When my cat Butterscotch is hungry, he normally lets me know by heading to his food bowl or circling around his feeding area. When this happens, I normally feed him, and if it’s off an hour or two from his regular feeding schedule, I don’t give it much thought.
However, in talking with Al Townshend, DVM, a longtime veterinarian and staff vet for a national pet food brand, I realized that feeding schedules are much more important for cats than I thought. In fact, the wellness of a cat can be greatly affected by the method in which he or she is fed.
Many pet owners, like me, choose to free-feed their cat — leaving food out all day for your cat to eat at her leisure. Others turn to meal or scheduled feedings, which are delivered at practically the same time each day.
“In the wild, cats eat frequent small meals, so many pet parents prefer free-feeding to allow their cats to determine their own schedules,” Townshend says.
The primary benefit of free feeding cats is pet owner convenience. Unfortunately, free feeding may lead to excessive weight gain and obesity, so it’s important to monitor the amount of food you are giving your pet. I know with Butterscotch, he often wants more, but I am careful to give him a proper allotment so he doesn’t overdo it.
If you choose to free feed your cat or cats, you should go with dry food rather than wet recipes, which can spoil if left unrefrigerated. This is a lesson that I have learned the hard way, as one too many times I have left wet food out only to find Butterscotch was either too full from an earlier meal or simply had no interest in it.
One feeding method I recently tried was meal feeding. By doing this, Butterscotch received a measured portion of food, three times per day, and like my family, he immediately eats it in a meal fashion, as opposed to picking at it all day.
Meal feeding of cats has the same advantages as it does for dogs, Townshend notes — it improves the bond between the pet and the family and maintains regularity in your cat’s digestive system. Plus, it provides more opportunities to offer wet food.
Feeding a cat multiple times a day in controlled amounts takes more time and requires consistency; however, it reduces the risk of weight gain and the risk of aggressiveness at the food bowl. Of course, cats who take prescription medicine or are on weight-control diets need to be fed controlled portions, so this method works best when mixing medicine in foods.
I haven’t noticed too much of a difference in Butterscotch’s eating habits since making the switch, and often I’m not home for all three meals, so it’s tough to get accustomed to the schedule. I’m doing more of a hybrid between the two methods now, and he seems happy enough with his food.
Pet owners spend a lot of time contemplating their own meal schedules, and it only makes sense that an equal amount of time is spent learning the best method to feed their cats.