necessary. Still, it’s not the same as hunting for a meal.

Researchers have studied how community cats and barn cats naturally spend time. According to “Behaviour and ecology of free-ranging female farm cats,” International Journal Behavioural Biology Ethology, Panaman, R. 1981, outdoor cats rest or sleep a lot — after all, they are cats, at 62 percent of the day. Much of that resting time occurs after the series of seeking, hunting and feeding, which accounts for 19 percent. (The remaining time is spent grooming or playing.) Various other studies confirm similar data.

Lions in the wild.
Domestic cats, like their big cat cousins, are used to hunting for their food. Photography ©Blickwinkel | Alamy Stock Photo.

Cats are used to hunting for their food

Inside our homes, seeking the food is predictable and doesn’t account for time or effort; hunting is not necessary, though certainly there’s feeding — a lot of feeding. In part, it explains why 59 percent of cats are overweight or obese (Association for Pet Obesity Prevention).

I suggest that by offering food on a silver platter or bowl, we’re not allowing cats to be cats. There’s mounting evidence that demonstrates many animals would rather work for food — contra- freeloading — than have it offered freely. So far, studies have been limited to some zoo animals and lab rodents, but if the grizzly bears, meerkats and rats studied prefer to labor to get their meals, why not cats and dogs?

What’s more, not being able to search out and capture a meal appears to be stressful to cats. Dr. Tony Buffington (then at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine and now a clinical professor volunteer at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and honorary research fellow at University of Bristol, School of Veterinary Sciences) discovered a dull, unenriched life is anxiety inducing in cats.

Feeding our cats appropriately is only one means to enrich lives, but just because a cat is scarfing down food doesn’t mean there isn’t mounting anxiety. In some cats, this chronic stress leads to what has been coined idiopathic feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD). Now Buffington calls this greatly stress-induced illness Pandora’s Syndrome. Over the years, lots of medications have been tried and all without much success. However, Buffington discovered that providing structure and an enriched environment can solve the problem — or prevent it in the first place.

A cat with the Indoor Cat Feeder.
When ordering the Indoor Cat Feeder, use the discount code CATSWINN to support the nonprofit Winn Feline Foundation. Photography by Casey Elise Photography.

How to feed cats: activate their prey drive

Some veterinary behaviorists and cat behavior consultants have been talking about creating ways for cats to activate their prey drive indoors. Dr. Elizabeth Bales put all the science together and created the Indoor Cat Feeder.

The feeding system includes objects resembling mice, which kibble is deposited into. The dispensers consist of a soft outer skin to simulate prey and a BPA-free plastic inner container, which holds one-fifth of the cat’s daily ration. There are two holes on the back of each food dispenser. The idea is to split a meal between the five dispensers and ultimately to hide them. Cats learn to hunt indoors by finding each food-filled dispenser, pouncing on it and manipulating each device to dispense the small meal. Use with kibble. The Indoor Cat Feeder isn’t the only choice; there are lots of food puzzles available at most pet stores and online.

A hungry cat with a puzzle feeder.
Puzzle feeders can make mealtime more exciting for your cat. Photography by Tierfotoagentur | Alamy Stock Photo.

How to feed cats properly — what cat parents can do:

There are ways to encourage indoor cats to be cats:

  1. Activate the prey drive, which all cats have, by playing with an interactive cat toy. Be sure to let the cat “catch” the feather, fabric or whatever is at the end of fishing pole-type toys. That can be a problem with the laser light. Yes, great exercise to chase the little red bug, but all those nerve endings which go from paws directly to the brain realize, “I’ve caught nothing, really.” Since that may be a frustrating feeling — to never catch — I suggest dropping a piece of kibble or a treat on that little dot periodically. (Also be sure if children are playing with the laser light that there is adult supervision, so the children never shine the light in the cat’s eyes or their own eyes).
  2. Want your cat to stop waking you up overnight? Stop offering him attention when he dances on your tummy at 4 a.m. But also feed a snack before bedtime. Just like you may loosen your belt and take a nap following a snack, the same is true for cats. (Note: If the cat waking you up overnight is a new behavior, consult your veterinarian to rule out a medical cause).
  3. If you feed kibble only, offer an occasional snack of moist food. The same is true if you are a believer in moist food — occasionally offer either kibble or hard treats. Cats become accustomed to specific textures, and often later in life may require a special veterinary diet, which may be a different type of texture than whatever you’ve been feeding for a lifetime. Convincing some cats to change their ways is challenging; they just don’t want to try the novel-feeling product. However, it is possible that with prior positive experience to a different texture at least some cats may be more willing to give it a shot.

