Written by Justine Lee, DVM, DACVECC, DABT
Most cat parents have wondered at one time or another, How much should I feed my cat? So, how should you feed your cat? And what should you feed? And how much? These are controversial topics for both pet parents and veterinary professionals. Seems everyone has a different opinion on it nowadays.
How should I feed my cat?
When it comes to how you should feed your cat, there are three general styles that you can implement: meal feeding, free feeding, or combination feeding.
With meal feeding, that means that you are offering food several times a day in the canned and/or wet form. This type of feeding will depend on your lifestyle and preferences. The benefits of meal feeding are that you can carefully monitor how much your cat(s) are eating. The cons? If you business travel frequently, this will be more difficult without an automatic cat feeder or a pet sitter stopping by twice a day. Plus, if you’re feeding 2-3 times a day, you may find your cat begging for food in between. Personally, I have a very low tolerance for my cat meowing at me for food at 5 a.m.
Free feeding is when large amounts of dry food are left in a feeder, available for 24/7 access. With free feeding, it means that your cat has food available all the time. I’ve personally implemented this type of feeding of dry food in all my cats since they were kittens, and because they always have access to dry food, they have learned not to become “gorgers.” As a result, my cats can pace themselves and maintain their body weight well. The bad news about free feeding? If you haven’t tried this before, your cat may overeat and become very, very, very obese. It’s also really hard to monitor how much your cat is eating, so for me, this is a “no go” for any cat with a medical problem (e.g., fatty liver, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, etc.).
Another similar option to free feeding? Consider using a feline food puzzle that provides your cat some environmental enrichment at the same time while they “hunt” and work for food.
Combination feeding is when you free feed dry food but offer canned food as a supplement. I do this for my cats. Why? Because I always want my cats to eat some canned food! (You’d be surprised how many cats I meet in the veterinary hospital that only prefer dry food.) I purposely train my cats (when I adopt them) to start liking canned food as soon as possible, because a cat’s hydration status is really important. (In fact, hydration is so important in cats that Purina just released a new product to help cats hydrate better.) My own cat who had chronic kidney failure was fed a grueled-down canned food snack with additional warm water to help increase his water intake. (He lived to the ripe old age of 19 before succumbing to cancer.). So, please keep in mind that the extra canned food as a snack is a plus. The cons of combination feeding? You have to monitor your cat’s weight really carefully, as they can get very obese with this “extra” food. (Remember, extra food does not equate to loving your cat more!).
What should I feed my cat?
What about what to feed? You’ve already read that I’m an advocate for both dry food and canned food. A complete and balanced, AAFCO-approved cat food by a research-based pet food company is a must. With all the recalls out there, I want to make sure it’s a safe product that is frequently analyzed and tested. Also, because cats have very specific amino acid requirements that they must get in their diet (e.g., taurine), it’s really important that the diet be AAFCO-approved or created by a veterinary specialist in nutrition. (You can find a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition or “DACVN”, which is a board-certified veterinary nutritionist here.)
So, when it comes down to it, I’m a fan of a combination of feeding both dry and canned food. Canned food contains 60-80% water and requires less carbohydrates (versus kibble, which has a higher carbohydrate amount to physically make the dry food into a kibble shape). Keep in mind that when you’re buying canned food, you’re paying more for water; that said, it helps keep your cat’s kidneys happier long-term. If your cat has a delicate water balance due to diabetes mellitus, hyperthyroidism, chronic kidney failure, feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), feline urinary obstruction, etc., canned food is a must, in my opinion.
Diets to skip
Because of a cat’s unique amino acid requirements (they can develop dilated cardiomyopathy and other medical problems with amino acid deficiencies), I don’t like vegetarian or vegan diets in cats. As for home-cooked diets? I can’t even cook for myself, but if you want to do that, make sure it’s DACVN-approved. I’m not a huge fan of raw food diets in cats, as they aren’t balanced and can carry dangerous bacteria which can occasionally spread to your two-legged family members.
When in doubt, my general rule about feeding cats? Feed a cat food that your veterinarian would feed too!
How much should I feed my cat?
OK, the most important question. How much should you feed?
In general, adult cats require 20 kcals per pound of cat. Which means your healthy adult, 10-pound cat should eat 200 calories a day.
However, recent estimates show that 60-70% of cats in America are overweight to obese! (Please keep in mind that obesity predisposes cats to so many medical problems; obese cats are 4.5x more likely to develop diabetes, 7x more likely to develop musculoskeletal problems, and 2x as likely to die at a younger age.).
The biggest mistake I see? People feeding for the current weight of their cat. If you follow the directions for feeding a 14-pound cat, but your cat’s ideal body weight is really 10 pounds, you’re overfeeding! You should be feeding for a 9-pound cat to help them potentially lose weight. (When in doubt, consult with your veterinarian about establishing a safe weight loss plan for your cat.) As a veterinarian, I can likely tell the majority of cat parents to reduce the amount they are feeding by 25% right now! (No go, if your cat has kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, cancer, etc., though!)
My general rule
As for the exact amount to feed? It’ll depend on the brand. And type (e.g., canned versus dried, etc.). And again, your cat’s ideal body weight. As a veterinarian and cat parent, it drives me bonkers that the pet food industry doesn’t label their product better—how many calories are in a can or a cup of food?! While I can find the information, I have to research it EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
That said, the general rule that I stick by is approximately 1/4 cup of dry food twice a day for adult cats, and approximately 1/4-1/2 can of canned food (grueled with more water) as a snack. Kittens typically require feedings 3-4x/day; consider weaning them to an adult cat food around 6-8 months of age.
Make sure that you’re feeding your cat the right amount of food with an automatic cat feeder, which allows you to program the correct portion size, helping to avoid overfeeding.
How much should I feed my cat? This question has plagued cat parents for too long. When in doubt, consult your veterinarian to find out what’s best, how much, and how to feed your feline family member!
Cover photo by Reno Laithienne on Unsplash