Should your cat be on a feeding schedule or be allowed to graze all day? See how often you should feed your kitty as she grows and her nutritional needs change.
cat licking mouth over bowl
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Bringing home a kitten or older cat is always exciting. But worries about feeding can be a bit overwhelming. As your kitty grows, her nutritional needs will change. So determining how often to feed your cat is key. There are a couple of main factors to feeding that you need to take into account, namely the specific nutritional needs of your cat given the stage she is in and what approach you want to go with when providing food. The good news is that putting some thought now into how often you feed your cat can help ensure a healthy life for your feline friend. 

Feeding Your Cat at Different Ages & Stages

A cat's feeding habits will change as they age. Their nutritional needs will, too. "We know that kittens and reproducing cats, queens specifically, have higher nutrient needs than adult cats at maintenance," said Cailin Heinze, VMD, MS, DACVN, and Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist. Beyond that, Heinze said there is not much research that has been done to tell pet owners what a one-year-old cat needs versus a much older cat in terms of nutrients. "There are a lot of senior cat diets out there, but there are no standards by which those diets have to be designed to meet," Heinze says. 

According to Heinze, it's possible your older cat might benefit from a senior food, but also possible that they will not. Her best advice is remembering that your cat's diet is going to depend on your specific animal and making a plan for what nutrients they need at that stage of their life.

Your cat's weight and health issues will also play a role in determining what and how often they should eat. Asking your veterinarian for guidance, especially if they are on a therapeutic diet, is always an option or you can use a cat food calculator to select a food that is best.

When & How You Feed Your Cat Matters

You also need to decide how you'd like to feed your cat. Remember that once you decide on a method, your cat will get used to it.

Free Feeding a Cat 

If you feel like your cat is hungry all of the time, you might consider free feeding. This method allows your pet to eat multiple small meals per day when she decides she is hungry because food is sitting out at all times—obviously dry food only, since wet food can spoil. But proceed with caution. Free feeding is more likely to lead to overeating and obesity, which Heinze said should be a major concern for cat owners.

Free feeding also makes it difficult to notice changes to your kitty's eating habits, which can be signs of distress. If you decide to go this route, measuring out the food you give your cat on a daily basis is still important. Fill the bowl only once per day to help your cat learn to graze instead of gobble. If you choose free feeding, keep in mind that it may be tricky to transition to scheduled feedings should the need arise.

Scheduled or Meal Feeding a Cat

You could go with scheduled feedings, sometimes called meal feeding, starting when your cat is young. Serving your kitten (or cat) wet or dry food at a certain time of the day is the best way to closely monitor how much your pet is eating. This is particularly helpful in multi-cat households. You may find your feline begging for food in between meals, however. Many experts say that a kitten should be fed up to three times a day, but once a cat turns one, feeding them twice a day is acceptable.

Combination Feeding a Cat

Of course, you could choose to focus on a combination of the two feeding options. This is a great way to feed your cat canned food—twice per day at set times—and dry food, which is available freely throughout the day. It allows both you and your kitty to have some say in when and how much she eats. Plus it can be beneficial to have your cat eat both wet and dry food. Heinze says that cats develop food preferences at a young age, yet there may be times later in life when they need to switch from one to the other. So introducing both wet and dry food is important for feeding flexibility. 

Regardless of which method you choose, it is important to set up a place for your cat to eat in peace and quiet because felines prefer to dine alone. And if you are a multi-cat household, each cat should have their own food and water station. Food puzzles are a great activity to keep meal time fun for your cat as well, as their natural instinct is to work for their food. Wet or dry, any food that is left at the end of the day should be tossed to ensure that your feline is always feasting on fresh food.