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5 Benefits of Feeding Your Cat on a Schedule

Nicole Cosgrove

Meal feeding, free feeding, and combination feeding are the three main methods of feeding a cat. Free feeding means leaving dry food out at all times so that your cat can grab a bite whenever it is hungry. Meal feeding means feeding wet, dry, or a combination of both food types on a predetermined schedule. Combination feeding typically means that you leave dry food down at all times and feed wet food on a schedule, usually once or twice a day. There are benefits and pitfalls to each method.

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Free Feeding Drawbacks

Free feeding requires that you carefully measure the amount of dry food you put out, and you will need to track how many bowls or cups your cat eats. When free feeding, it is very easy to overfeed and this can cause your cat to become overweight or obese. This, in turn, leads to a greater likelihood of illnesses like diabetes. Families with more than one cat may also find it difficult to discern which cat is eating how much of the food.

Combination Feeding Drawbacks

Combination feeding can be a benefit to offer greater variety in your cat’s diet while ensuring that your cat gets the moisture that is only really present in wet food. However, if your cat greatly prefers wet food, it may ignore the dry food you put down, which means that your cat suffers from a poor diet or you have to relent and revert to offering a wet food schedule.

Similar to free feeding, combination feeding can also lead to overfeeding unless you carefully monitor food levels. This feeding method also makes it difficult to determine which of your cats is eating how much of your food.

sphynx cat eating_borisenkoket_Shutterstock
Image Credit: borisenkoket, Shutterstock

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Meal Feeding

Feeding cats on a schedule, or meal feeding, means providing wet, dry, or a combination of food types to your cat at strict meal times. This feeding schedule means that cats might beg for food between meals, and once they learn the schedule, they will be inclined to let you know before mealtimes. A schedule for your cat also means a schedule for you, and too great a deviance from mealtimes could prove unhealthy for your cat.

The Benefits Of Meal Feeding

While there are some drawbacks to the meal feeding schedule, there are also several advantages:

1. Easier to Give Medications

From kittens to seniors, a lot of cats need to take medications and supplements. As a pet parent, it is your job to ensure that they get the right amount of medicine and at the right time. Free feeding means that you must place a certain degree of trust in your cat—a species that is notorious for being able to detect pills amongst mouthfuls of food, and spitting them out.

By sticking to a timetable and feeding on a schedule, you ensure that your cat will eat all or most of its meal in one go. You can watch to ensure that they don’t locate and remove tablets, powders, and other medications.

Feeding on a schedule also enables you to better spread out medication. If you put medication on your cat’s biscuits in the morning, they may only eat them later in the day and just before you provide more. Your cat could be getting no medication in the morning while doubling up in the evening.

cat eating_Shutterstock_Africa Studio
Image Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock

2. Can Control Food Intake

Similarly, you can manage the amount of food that your cat eats and when. Free feeding can lead to overeating because it is tricky to monitor the exact amount of food that you give. It is very easy to just put another handful of kibble in the bowl when you’re in a hurry to get out of the house and forget this supplemental feeding later.

Cats are prone to obesity and can easily put on weight. The relatively small size of a cat means that it only takes a small increase in its diet to lead to weight gain.

By feeding two or three meals a day, it is easy to calculate a daily allowance and then break this down into set meal sizes. More importantly, it is easier to remove exactly how much you have fed them and ensure that you stick to the plan.


3. Easily Check Dietary Changes

Diet can tell us a lot about a cat’s health and wellbeing. If your cat is eating substantially more or less than usual, it could be a sign that something has changed. Illnesses tend to cause cats to lose their appetite, especially if the illness affects your cat’s digestive system. With that said, certain conditions, such as feline dementia, may mean that your cat eats more because they forget that they have already eaten.

Because you can easily track the amount you are feeding, scheduled meal times enable you to better gauge your cat’s appetite. You can see whether your feline friend is eating more or less and you can keep an eye on these feeding levels over time.


4. Prevent Mealtime Dominance

In a multi-cat household, it is difficult to know exactly how much one cat is eating compared to another when you free feed.

cats and dogs eat pet food_Irina Kozorog_shutterstock
Image Credit: Irina Kozorog, Shutterstock

Your pack may look like they share well, as long as you are standing over them, but as soon as you walk away, one cat may become the dominant force around the food bowl. This dominance doesn’t necessarily mean physical bullying, so it can be hard to detect. One cat may walk away when it’s eaten enough, leaving your other cats to eat more than their fair share.

A feeding schedule not only enables you to better watch over your cats, but it allows you to feed cats in a different location. Keep your cats apart until they’ve finished eating and you can prevent dominance over food.


5. Get Into a Routine

A feeding schedule provides a routine for your cat, which can help you develop your own routine. Your cat, for example, will know to come home in time for its dinner, which means that you can get your cat indoors before it gets dark.

Just be careful about how soon you feed breakfast. If you give breakfast as soon as you wake up you may find that your cat encourages you to wake up earlier to feed them.

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How Often Should You Feed Your Cat?

There are benefits to each feeding method, but if you decide that feeding on a schedule is the right choice for you, you will need to develop a beneficial schedule and ensure that you’re feeding the right amounts.

Ideally, we should feed our cats more than once or twice a day. If you can feed four meals at consistent intervals, that is ideal, but three is also suitable. If you work, feed in the morning, when you get home from work, and in the evening, or use an automatic feeder that will deploy meals at a given time each day.

cat after eating food from a plate
Credit: mik ulyannikov, Shutterstock

Automatic Feeders

Automatic feeders can be very beneficial if you aren’t at home all day. You place the food in the feeder, set the time you want the food to be given, and the machine will uncover the food or serve it at that time. Whether you’re at work and unable to feed, or you’re at home but want to ensure consistency, the feeder can take up the feline feeding mantle on your behalf.

How Much Should You Feed?

Check the food packets to determine how much they recommend you feed, but do your own research. Generally, a cat will eat between 2% and 4% of its weight over a day. Consult with your veterinarian if your cat has any illnesses, conditions, or if it is over or underweight to ensure that you’re feeding the right amount.

Feeding Your Cat On A Schedule

There are several methods of feeding a cat that can be beneficial to felines and their owners. Free feeding is popular but can lead to overfeeding, which is also a problem with combination feeding.

Scheduled feeding, or meal feeding, enables you to accurately determine how much food you do give and makes it easier to monitor intake, give medications, and provide a regular schedule for your cat. Ensure you feed an appropriate amount and be prepared to stick to a rigorous schedule because your cat will be expecting food at the same time every day.

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Featured Image: catinrocket, Shutterstock

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.