Bowl with food

For many cats, free access to food can lead to overeating.

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Should cats be free-fed?

By Dr Hester Mulhall MA, VetMB, MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

Free feeding can be good for some cats, but it depends on everything from how many cats you have to whether they're old or a kitten.

Free feeding is when there is food available to your cat at all times. While free feeding is appropriate for some individuals, the majority of cats should only be fed at meal times.

Why is free feeding bad for cats?

For many cats, free access to food can result in overeating, which in turn causes obesity. Although some people think that cats can regulate their own food intake to maintain weight, this is usually not the case, particularly in neutered pets. Weight gain increases your cat’s risk of certain health problems such as diabetes.

If your cat is free-feeding, it can be more difficult to keep an eye on any changes in appetite or eating behaviours. These signs can be subtle but can be the first change that owners will notice in some health problems.

Too many cats? Too much feeding competition

There are additional problems in multi-cat households because free-feeding makes it very difficult to identify how much each individual is eating, and food bowls can become a cause of competition or conflict.

You should not free feed a wet dietas this is not suitable to be left out all day. Any kibble that is left out should also be replaced frequently.

In some individuals, free-feeding may be recommended by a vet. This will usually be in older cats with specific medical conditions or in very young growing kittens.

How do I stop my cat from free feeding?

If you have been free feeding your cat and want to transition to scheduled feeding at meal times, you should be looking to feed your cat a couple of meals a day. Some cats prefer a more regular feeding schedule and can be given smaller portions more often. It may be suitable to feed three times a day in these individuals.

Make sure that you are measuring your cat’s portion at each meal. Ideally this should be weighed out to keep things consistent, but a measuring cup is the next best thing.

There are also feeding puzzles available for food-orientated pets that can be a great way to keep them entertained and mentally stimulated.

How much should you feed a cat?

There will usually be manufacturer’s feeding guidelines on a packet. These act as a good starting point for how much to feed a cat in grams. This information is usually given on the basis of your cat’s weight and activity level. Yet the best advice is to feed your pet to body condition (how thin or fat your pet is). The Pet Food Manufacturers' Association (PFMA) have developed some particularly user-friendly charts for how to work out your pet’s body condition. You can then increase or decrease your pet’s food until you find a daily ration that is suitable. Bear in mind that any additional treats will need to be taken into account for calculations.

How shall I feed my cat a mix of wet and dry food?

If you want to feed your cat a mixed diet of wet and dry food, it is generally easiest to source both from the same manufacturer, as they will often have guidance about how to feed their products in combination. You should then feed to body condition.

When should I see a vet to discuss a free-fed diet for my cat?

You should see a vet if you have noticed any changes to your pet’s appetite, such as if they are gaining or losing weight, or if they are showing gastrointestinal symptoms. Your vet will be able to advise whether a free-fed diet is necessary for your cat, taking into account their weight and medical history.

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