Hopefully, I’ve given you some food for thought when it comes to how to feed cats.

Tell us: How do you feed your cats? What do you think about this advice on how to feed cats?

This piece was originally published on January 31, 2018.

Read more about cat food and feeding cats on Catster.com:

69 thoughts on “How to Feed Cats: Are We Doing It Wrong?”

  1. I allow my cats dry food access 24/7. However, every now and then I will wet their food with water which excite them to eat. I never had an overweight cat either. But my cats usually know how much they need to eat.

    1. “How to Feed Our Cats” was an excellent article that makes all sense – all cat owners should read and follow suit!!????????

  2. All people are different as are all cats..whatever works for your cat is the way to go! Feeding a cat is not rocket science,just go with your gut. And FYI cats need kibble for their teeth,it scrapes the tarter away. Their are also treats out there that are helpful. And I agree cats need wet food also. Just don’t overdo on either,too much of a good thing is never good .,and don’t forget the fresh water every day! The best of everything to you and your furbabies ????

  3. I disagree with the feeding kibble or dry food period! Kibble is becoming one of the leading causes of feline diabetes (kibble is too high in carb content which cats systems do not process) and kidney issues (kibble has very low moisture and the cat may not drink enough water to make up for it)
    I feed my cat multiple small wet food meals a day (raw sometimes). Usually his biggest meal is breakfast which is 1/2 to 3/4 small can. He is 13.5 lbs never was overweight. When I adopted him from the shelter he was FIV positive…and shortly after I discovered he was diabetic. He had been on a pretty much kibble diet at the shelter. Having had a diabetic cat before I had already started him on wet food to transition him. He started receiving insulin twice a day and with the diet change and insulin he has gone into remission and has remained there over 3 months. He gets lots of play time even though he is an indoor cat. which is also important. Stay away from kibble!

    1. I agree – Kibble is not a healthy food for cats – its more like a junkfood treat. Feed a grain-free high-protein (canned) food like Science diet, with dry kitten chow as a sometime treat. Purina Kitten Chow smells great – but they seem to crave it a bit too much – and cats naturally eat moist food. Beware of feeding only dry food since cats need to drink enough water for digestion – or could run into health issues.

      1. We play hunt! I only buy top grade Performatrin grain free and we play “kibble toss” where each cat races to grab kibble bits. I do this with two tbsp per day of dry. The one that has IBS currently gets canned food from Tiki Cat as well as a small dose of steroid. The other gets grain free tinned Performatrin.

        The one cat with IBS, a Siamese, also gets outdoor time every other day but, alas, no mice. She weighs 7 pounds.

  4. I have a part maine-coon 10yr 16.5 lb cat and I feed her the Sheba indivdual meals, and only give her maybe a 1/4 cup of dry food for dinner and thats it. No free-feeding.

  5. Pingback: These Cat Foods Can Help Treat Urinary Issues – Top Rank Pets

  6. Dear Mr. Dale,

    This is a return favorite of ours. For the past three years I have been working on an idea, which I formalized into a new company last fall. We have a product ready to go to market and have learned quite a bit more about individual cat behavior and preference than other sources.

    We use a smart dish and integrated scale, with software and compute to analyze everything from the way a cat eats from a style of dish, to their times and changes in behavior over time. We can effectively pick a meal the cat will want to eat 9 out of 10 times wiht great gusto and have learned that when a cat is excited and inticed to eat novel foods, their consumption returns to a much more healthy pace.

    I’m sure we’ll generate some buzz soon when the product and website are launched, but we’re very excited to get going and always appreciate articles that question the status quo about feeding cats. I was a sinner, feeding our own 3 cats the same food for several years. I had thoroughly helped my cats check out and become despondent, eating the same boring foods. But they’re fine now, active and chirpy, healthier at 11 than at 5.

    Yours,

    Erik

  7. I feed my 2 cats 4x a day – one rounded coffee scoop each time. They are 16 years old and doing great. They get dry, grain free food. I treat them occasionally with a little wet food mixed in with their regular food. One of them loves to be outside and I know she catches some “extra protein” once in a while. My vet is always surprised at how good they’re doing for their age.

  8. I am a dedicated, devoted “disciple” of Jackson Galaxy. When it comes to feeding cats, Jackson says wet is good, grain-free is better, raw is best. No free feeding and NO DRY FOOD!! Because of Jackson, I stopped free feeding, but I can’t afford a raw diet, so I switched her from kibble to wet food last year.

