Is Free Feeding Cats the Best Way to Feed Your Cat?

A brown tabby cat eating a bowl of dry food.
A brown tabby cat eating a bowl of dry food. Photography ©g215 | Thinkstock.

How you feed your cat matters as much as what you feed your cat. Free feeding cats, which is defined as filling your cat’s bowl with dry food and leaving it out for your cat at all times, is a common practice among many cat parents. Your cat never has to worry about being hungry because there is always food in the bowl. This method is easy and convenient for pet parents, but it’s not the best option for most cats.

The cons to free feeding cats

A fat white cat with a bowl of half-eaten cat food.
Free feeding cats might lead to weight issues. Photography ©Svetlanais | Thinkstock.

“One of the cons to free feeding cats is that they can easily become obese, particularly if they’re not privileged to environmental enrichment — things in their environment that provide them [with] activity and mental engagement,” explains Tracey Jensen, D.V.M., Dipl. ABVP, founding partner of Wellington Veterinary Hospital in Wellington, Colorado. “Obesity is at epidemic proportions in cats, and obese felines are prone to a couple of different things — probably the most dangerous and expensive is diabetes.”

Many cats live indoors, which is great because it’s the safest place for them. However, indoor cats tend to get less exercise and, because of this, might take in too many calories from their food. Some cats eat too much out of boredom; others just love food and simply can’t stop eating if food is available at all times.

Free feeding also factors into the dry food vs. wet food debate. Since wet food does not stay fresh for that long, most pet parents who free feed cats choose dry food. Read about the pros and cons of both wet and dry cat food here.

Free feeding isn’t in your cat’s DNA

“Cats aren’t grazers, they’re hunters,” Dr. Jensen says. Cats in the wild eat much differently than pet cats. Rather than eating two big meals a day like most dogs, or nibbling on their food all day long, wild cats hunt or forage many times a day. They expend energy to get their food, eat a small meal and then have a period of rest (think of lions napping under a tree while their bellies digest that gazelle they just caught and ate).

After this period of rest, they have another period of activity, capture or forage for food again and then eat another meal. This cycle repeats itself several times throughout the day.

So, what is the ideal cat feeding schedule?

A cat eating dry food from a bowl while a human pours it.
Not home to feed your cats throughout the day? Consider an automatic pet feeder. Photography ©HASLOO | Thinkstock.

“An ideal way to feed a cat would be to feed them three to four small meals throughout the day,” Dr. Jensen says — although she admits that this method isn’t easy for pet parents who work full time outside of the home.

An automatic pet feeder may help cat guardians time their kitty’s meals, even when they’re away from home. Program the timer on the feeder, and every three to four hours, a measured amount of food gets deposited into your cat’s bowl. “That’s one way to still be able to provide your cat [with] frequent, small meals and not allow them to overindulge,’ Dr. Jensen explains. “It’s also part of the environmental enrichment, so it serves two purposes.”

The amount you feed your cat matters most

No matter how you choose to feed your cat, it’s important to calculate how much food she should be eating in a day and measure the food with a measuring cup. Keep in mind that the suggested amounts listed on the label are often too much for the typical house cat. Unless your cat is extremely active, use the suggested amount as a starting point, but lower it a bit.

Talk to your veterinarian to figure out exactly how much your cat should eat from a particular brand. Bring the bag of food with you to your appointment so your vet can make the calculation based on the caloric density of that particular food and take into consideration your cat’s current weight, ideal weight and other factors.

“Free feeding is easy, and it’s convenient, but unless you have one of the very rare cats that can meter their own calorie intake against calorie expenditure, you run a very real risk of them becoming obese,” Dr. Jensen states. “Cats are no different than people — once you put the weight on, it is really hard to get it off of them.”

Tell us: What do you think about free feeding cats? What feeding schedule are your cats on? What do you feed your cats?

Thumbnail: Photography ©g215 | Thinkstock.

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26 thoughts on “Is Free Feeding Cats the Best Way to Feed Your Cat?”

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  12. My family has two kitties, one who is very active and zooms around the house regularly, but the other one has become obese lately. He is half Cornish Rex, and they are prone to pudginess, but he’s become hard to carry even for a family of relatively strong folk. He’s been free fed for his whole life(11 yr), and hates changes to routine. He also loves to snack at night- he complains about food bowl deficiencies at 2-4 AM. I’m worried for his health, and I was wondering if anyone has any advice for curbing his free-feeding.

    1. I have two grown cats. The youngest and to me the fastest eats most of the time. When you have two cats how do you put one on a diet and one not on a diet. If you put the dish on the counter the heavier cat will jump on the counter and get it. My cat, Snickers is the younger cat and the heaviest one. I’m very worried.

