Free feeding is more natural for your cat than scheduled feeding; that’s why many cat owners feed their cats this way. But what are the problems with free feeding your cat, and how bad are they? Are they serious enough that you shouldn’t do it?
What is free feeding, and should I do it? Free feeding is where a cat is given unlimited food that it can access at any time. Kibble is ideal for this, because wet food can go bad quickly; combination feeding involves unlimited dry food with occasional scheduled wet food. While most cats can regulate their own calorific intake, so are not in danger of obesity when fed unlimited food, some cannot. Both free feeding and scheduled feeding can therefore be appropriate. Weigh your cat if you free feed it to ensure that it does not continually gain weight.
The guide below first defines free feeding and scheduled feeding. It then looks at the advantages and disadvantages of free feeding. By the end, you can make your own decision on which method you think is best for your cat!
What Is Free Feeding?
Free feeding is one of several methods of feeding cats. As the name suggests, free feeding is where the cat has unlimited access to food. It can come back to its bowl any time it wants during the day, and there will be food there to greet it.
Free Feeding vs. Scheduled Feeding
Free feeding is defined in opposition to scheduled feeding. Scheduled feeding is where you give your cat a set number of meals per day at predetermined times. You may give your cat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same times that you eat, for example. Combination feeding is where the cat is given some food freely, with other food being served at regular times.
There is a surprisingly lively debate between people who free feed their cats and those that don’t. On the one hand, people say that free feeding can be good for both the cat and the owner. On the other hand, it could lead to your cat becoming overweight.
So who should you believe? The rest of this guide focuses on the benefits and drawbacks of free feeding in turn so that you can make your own informed decision.
Is Free Feeding OK?
There’s a reason so many people free feed their cats. It can be good both for the cat and for the owner, cutting down on your stress and your cat’s stress too.
If you’ve ever asked why is my cat hungry all the time? then this is why.
Wild cats feed as and when they feel hungry. They have to hunt to catch the food, of course, but they know how much they need to eat, and when they’re hungry they go and get food. According to a paper in the journal Animals, “Usually, cats eat small portions throughout the day mimicking a feeding rhythm pattern that is typical of their wild cat ancestors (Felis silvestris lybica), who hunted small-sized prey.”
Natural doesn’t necessarily mean good. But if you want your cat to have a life that closely mimics that which it would enjoy in the wild, free feeding is the better choice.
Some Cats Can Balance Their Own Nutritional Intake
The key problem people have with free feeding is that their cats eat too much. This can lead to the cats becoming overweight or even obese.
While that can happen—as we’ll see—it doesn’t always. When trained from a young age, cats can learn to balance their own nutritional intake. That means the cat will only eat when it needs to, and won’t eat too much. The same paper in Animals states that:
‘Cats choose their diets based on smell, taste, temperature, and texture [6,8,9] up to the point of self-regulating consumption of certain kinds of foods to ensure an adequate intake of certain nutrients, hence balancing their diets themselves. … Cats usually are able to control their daily calorie intake even if they are offered free access to commercial diets.’
They can even adjust their diets based on their sex and age: older cats know to eat less. So your cat won’t necessarily pig out just because it has access to lots of food.
What can go wrong is if a cat that has never free fed suddenly then is allowed to do so. More on that later.
Your Cat Won’t Pester You for Food
Free feeding isn’t just good for your cat, but can be good for you. Cats are lovely but one of their flaws is that they can beg for food. Your cat might wake you up in the morning of a weekend so that you can feed it, for example; or it might beg and beg and beg between mealtimes for a little extra snack. At once funny and annoying, begging is a behavior that most cat owners experience.
When you free feed your cat, it won’t beg you any more because it doesn’t need to. It has food available.
Free Feeding Is Less Effort
Free feeding is also less effort on your part. Owners who feed their cat to a schedule can feel stressed, having to meet their own needs and perhaps those of their family, while also sticking rigidly to the cat’s mealtime plan.
Feeding cats once a day would save that effort. You set out the right amount of food in the morning and let the cat eat as and when it wants. You only have to remember to feed your cat once a day—set and forget.
