Cats prefer small frequent meals throughout the day, eating as many as 10-12 times a day. Cats also prefer to hunt and feeding to this instinct can be very important to enrichment for your cat.
This preference for small frequent meals is not conducive to most lifestyles of pet owners and can lead to free-feeding cats. While it is up to each particular owner and their lifestyle to determine the best means for feeding their cat, there are other ways to provide small frequent meals to cats other than free feeding. One primary argument against free feeding cats is that cats may overeat and suffer from obesity due to the overeating when resources are available without the physical activity of hunting. There are many fun and creative ways to combat this, including puzzle feeders, timed feeders, and food dispensing feeders. These means of feeding can control small portions over time and play to the cats' natural hunting instinct. These feeders can be homemade or manufactured depending on resources, but allow for better evaluation and control of calorie intake than free feeding.
When using puzzles, toys, or eggs, provide the new food resource near the current resource to allow acclimation and understanding of the new resource provision. Depending on how quickly your cat takes to the feeders, you can move them further from their current food source. Moving these toys on elevated surfaces can increase movement and activity when your cat is hunting for food. This activity stimulates them physically and mentally, and this is important to the overall enrichment and quality of life for your cat. Don't worry if you can't invest in expensive toys! There are lots of great ideas online for DIY interactive feeders and toys for your cat! Make sure you supervise all activity with feeders and toys to ensure your cat is safe during play and use.
Each owner needs to decide what feeding style works best for them personally, or what combination of techniques will best fit their lifestyle. Working in as many ways to appeal to their cat's natural hunting and prey drive is an essential way to provide their cat with the activity and mental stimulation they need. This increased movement and feeding cycle can help many cats lose weight and maintain a healthy body condition as well.
Regardless of the method you choose, ensure you know how much your cat is eating and ensure caloric needs are being met, but not exceeded. Meeting, but not exceeding caloric needs can pose a challenge for multi-cat households. These cat owners may want to consider using feeders that recognize chips on the collar and can aid in tracking how much each cat is eating. This is not quite as easy with feeders, but regulated amounts can be put in toys and monitored while cats play. Multi-cat households may also benefit from the combination of feeding techniques to monitor food intake minimums and monitor body condition and weight of each cat to ensure they are not taking more than their share of the resources.
Keep in mind that each cat is different, and they, therefore, have different feeding habits. Some cats are social feeders, and they will wait until there are family members present to eat. Other cats prefer to eat their portions whenever possible. If your cat is not eating, spend some time sitting near or around their food source to see if they are more inclined to eat when you are present. Conversely, other cats may prefer to eat when there are no other perceived competitors present. Observing your cats' preferences is the best way to establish their eating norms and behaviors most natural to them as well as to observe changes in these behaviors and any concerns in feeding changes.
An important factor in cat health is hydration, which we have not discussed yet. Cats are physiologically not as inclined to respond to the sensation of thirst, which is why it is often advised to include canned food in their diet. As previously discussed, canned food has a higher water content than dry food, which can help increase water intake. However, we must also assess external factors influencing water intake in cats.
Many people note their cats seem to enjoy drinking from the faucet. Cats often are drawn to drinking from running or moving water sources, and this makes cat fountains an excellent choice for some cats. These fountains recycle the water, preventing waste, and providing fresh running water for your cat. Remember, cats do not like their whiskers to touch the side of their bowl, and this will inhibit them from consuming as much water and even food. Provide water (and food) bowls that allow for their mouth to reach the bottom without their whiskers touching the sides.