How Much Should I Really Feed My Cat?
Whether you are a first-time cat owner or you’ve lived with your feline friend for years, you may wonder if your cat is getting enough to eat. When it comes to how much to feed your cat, you should make your decision based on your cat’s individual needs, along with your lifestyle and budget. It's a decision you want to make wisely as your cat’s health depends on building a solid nutrition base and avoiding unnecessary risks that could make your cat overweight.
When it comes to how much to feed your cat, there are a few things to consider:
- The age of your cat
- How much your cat weighs
- Your cat’s energy level
- If your cat is pregnant or nursing kittens
- If you are feeding dry food, wet food, or a combination of the two
- What nutrients your cat needs
- If your cat lives indoors, outdoors, or both
- Your budget and lifestyle
Your veterinarian or a certified veterinary nutritionist is best suited to help guide you through the process, especially when you are working to identify a balance of nutrients for your cat. Because cats are carnivores, their diet may look different than other pets. Some nutrients to look for in your cat’s food include:
- Protein: This needs to be animal protein (meat, fish, or poultry) to meet a cat’s carnivore dietary needs. Kittens in particular have a high need for protein in their diet.
- Arginine: An amino acid found in meat. Cats don’t produce this enzyme on their own but need it to remove ammonia from their bodies.
- Taurine: An amino acid that is critical as a kitten grows and for adult cats to remain healthy. It is not produced by cats so it is a critical component of their diet.
- Vitamins: A cat’s diet should include vitamin A, niacin, and vitamin D.
- Water: Making sure your cat stays hydrated is critical.
Just as you might read your own food labels, pay attention not so much to the catchphrases on the front of the bag or can of cat food, but the label on the back. Cailin Heinze, VMD, MS, DACVN, and Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist says to pay close attention to calories.
“Some cat foods are as high as or more than 500 calories a cup,” Heinze says. “The average lean cat, say about 10 pounds, likely needs somewhere around 250 calories a day, so that's 1/2 a cup total of a 500 calorie cat food.”
Heinze notes that if you have a smaller cat or a cat with low energy levels, they may eat smaller amounts. But an all-you-can-eat buffet should be avoided, since most cats won’t self-regulate how much they eat. If you have multiple cats in your home, each one should have their own feeder and a plan to meet their individual nutritional needs.
Once you’ve selected a food, experts like Heinze stress how important it is to feed cats individually measured amounts of food so you know what and how much they are eating. She says the optimal situation for determining how much food to feed your cat is to weigh the food on a scale. You’ll have to do some calculations, especially if you plan to feed your cat once in the morning and once at night. Food should also be measured if you plan to leave it out all day.
“In a perfect world, every new cat would be sent home with a kit that includes a baby scale, a gram scale, a litter box, and a couple of toys,” Heinze says. It may sound extreme, but she notes regularly weighing your cat and regularly weighing your cat’s food is the best way to make sure your cat is getting enough to eat.
If cost is a factor in selecting the food that’s best for your cat, consider using a pet food calculator to determine how much it will cost you per month for feeding. There are many options for purchasing food as well, whether through a veterinary office, pet store or website, or even at the grocery store.
Heinze says pet owners also need to consider if they will be feeding their cat dry food, wet food, or a combination of the two. “There is no necessarily optimal [option] between the two, but rather there are pros and cons,” Heinze says.
Typically cats who eat dry food may have less dental tartar or plaque. But cats who eat dry food tend to not drink as much as they should and are more likely to become dehydrated. “Dry food is a lot less expensive on a per calorie basis than canned food, but canned food has some benefits for hydration,” Heinze says. “But I think you can raise a happy, healthy cat on a variety of diet approaches.”
Heinze adds that it is also important to introduce your kitten to various types of food—kibble (even of different shapes and sizes), pate, chunks and gravy, et cetera—as they develop fixed texture preferences and are less likely to eat different types of food as they get older. Introducing those varieties when they are younger “gives you a lot more flexibility in feeding your cat,” Heinze says.
A lot of thought goes into how much to feed your cat, but it’s worth the effort. Like Goldilocks, you don’t want to feed your feline friend too much or too little—you need to strike a balance that is just right. Even after you’ve settled on a menu and feeding routine that works for your cat, you’ll want to constantly be evaluating if the meal plan needs to change. Your cat’s nutritional needs will need to adjust as your cat grows and changes. Be sure to keep up on regular vet visits so they can help you monitor any changes to your cat’s weight, and offer any solutions to feeding or dietary issues if they arise.