      1. I have four cats.One needs urinary diet, one gastrointestinal diet, two others skin support diets. So I bought four foldable kennels and each goes in his own kennel at feeding time which is three times a day.Oh and one needs slow feeding bowl because he eats too fast.So with this method everyone is fed according to his needs.

  13. I have two Ragdolls that are now 5 years of age. They are free fed with a variety of quality kibble. For whatever reason, they stopped eating wet foods some time ago (every now and then I try them out). I supplement their kibble, with freeze dried foods as the brand I purchase is softer than kibble. Their freeze dried portions are less than regular portions as freeze dried is more costly. However, the cats will not eat freeze dried foods if water is added! Go figure! There has never been a problem with consuming water. They both drink readily. Whenever one of them appears to be gaining weight, I feed less of whatever their preferred kibble is and leave more out of what they don’t like as much. I use small bowls so they get a variety, with only one type of kibble in a dish.

  14. We have 2 cats. The 2nd one came home from the shelter at 7 pounds, which the vet thought was too low and the vet was happier when she went up to 9 pounds. Well, I think she never got a chance to eat much at the shelter (in a room with other cats) as she ate and ate and wanted more all the time, but would shove her housemate out of the food dish to eat her’s in addtion. The first cat we got doesn’t eat much at a time, and has not gained or lost weight while we’ve had her. The second cat is now at 13 pounds and still tries to eat everything she can. I’ve switched to weight control dry food, and she is limited in the wet food each morning (but rushes to the room where we shut the 1st cat in so she can eat in peace, and tries to get in and eat that wet food as well). The first one cries if the dishes are empty, and she wants a snack. The 2nd one is a sloppy eater with dry food going all over the mat around the dish. Later she goes back and cleans up all the dry food in and out of the dishes. If she is still hungry she tries to lick and chew on the cat food bag to indicate she wants more. I feed them dry food at night (about 1/2 cup of mixed types of dry) and wet in the morning (1/3 to 1/2 of one side of a Sheba wet food twin pack).
    I don’t know why some cats gain weight and some don’t in the same house with the same food choices. We’ve had other cats feel threatened about the food and eat as much as they could so the other cats wouldn’t get it, and we’ve also had ones that only ate when they felt hungry (and never gained a pound). Guess it depends on the cat and the quality of food?

  15. I have a question I have a male cat it was 11 years old who is pretty heavy he’s about 18 pounds. Indoor only. Occasionally I see him throw a hair balls. Which he’s always done but now when he throws up it’s like the food comes out hole. He is a pretty hairy cat I trimmed his hair and brush him as much as he lets me. Is there something I can do I read something about coconut oil in his food. Does anybody have any ideas I’m really tired of cleaning up cat Puke. Any recommendations would be great. Thank you

    1. When my cat was about 12 I noticed the same thing, whole kibble that doesn’t seem to be properly chewed in her vomit. The vet told me it’s because her teeth are too worn to chew it, which is normal for a senior. This could be the case for your cat.
      If he’s getting a lot of hairballs it means he’s swallowing too much of his hair. Brush him with a good quality cat brush and throw the hair in a garbage can he can’t access. I’ve seen many cats eat loose bits of their hair, and apparently they do that to hide their scent from potential predators. It’s best to brush daily, but no less than once a week. Even if you can’t brush his belly, at least brush his back and sides. That helped my cat.

    1. I’ve free fed my cats and they weren’t obese either. The cat I have now just nibbles a few times during the day but never seems to over eat. There have been a few times when she eats and then barfs some of the food up. I consider those incedences that she over ate or didn’t chew the food quite right. Sugar, is 8 years old now and she’s not fat by any means (that I can tell). I give her wet food 2 times a week so she gets some variety. So far so good. Will probably continue to free feed her unless something happens.

      1. Free feeding does not automatically cause cats to gain weight. Overeating causes cats to gain weight (or throw up, or possibly both). Free feeding seems to work just fine with some cats so I’m not sure where people are coming from who seem to think it is a bad option/not the best option for “most cats”. I think that obviously it depends on your cat! ^___^ (And the food too, of course. Which food you are feeding them can count for a lot too, apparently. Dry food always available does not seem to *usually* cause any particular problem *unless* the cat *is already* overweight or soon will be. Otherwise, it seems safe enough in many cases. Okay, maybe not “most” but many. ^__^)


  17. We free feed our cats.. 5 of them..not one obese cat in the group.. We feed them dry food and they get wet food as a treat once or twice a week.. All are healthy and happy!

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