    1. I did the same thing about feeding. I have tried so hard to find out how much to feed my cat. She is a medium size, weighing 14 lbs. and is 10.5 years old. Can anyone advise me?

  9. Pingback: How to Feed Cats: Are We Doing It Wrong? | PetTraining.org

  10. Pingback: How to Feed Cats: Are We Doing It Wrong? – Info Body

  11. My vet says for UTI cats can have both wet and dry. They really need some dry to keep thiet teeth heathly. Ask you get I bet they say it is ok to use dry in a mouse from Wal-Mart.

  12. I HAVE SENT TWO MESSAGES, WITH NO REPLYS FROM YOU.
    I TOOK ADVANTAGE OF A CHRISTMAS OFFER AND ORDERED YOUR MAGAZINE AND A GIFT FOR A FRIEND. TO DATE NO MAGAZINE BUT THERE IS AN ONLINE VERSION.
    I WONT DO THAT AGAIN. WHAT IF MY FRIEND DOES NOT HAVE A COMPUTER???
    WHAT IF I PREFER A MAGAZINE TO SIT AND READ BY THE FIREPLACE IN A COMFORTABLE CHAIR?
    I WANT A LAP VERSION.
    PLEASE CONTACT ME.
    CB

    1. It’s 2020. Tablet will take care of your “sitnin comfortable chair by fireplace”
      And if your friend doesn’t have a computer or internet device this day in age. Then idk what to say.
      This isn’t the 90s anymore. Time to get into 2020.

      1. That’s inconsiderate! If she wants hard copies and they are available she deserves them. Tablet? All I have is a PC and a phone.

        1. I have a tablet, laptop, desktop and a phone and I still am ordering hardcopies just because I would like to have them just in case, my money,my choice ! Be nice ppl :)

      2. Terry Bakowski

        Well, That’s a non helpful reply. Yes, it’s 2020, and the not-so-good trend is for companies to rely exclusively on internet for access to their Publications. Why don’t you just give her a refund. And at this point, I would subscribe.

      3. Linda S Prestidge

        Ken. Not very nice. Some people don’t like computers or are to old to use a computer and get confused. Hard copies should be available.

    2. I think that is a rude reply to fireplace lady. I definitely won’t follow you in the future. You apparently forget there are older people that love their kitties but are computer illiterate. I see nothing wrong with that. Of course they are missing out on some stuff but they still can verbalise. Not like kids growing up. In the world today.
      I repeat that was a VeryRude response. Show some respect.

      1. If you’re “computer illiterate” at this point then it is likely from your own stubbornness. Computers, tablets, and smart phones have more intuitive we’ll designed interfaces than ever. Age is no longer an excuse for refusal to adapt to technology. It’s honestly condescending to act like an older person cannot learn the basics of using a modern computer or mobile device. Print is dead because it’s not profitable. Such is the world

  13. My cat is exclusively fed moist food. I try to stimulate his prey instinct with the ‘fishing pole’ type toy, and would LOVE to use those feeders that he’d have to hunt for. However, for his urinary tract health we have to avoid kibble. Is there anything similar for wet food?

  14. Dorothy Benefield

    I have a cat that will eats as long as you place food out. My mother visited for a month and he gained SO much weight! We now have a Did You Feed The Cat tracker (amazon for 10 bucks) that let’s us know when he was fed last, and a 1/4 cup scoop that he gets twice a day. Still losing the belly, but already a major difference. I HIGHLY recommend the tracker for people who are in and out or on different schedules! A great and super simple way to say feeding is done.

  15. I have 2 cats, so I leave the food out for them. Once a day i give them a premium wet food, its good for their kidneys. All dry feefing is hard on the cats kidneys. They are not obese at all. They can nibble on their food when thry want to. They were never outdoor cats, so i dont think they even know how to hunt for their food.

    1. We also have 2 white sister cats, 9 yrs old. Rescued from street at 5 weeks old. They have never been outside as we live up the side of a mountain, & “visiters” in our community include bobcats, coyotes & fiesty squirrels! We have a dry food self feeder by their water dispenser & give them wet good, canned chicken, splitting 3 ozs in the am & pm, just for wet food treat! Happy, healthy girls. A little SHY, but playful, loving old ladies! Number 7 & 8, out of 8 strays & rescues in the past 50 years. Five of our felines have lived to 16 years , & 3 were indoor/outdoor kids! These 2 girls are still going strong! Cat Mom Patti

  16. it’s really odd to me how many of you, armed with your totally unscientific anecdotal stories, are just poo-pooing the advice given here.

    do you all really think your 1-3 experiences with cats give you greater knowledge then scientists that study this stuff for a living and use 100’s of cats to test?

    just because your cat likes “rotisserie chicken” doesn’t mean you should feed it to her all the time.

