Free Feeding Versus Meal Feeding: Is One Method Better For Your Cat?

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Once you find a healthy cat food your cat actually enjoys, you have another big decision to make regarding feline nutrition. You have to decide on a feeding routine that fits both your household’s schedule and your cat’s picky personality.

There are two main options to consider: meal feeding and free feeding. To make your job more complicated, there is no undeniably right answer. Feline behaviorists and vets agree that there are several factors that should go into this decision.

free feeding

If you’re trying to decide the best way to feed your cat, we’re going to break down the advantages and disadvantages of each option.

Meal Feeding

Meal feeding is when you pick a specific schedule and feed your cat their meals at the same time (or nearly the same time) every day.

While kittens generally need to be fed 2-3 times a day, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine says healthy adult cats do well with only 1-2 meals per day. 

With that said, most people who meal feed choose to serve up their cat’s food either in the morning or evening. 

Advantages of Meal Feeding

If you’re concerned about your cat’s health, meal feeding is generally considered the safest feeding method. This is because you can closely monitor your cat’s eating habits, and you know exactly how much they’re eating and when.

You’ll be able to tell if kitty isn’t feeling hungry for a few days in a row, and you know whether or not they’re actually getting the nutrition they need.

In multi-cat households, meal feeding is also the best way to ensure one cat isn’t being dominant and stealing most of the food for themselves. It’s best for each cat to have their own dish, and with meal feeding, you know exactly who is eating what.

Meal feeding also allows you to feed whatever kind of food you want—dry or wet—without worrying about it going bad.

Disadvantages of Meal Feeding

The main disadvantage of meal feeding is that your cat might not like it. She won’t have control over her feeding schedule, and she might beg for food in between meals. 

Some cats prefer to eat slowly, and meal feeding can make them feel rushed. You also have to be sure you’re home when it’s your cat’s meal time. Unpredictable household schedules often don’t work well with meal feeding.

Free Feeding

Besides meal feeding, there are also plenty of cat parents who choose to free feed. This feeding method involves leaving food out for the cat at all times. Your cat can visit her food bowl whenever she wants and eat multiple small meals throughout the day.

Advantages of Free Feeding

From your cat’s perspective, the best thing about free feeding is having control of when they want to eat. If they weren’t hungry earlier but want to snack while the humans are away, they have the freedom to do that.

It cuts back on begging and doesn’t leave cats dependent on a potentially unpredictable human schedule.

Disadvantages of Free Feeding

When you free feed, there’s no way of knowing how much food your cat is actually eating. Free-fed cats are more at risk of overeating and becoming obese. That’s because without a set schedule, it’s hard to keep track of how often you fill up their food bowl. If you simply fill it up every time it’s empty, you could be unknowingly overfeeding your feline.

Free feeding also poses problems in homes with more than one cat. You can’t know for sure if all the cats are getting equal amounts of food. There could be one dominant cat that’s preventing others from getting the nutrients they need.

free feeding

There’s also the risk of not noticing if your cat suddenly loses their appetite. A decreased appetite is a common symptom associated with a long list of illnesses. With free feeding, it’s harder to notice when a cat isn’t feeling well.

It’s also important to point out that free feeding can only be done with dry cat food. Wet food shouldn’t be left out all day, and even the dry stuff can go stale.

A third option?

In addition to meal feeding and free feeding, some cat people choose to do a combination type of feeding method. This usually involves leaving dry food out all day and serving up wet food for scheduled meal times. 

This can work as a compromise to give your cat the freedom to snack on her own time while also allowing you to monitor her eating habits. Be careful, however, because this method can often lead to overfeeding and obesity.

Making Your Decision

If you’re concerned about your cat’s nutrition, don’t hesitate to talk to your vet. All cats are different, and what works for one family won’t always work for yours.

When making your decision, consider your own schedule, your cat’s age and health, along with how many cats you’re responsible for. The most important thing is that your cats get the nutrition they need without overeating. 

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