Combination feeding is a mix between free feeding and scheduled feeding. It’s where the cat has unlimited access to kibble, but wet food is served twice daily. This is like the best of both worlds: the cat still has regular access to wet food, but can come back whenever it wants for a little more.
Is Free Feeding Bad for Cats?
All that being said, there are good reasons to consider scheduled feeding. While it can be more effort, there’s good reason to believe that it’s better for your cat’s health.
Free Feeding Can Lead to Obesity
While most cats can regulate their own nutritional intake, not all can. It’s possible that your cat isn’t able to either.
This is especially the case for cats that go from a strict scheduled diet to a free feeding diet. Think from your cat’s perspective: it has lived its whole life asking you for more food, and now that more food is available, its body tells it that it has to take advantage. The same mechanism is seen in humans, where people who go through poverty or famine at a young age have a higher incidence of obesity in later lafe, when more food is available.
Obesity is just as bad for cats as it is for people. In allowing your cat to become obese you would therefore endanger its health.
Your Cat May Eat Too Much Kibble
In addition to obesity problems, your cat could also develop kidney problems from free feeding. That’s because a diet high in kibble, and consequently low in water, can damage the kidneys.
Cats naturally get their water from their diet. Meat contains lots of water, around 60-70% by weight, so the water a cat gets from a normal diet is often almost enough for its entire intake. But if a cat only eats kibble, it gets much less water, and doesn’t drink enough to make up for what it doesn’t get. If you free feed your cat kibble, then all it will eat is kibble, or it may choose to only eat its kibble in combination feeding.
Kidney function is dependent on water. The job of the kidneys is to filter excess water and urea from the bloodstream, and pass it on down the urinary system. It’s then excreted. But if there is next to no water for the kidneys to filter from the blood, they become damaged, and kidney stones can occur.
You Can Lose Track of How Much Your Cat Eats
While free feeding can result in obesity, it can also disguise that your cat is underweight. That’s because it’s more difficult to measure how much your cat is eating when you free feed it compared to when you feed it on a schedule.
A related problem occurs if you have more than one cat. One cat may be stealing the other’s food, for example. This can happen when one cat bullies another. Or, you may not notice that one cat is slightly undereating because the other is slightly overeating. You would guess that they’re eating normally based on how much is left in the bowl, but one is eating too much and the other not enough.
You can partially mitigate these problems by weighing out how much you feed when you put it in the bowl, and noting how long it takes the cats to finish their food. But if you want to free feed because it’s less effort, this would mean more effort if anything.
Should You Free Feed Your Cat?
Whether you free feed your cat or not is ultimately up to you.
If you’re content with the problems that scheduled feeding poses—begging cats, stress, and more effort on your part—then there’s nothing wrong with this approach. You can closely control how much your cat eats without much additional effort. If you’d prefer less effort and a more natural diet for your cat, then try free feeding.
Our recommendation is to check frequently that your cat isn’t gaining weight. The best way to do this is to weigh your cat. There is no ‘ideal weight’ that your cat is supposed to be, because different breeds weigh different amounts; you wouldn’t expect the ideal weight of a beagle to be the same as that of a bloodhound. Cats are the same. And beyond that, the ideal weight of one individual cat is different to that of another.
What you can do, though, is see whether your cat is gaining or losing weight. This could suggest a problem with the kind of diet you’re providing. If you want to change your cat’s diet in any way, or are worried about its health, then talk to a vet.
How Do I Stop My Cat from Free Feeding?
If you tried free feeding your cat but it gained lots of weight, you should switch back to scheduled feeding. This is easier said than done, because your pet will pester you continually for food. You have a few options if that’s the case:
- Put up with it. If you don’t give in then your cat should eventually stop begging so much.
- Switch to a lower calorie food while still free feeding. Your cat can then eat the same large volume of food as before but with fewer calories in it.
- Gradually reduce the amount you feed until you only fill the bowl with one meal’s worth of food.
It’s this final option that is most likely to work. That’s because cats take time to adjust to change, just like we do. If you experience any problems with your cat’s diet, this one included, consult a vet for further advice.