    1. Any advice for keeping my 2 cats’ eating separate? They’re both overweight so I’ve cut way back, 1\2 cup each bowl twice a day. However, while the older cat is slimming, the other is gobbling up every bite! I can’t figure out how to separate their eating without isolating (and it feels like punishing!)my senior cat. I do only use dry food – otherwise healthy females.

      1. They make bowls that only open for the cat with the corresponding tag on their collar. The one I use is called the Wonder Bowl. I use them because one cat is on a prescription diet and the other is not. The wonder bowl can be plugged in but also has the option of battery so you have a backup if the power goes out.

      2. We feed our cats 1/8 cup twice a day and they are not skinny but nicely built. All are indoor only cats. Several receive Royal Canin SO due to urinary issues. The others eat Science Diet.

  17. These devices sound great but any animal health/welfare individual or group SHOULD be advocating moist, meat based food for cats. As far as I can tell, there is only one ‘dry’ food available in the United States that comes close to being biologically appropriate. Even still, a dry food is simply not a good choice for cats; especially males.

    1. Thanks! As always, we advocate for feeding a cat what works best for her individual needs. You can read more of our insight on cat food right here: https://www.catster.com/topic/cat-food/

    2. There is some very nice All natural organic moist or dry cat foods all over Iowa now. In Grocery store chains, online, pretty much all around. Can buy in refrigerator section in a tube for cats, it’s a “realmeal” . I’m sorry you have such trouble finding it.
      My problem isn’t that, mine is that I have too many cats and can’t afford amazing food. As much as I would live to!

  18. Unlike dogs the cat biology has not changed much by domestication. They are full carnivores, and will do best when fed a biologically correct diet. Which is meat, ideally raw, otherwise a high meat protein canned/wet food. Kibble is highly processed and lacks moisture, it is the leading cause why so many cats are being rushed to the vet, kibble should never be a main meal.

  19. Cats are full carnivores and will need a meat based diet. A LOT of the ‘food’ in stores, isn’t biologically correct, let alone of good quality. Opt to feed a raw diet or a primarily wet diet. Raw feeding has become easier with brands adding dehydrated versions to the market, LIKE STELLA and Chewy, primal, and honest kitchen, as well as wet foods such as Fresh Pet Select or quality canned foods like Pride, instinct, Weruva etc. The reason pets are getting overweight is not just due lack of exercise, but also become a lot of this processed food contains sugars, rice and other un-necessarily, cheap fillings. ALWAYS AVOID any food with meat by product, it’s a very easy way to tell is something is low end and ‘toxic’ If you do want a kibble opt for some quality brands like Acana, Orijen, Young Again. Feeding low quality foods WILL lead to health problems, peeing or pooping next to the box, yowling, sleeping more, excess water consumption, are good signs of something wrong. RAW diets can cure ailments, if properly made, homemade or store bought.

    1. So true… by far young again has been the leading choice of dry food for my 7 indoor kitties along with raw and the highest quality wet food 4 x a day. They are all happy and very healthy.

  20. I ‘m turning an outside cat into an inside cat. I put down all the food I kept outside for him and am gradually taking away different ones. He is cooperating and I should have him down soon to a little wet and dry food twice a day.

  21. I would like to share on how I got my cat to eat after a part of my home was remodeled, as she wouldn’t eat. I had to engage her in eating. Typically, I feed her two meals a day. I moved her food and water on the kitchen table from the floor, and I sat with her and coaxed and praised her for even eating a little at first. This took about 2-3 months, as she gradually returned to herself. Yay, for that!

  22. Any suggestions for my problem? I have a cat named Lilli that gobbles up all the food we provide her and I have another cat named Charlie that likes to nibble some here and some there. If I leave Charlie’s leftover food out, then Lilli comes along and eats it all. This leaves Lilli fat and happy and Charlie slim and hungry. Has anyone found a solution to a scenario like this?

    1. I had one cat on steroids for IBD for a while which increases their appetite a LOT. That one, though smaller than the other, would literally body-check him away from the food bowl. What I had to do was feed them in different rooms, and leave my slow eater in a bedroom with his food for about 30 min, so he could eat more.

