Feeding Times and Frequency for Your Cat

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CRPP

Care & Wellness, Nutrition, Pet Services

I've heard conflicting advice about feeding my cat - once a day, twice a day, just keep the bowl filled. What is a good feeding schedule for cats?

Feeding your cat does not have to be mysterious. By recognizing a few key concepts and attributes of cats we can create a very reasonable feeding plan for them.

Cats are creatures of habit. We can use this fact to our advantage by creating a regular feeding schedule and sticking to it. Feeding an adult cat at regular times provides the security and predictability of a routine. Meals become a cornerstone event of the day around which other activities are added. A feeding routine helps your cat cope when there are changes in the household (e.g., a child moves away to college, a new baby arrives, or a vacation during which a house-sitter is in charge).

"A feeding routine helps a cat cope when there are changes in the household."

A feeding routine makes a necessary food change easier. When your cat is used to eating at the same times each day, her body becomes conditioned to expect food at those times. Hunger can be a great motivator! If the stage is set for increased hunger followed by meals at regular times, then transitioning to a new food will often be seamless and straightforward.

Cats have a simple stomach anatomy - just like humans. Because cats have a simple stomach structure, once the stomach is filled with food, it will empty within a few hours as food moves into the small intestine. After 8 - 10 hours, an empty stomach begins to send signals to the brain stimulating a hunger response. For this reason, at least two meals per day are best for your cat. Imagine if you only got to eat breakfast each day, and that was it!

Regular, routine feeding times allow your cat's body to be prepared for the food it will receive. It is not recommended to keep the bowl filled and allow grazing.

A break in eating habits can be a warning sign of illness. When cats eat on a regular schedule, that habit becomes strong. It is easy to see at a glance if all the food from a meal is consumed. If food is left, whether all or part of a meal, it is an important signal that something is wrong, and it is time to schedule a veterinary appointment.

I was told that kittens should eat all they want; 3 or 4 times per day. Is this true?

Feeding a kitten all it can eat at one time is called ‘ad libitum’ or ‘free choice’ feeding. This is not recommended as it can create juvenile obesity, encourage binge eating, as well as setting the stage for some orthopedic problems and diabetes. Over-eating at any one meal can also cause stomach discomfort and bloating causing slower digestion. Cats are acknowledged to have a genetically determined "set point" for their adult size. Slower, controlled growth in kittens optimizes body condition in adulthood.

How many meals should my cat eat each day?

The number of meals a cat eats per day depends completely on the family schedule. Cats should eat at least two meals each day, about 12 hours apart. But a breakfast, lunch, afternoon, dinner, and right before bed schedule is an equally great option. If more than 12 hours elapses between meals, the stomach can become hyperacidic causing nausea.

My cat doesn’t finish her meal all at once. I think she prefers to graze. What should I do?

Some cats really can regulate their food intake fairly well. It is still a good idea to create the expectation of mealtimes. This will help make it easier if another pet is added to your family at some point in the future. For grazers, simply measure out the entire day's portion of food in the morning and offer the bowl several times throughout the day. Choose regular times in order to create the routine we know is helpful. The important thing is to use a measured portion, either with a measuring cup or a kitchen scale, for the day.

"The important thing is to use a measured portion for the day."

Another consideration is the use of food toys. Many options exist from rolling food toys that just drop out a kibble of food intermittently to stationary food toys that require the cat to work for the food. See the handout “Feeding the Mind and Body: Interactive Feeders for Dogs and Cats” for more information on these types of feeders. Food toys are almost as entertaining for the people in your family as they are for your cat!

Your veterinarian remains the best source of nutritional guidance for your cat, answering important questions such as the type of food to feed, how much to feed, and how frequently to feed. Feeding time can be an important bonding time. Creating routine and regular feeding times builds fun into everyday activities.

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