Ask Smalls: Should I Free Feed My Cat

Free feeding — where a bowl of food is left out and available 24/7 — is common for cats with busy owners. It’s scary to think about a hungry cat at home alone, so many owners think that the best thing to do is to make sure food is always available.

However, there are some real problems with free feeding. One of the most important places to receive feedback on your cat’s health is at the feeding bowl. Free feeding makes it hard to monitor how much your cat is eating and catch changes in its appetite, which are common warning signs for other health problems. Many cats can seem healthy while nibbling or grazing at its food all day, but the reality is that they struggle with constantly digesting food since it takes time to break down a meat-based diet. These digestion issues can lead to diabetes, a depressed immune system, low white blood cell count, and reduced organ function.

It’s also easy to forget that your cat is naturally made to hunt for its next meal. Giving cats easy access to food via a bowl that’s constantly left out can lead to overeating. They can also get bored with meals and want to overeat or take a bite before walking away. Cats who free feed also tend to be more picky when trying new foods because their preferred meal choice is only a few steps away.

While the exact number of meals your cat needs varies with its size and activity level, we (and most vets) recommend two meals a day with set beginning and end times. If you have been free feeding, here are some tips on switching your cat to timed meals:

1. Change gradually — Break the habit of free feeding into multiple meals, not just two. If your cat doesn’t initially eat enough at a meal, it won’t get too hungry before its next chance to eat. Try splitting your cat’s meals into smaller portions spread throughout the day on a Saturday, then reduce the number of meals before Monday.

2. Set a timer — When it’s mealtime, set a timer for 15–20 minutes before taking away the food bowl. While your cat may initially take a few bites before leaving, it will learn that food is only available during these new mealtimes. It may take a few meals before your cat accepts what’s happening.

3. Make mealtimes exciting — Encourage your hunter to work up an appetite by playing before meals. Pole toys or puzzle feeders are great at imitating the hunt and after the final catch, give your cat its meal.

Although it’s best to transition your cat as quickly as possible, do not let your cat go without food for more than 24 hours. Without food, a cat’s body metabolizes body fat which can create a buildup on its liver. This buildup doesn’t allow the liver to function properly, which can cause your cat to become sick and unable to eat. Hepatic lipidosis is a serious risk and is also more likely to occur with cats who are overweight.

TLDR: Owners who free feed miss out on crucial information about their cat that comes from its feeding bowl. While there isn’t anything dangerous with free feeding, it’s a less natural option for both your cat and its digestive system. After the initial transition period, feeding your cat two or three meals a day is so easy that we think everyone should do it!

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