  23. FELINES include lions, tigers, panthers, cheetahs, cats, leopards, pumas, etc. All of these animals belong to the FELINE family. Cats are cats. They are not lions or any other wild feline. Looking back in ancient times, cats were domestic pets. In Egypt, cats were cared and protected by people under their own beliefs. Cats have never been part of wilderness. They have always been domestic felines. It has been found that hunting is not an instinct to cats. Some kittens never learn how to hunt and eventually die without knowing how to survive. Outdoor cats are always starving. They never eat enough or drink enough. One of the reasons cats don’t live a long life outdoors. They starve, they are at risk of getting poisoned, catching deadly diseases, becoming ill, getting hit by car, becoming victims of cruel acts and treatments by humans and so much more. Don’t make Cats fall into the same category as a lion. They are related in looks, expressions and habits. Cats are domestic cats. Lions are wild felines. They could never be domesticated. Feral or stray cats have had no choice but to live outdoors and find a way to survive. Irresponsible humans who let one unneutered domestic cat outside, allowed the species to multiply and over populate every single space in this world. Then, people like myself have to fight against all the cruelty against these cats and just about all the animals in the world.
    “Outdoor cats rest or sleep a lot”( quoting) By nature, cats do sleep a lot. Outdoor cats don’t do this so much. They have to work very hard to find food. And every day, it’s uncertain and if they will be able to find something to eat. Rethink your article CATSTER. CATS are domestic felines. Lions are felines as well, but wild felines. They hunt, kill to eat because is their instinct.

    1. You need to do a bit more research on the evolution of the domestic cat. Neither cats nor dogs began as domestic animals. Domestication of cats took many, many centuries & only because cats were at some point willing. I’d like to know your source regarding the hunting instinct in cats. Many people are concerned because even well nourished cats chase, kill and eat rodents & birds. I’m sure your library has a copy of Cat Sense by John Bradshaw, a well researched book that follows the cat from wildness to domesticity – even mentions the ancient Egyptions.

  24. I’ve read also that cats don’t like their water next to their food. In the wild, cats don’t drink water where they can smell food as it may be contaminated. Maybe that’s why so many cats don’t drink enough. When I moved my two cats water bowl away from their food bowls they did start drinking more. I also give them filtered water (not bottled) and I think that helps, too. They certainly don’t need a bunch of chemicals building up in their little kidneys. I also poach two chicken thighs in water once a week – simmer until the meat is like velvet and the broth is rich and chickeny. Makes a great treat and they lap up all the broth.

  25. I am turning an outside cat into an inside cat. I put down all the food I kept outside for him and am gradually taking away different ones. He is cooperating and I should have him down soon to a little wet and dry food twice a day. He is sleeping more and not as fixated on food as he was.

  26. Yes, we do it wrong by feeding commercial crap punted by these big money making companies. Cats should be fed a species appropriate diet, not kibble, and not the crap punted in tins and pouches. This is where we go wrong by buying into commercial foods.

    1. I have regular times for them to eat and weigh out an appropriate quantity for each. I pick up leftovers if any. They are having a science diet (I probably can’t name the Brand). It’s a dry food. You can get oral and hair ball and other specific styles. Apart from the occasional protein titbit, they get nothing else. They all love it. The vet is practically a stranger. When they get an annual checkup with their vaccinations, all get a big tick, all perfect teeth. One is 12 yrs, going on 2 yrs apparently. What extra you pay for this food you well and truly save in vet fees and insurance, to say nothing about their health.

  27. I still havent received my print version of my 2018 Catster magazine!!!
    Can someone please call me???

    It was purchased in December

        1. I only feed my cat wet food because kibble is too dry and cats tend not to drink enough because in nature they get most of their moisture from eating prey, it’s also a myth that kibble is good for their Teeth because they swallow it whole and don’t really chew it anyways. Something else to look out for when buying cat food is the meat content, from what I have read a good catfood should contain at least 60% meat and preferably no added plant proteins (cats are carnivores after all) the parts of the animal are also important: for instance heart contains taurine wich cats need for healthy muscles. the ratio between carbs, fats and raw proteins is also very important. In wet food the protein should be around 10 to 13%, fat around 5% and as little as possible carbs it’s usually the carbs that make a cat fat. To make my cat drink more I mix a little bit of water with his food to get the moisture up. Don’t take my word on this do your own research this is just what I have gathered from the internet.

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