How Often Should I Feed My Cat: Free Feeding vs. Schedule Feeding Cats

Dr. Martha G. Cline, DVM, DACVIM
By Dr. Martha G. Cline, DVM, DACVIM
Updated: 5/13/20242-4 minutes
tri-colored cat next to person kneeling with a bowl in hand

Determining the best way to feed a cat goes beyond deciding on a quality cat food. While the right food to help your cat thrive is the first choice you need to make, the next question to consider is, “Should I free feed my cat?”  

What is Free Feeding a Cat? 

A simple definition of free feeding cats is providing unlimited access to food. This means that you keep your cat’s food bowl filled and available at all times.  

Schedule feeding, on the other hand, involves feeding your cat according to a specific and consistent schedule. So your cat’s mealtimes are set, and food is only available to them at those times.  

Free Feeding vs. Schedule Feeding Cats—What’s the Difference?  

Free feeding is a popular choice among pet owners for several reasons, among them that it requires less work, and less research around nutritional requirements and serving sizes.  

For cats specifically, pet owners also choose free feeding because: 

  • Cats can be left on their own for longer periods of time—no need for owners to rush home for meals. 

  • In a home with multiple cats, those with stomachs on different schedules can eat at different times.  

  • If a multiple cat situation is causing tension at mealtime, free feeding can allow the opportunity for a more nervous cat to sneak in to eat when other cats aren’t near the bowl. 

Is Free Feeding Bad for Cats?  

Despite the conveniences of free feeding cats, veterinary experts have reservations about free feeding, especially if your cat does not self-regulate the amount of food they eat. 

Having food that is constantly available with no cat feeding schedule can have drawbacks, including:  

  • It’s more difficult to keep track of the amount your cat is eating.  

  • Unlimited access to food can lead to obesity. 

  • It’s more difficult to tell if your cat’s food consumption changes. 

  • Food can’t be used to help encourage positive behavior. 

The Benefits of Scheduled Feeding for Cats 

Unlike free feeding, schedule feeding will help ensure that you’re feeding your cat the proper serving size at every meal, to help support a healthy weight. It also allows you to monitor your cat’s appetite, so you can quickly spot a change due to illness or other issues.  

If you are feeding multiple cats, schedule feeding gives you the opportunity to better monitor their intake, so you can make sure all cats are getting enough of the quality cat food you’re providing.  

How Often Should I Feed My Cat? 

Your cat’s hunter heritage means that their relatives in the wild are accustomed to eating the prey they catch, which translates to smaller meals throughout the day.  

How many times a day should a cat eat when those meals are not hunted down, but served in a bowl? Two to three daily meals should work well.  

Ready to Switch to Schedule Feeding? Here’s How to Stop Free Feeding Cats. 

Making the move from free feeding to schedule feeding your cat requires a few initial steps, and a commitment to a feeding schedule. Once you get the hang of how to meal feed cats, the potential benefits will be worth the investment. 

  1. Establish your cat’s daily nutrition needs. Your veterinarian can be a good resource to help you determine how much food your cat needs each day.  

  2. Divide your cat’s daily nutrition into the number of meals per day you’ll be feeding.  

  3. Serve meals on the same schedule each day 

  4. Pick up your cat’s bowl after a set amount of time, about half an hour. For wet cat food especially, pick up any uneaten food within 20 to 30 minutes. 

Stick to a consistent schedule, and your cat will come to anticipate, and look forward to, meals.  

If you have a cat with health issues, check with your veterinarian before changing your feeding routine.  

Your Cat Can Thrive on a Feeding Schedule 

By transitioning your cat from free feeding to schedule feeding, you’ll gain the confidence of knowing not only when your cat is eating, but how much they are eating. Or even whether they are eating. The investment of time and patience is a worthwhile one, for both your cat’s health and your piece of mind. 

For more expert tips on feeding your cat, explore our other cat feeding articles.

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