- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
How often you should feed your cat is a big question. The answer is that there are just too many answers. Because kitties—depending on their age, breed, size, activity level, sterilization status, and more—are all so different. Before we take this deep dive, we want to point out that establishing, and maintaining, a healthy baseline for a kitty’s weight is very important and should be done via regularly scheduled maintenance checkups with your vet.
Cat Evolution vs. “Convenience” Feeding
Cats are natural grazers. Before they shacked up with people, cats were opportunistic carnivores, eating whatever and whenever they liked. Because of this, many experts believe that cats should be fed two to three small meals throughout the day. While there is an obvious benefit to free feeding in terms of convenience for us, most kitties will take advantage of that and end up eating too much. Just as with humans, obesity is an epidemic and can lead to very serious health problems for your kitty. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, around 60 percent of cats are obese, so it’s important to stop the problem before it starts.
So, what’s the ideal balance? Mainly, it should have to do with how much your cat needs to eat to maintain a healthy body weight. “Portion feeding plays an important role in controlling calorie intake and decreasing your cat’s chance of becoming overweight or obese,” point out experts at VCA Hospitals. Additionally VCA Hospitals recommend, not relying “on the feeding chart on the bag of kibble as it will overestimate how much you should feed. You want a portion recommendation tailored to your cat.”
Feeding for your cat’s life stage
The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) have defined six life-stages for cats. As they point out, there is no “one size fits all” approach to cats so every cat’s needs will be different. Experts recommend you feed to “moderate body condition” but what exactly does that mean? Luckily there are lots of handy charts out there, but basically it means you want your kitty to be right in the middle of the body condition scale–no bones protruding, but no excess fat. Like cats, there are about a million variations on these charts but one you may see in many vet offices is courtesy of the folks at Purina, the online version of which compares different body conditions to the ideal body condition, making it easier for you to determine where your kitty falls on the scale.
For the “average” cat, though we all know there is no such thing, here are the recommendations for how often kitties should be fed throughout their life cycle:
Kitten (wean to 6 months)
Kittens grow fast and have a very high level of activity and therefore require more food per pound of body weight than adult cats. Over at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Francis Kallfelz, DVM, Ph.D., who is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition and James Law professor of nutrition, notes that “Growing kittens up to six months of age may require three meals a day.”
Junior (7 months to 2 years)
In the first two years of their lives cats age much more rapidly than humans—by the time they hit two, their age is considered equivalent to around 20 human years. While cats in this age range are still quite active, they require less food per pound of body weight. “From age six months to maturity, most cats will do well when fed two times a day,” recommends Kallfelz.
Prime (3 to 6 years) & Mature (7 to 10 years)
Once you’ve set a healthy regimen with your kitty, you can stick with it through her mature years as long as it’s working for her. As your kitty advances in age, the potential for veterinary issues becomes greater, so keeping to those regular wellness checks is very important. if you notice changes to her eating habits, appearance, etc., don’t assume “it’s just age”—get your kitty checked out. Identifying issues such as kidney disease or diabetes early can save you and your kitty a lot of worry. Many issues, such as kidney disease and urinary tract problems, that crop up as cats age can be treated through diet.
Senior (11 to 14 years)
Kathryn Michel, DVM, associate professor of nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, tells WebMD “there really isn’t any research to prove that the nutritional needs of healthy senior cats are any different from those of younger adult cats.” Along the same lines, VCA Hospitals recommend consulting with your vet before switching a kitty to a senior cat food formula. “Since many of the diseases commonly found in older cats can be detected early on, your cat’s veterinarian may recommend a nutrient profile to deal specifically with any current medical concerns.”
Geriatric (15+ years)
By this time you have probably figured out how best to feed your kitty, but for those who are adopting a senior animal, it can be hard to tell. Because activity levels generally decrease with age, so does eating. “In geriatric cats, it may be more important to increase their caloric intake to sustain a normal physique as their body condition and weight naturally declines with advanced age,” note VCA experts. “Maintaining healthy body condition and muscle mass reduces the risk for many diseases including cancer, kidney disease, osteoarthritis, and immune-mediated disease. It can slow the progression of age-related changes and increase a cat’s lifespan.”
Feeding for Lifestyle: Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats
Outdoor cats will have very different nutritional needs at all life stages than indoor cats. The variations on these are endless, but the good folks at Alley Cat Allies have some good general guidelines for the feeding of outdoor cats who are also dependent on humans for food. These include establishing routine feeding times, general guidelines for amounts of food to feed per cat, and eating hierarchies.
What if My Cat is Still/Always Hungry?
We’ve addressed this oft-asked question in great detail but the simple answer is look to that “ideal body condition.” If your kitty is too thin, feed him more/more often. If your kitty is a little on the chunky side, try to redirect his focus on food to other fun things—like playing with you.