What automatic feeder should we get for our cats?
January 2, 2014 9:05 AM   Subscribe

my main coon cat Bear laughs at our anti cat devices and pounds on the door for breakfast. He started pounding at 5:00 a.m. this morning, 90 minutes before my alarm goes off, and kept it up long enough to ruin my sleep. It's time for a new strategy: automatic feeding devices. Please recommend the best device.

Ideally this device would somehow release the food ball we currently use to feed them, but nothing I see is even close to that.

I'm not averse to creating a Frankenstein device that would sit on a bookshelf until the appropriate time, when it would then knock the food ball onto the floor.

Barring that, please recommend an automated pet feeder. My budget is $50 maximum, and it should hold at least 2/3 cup food.
posted by rebent to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure if you were kidding about the Frankenstein device, but in case you were only half-kidding, it made me think of Clocky, the wheeled alarm clock to knock the ball down.
posted by bleep at 9:12 AM on January 2, 2014

Response by poster: not kidding at all. I'd much prefer that they keep using the foodball because it's much more interactive than just eating out of a bowl!
posted by rebent at 9:15 AM on January 2, 2014

I have one of these, it works well, easy to fill and the instructions are pretty straight forward. The only complaint I have is that each bay is marked with an embossed number, and it's virtually impossible to tell which one it's on unless you lean down close to it. If it's on 6, you need to refill it.

I solved this problem by taking a red sticker and putting it over the 6. Now I just glance at the feeder and if I see a red sticker, I know it's time to refill it.
posted by royalsong at 9:18 AM on January 2, 2014

If you want to give one more shot at keeping the little monster away from your door, this mat worked for us.
posted by HuronBob at 9:19 AM on January 2, 2014

I have this one and it is great. The hopper perfectly fits one bag of cat food so I only refill when I buy a new bag.
posted by magnetsphere at 9:24 AM on January 2, 2014

The Super Feeder is well above your budget but I have owned it now for over 6 years and it works perfectly. I'm posting it in case others come across your question in the future and are interested.

My cat Marty would wake me up in the middle of the night to get fed his dry food and this was the only way to get sleep. There are a couple settings which allow for a very precise delivery of food at times you specify which I love. Good luck!
posted by firetruckred at 9:29 AM on January 2, 2014

I have the same feeder as royalsong. We got it for the same reason, and it's been a lifesaver. The feeder goes off at 9pm and 2am with dry food. Now the beasts don't try to wake us up for wet food until 8am or so.
posted by anotheraccount at 9:52 AM on January 2, 2014

I have a 15 dollar gravity feeder that works well. Then again, my cats are weird. They only eat when they're hungry, and neither is overweight - they don't overeat. I put a 5-pound bag of kibble in it every couple of weeks and they just sorta graze. Dunno if that would work for you.
posted by Thistledown at 9:56 AM on January 2, 2014

My giant cat is also notorious for waking us up too early.

We use the CatMate when we are away for the weekend and it works really well. He hasn't broken it yet. The only problem is that it is battery powered and it's hard to know when the battery is low. I wish they had a version to plug into a wall socket but alas, it doesn't seem to exist.

On weekends that we are home and we just want to sleep late, our current solution is to place a large box fan facing outwards immediately in front of our closed bedroom door. The cat avoids standing in front of the fan so the door doesn't get scratched and the sound of the fan makes it so you can't hear any loud meow attempts from inside the bedroom.
posted by donut_princess at 10:08 AM on January 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you have multiple cats. We had the same problem you did with the cats waking us up early and used one of the rounds ones with a rotating cover over the food (the CatMate). It did work, but unfortunately, the bin was too small for one cat to feed at a time, so they had to compete over eating, and two cats that were mostly friendly with each other became much less so.

So, with multiple cats, if you get an automatic feeder, make sure that the feeding bin is large enough for all the cats to eat simultaneously.
posted by ShooBoo at 10:12 AM on January 2, 2014

What food ball / kibble are you using? My maine coonish kitty figured out almost immediately that all he had to do was to pop the food ball gently to make it disgorge another kibble. Even after stuffing him with food, he empties out the ball in about five concerted, but not particularly interactive minutes. And of course the other cats quickly learned the trick from him.
posted by wotsac at 10:21 AM on January 2, 2014

Response by poster: I use the food ball i linked, and Science Diet dried food. The ball ends up all over the apartment but even when it doesn't, I prefer they have to do *anything* other than 1. lower head 2. fill mouth.
posted by rebent at 10:23 AM on January 2, 2014

I've got this one. It's a little cheesy in the way the hopper attaches to the base and the programming method is kinda opaque, but it's been running on the same set of D batteries for 2 years now and the only problem I've had is that it jammed when we made a late-night run to the supermarket for emergency cat food and ended up with cross-shaped kibbles.

I really like your food ball ejector plan, and think it could become a reality pretty easily. The first thing that comes to mind is putting the ball on a ramp that can be inclined by energizing a solenoid, which could be triggered by a 24V wall wart plugged into a simple hardware store timer. Ignore the stuff on the AdaFruit site about needing a transistor and diode, that's just for interfacing it with a fancy microcontroller which would be overkill here. When the timer turns the outlet on, the wall wart produces a voltage that pops the ramp up enough for the food ball to roll off the shelf.

An alternative to the solenoid-actuated ramp might be to use a rotisserie motor plugged into the timer and fitted with an L or S-shaped rod to push the ball off the shelf. This is simpler to build but might be more prone to jamming, and might require a little fiddling the night before to get the rod "primed" to the right position. Maybe you could poke a hole in a tennis ball and stick that on the end to make it less likely to catch on things.
posted by contraption at 10:39 AM on January 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you're not opposed to the cat(s) 'hunting' all night, you could get 5-10 small balls similar to these treat balls, then fill them partway and hide them all over the house before you go to bed at night.

I imagine if you were handy with electronics, you could build a small box to mount just above the floor (under a coffee table?) that would hold the food ball. The box opening would be facing down and when open, will drop the ball onto the floor. The latch would be magnetic, and would be released on a simple timer. Load the ball into the box, close the lid, set the timer, and it automatically opens at your preset time.

Now invent my idea, and you can make a million bucks from cat owners.

Personally, I like the idea of several small treat balls rather than one large feed ball. Yes, it would be a real PITA rounding them all up to fill them, but the amusement factor of the cat having to hunt down the balls and work that hard to eat would outweigh that irritation. And you don't have to fill all the balls every night. Make that cat work! Of course, cats being cats, they would probably decide to roll the balls in front of your door constantly all night long.

Bear is beautiful, and those eyes are an incredible color. I love that he's your *main* Coon cat--do you have a secondary? Your anti cat devices made me LOL.
posted by BlueHorse at 11:22 AM on January 2, 2014

I too have gravity feeders – two, just in case one goes empty before the other. They're cheap and work well. It might take a bit of time for your cat to get accustomed to having food on demand, since he's not already used to it, but in the end, it is SO much easier. Cats aren't like dogs – normally, although not always, they stop eating when their hunger is sated. If your cat doesn't have weight issues, a cheap gravity feeder could thus be a solution. To start out, you could put a measured amount, good for a day, into it. That way it will be easier to tell if kitty is snorfing it down all at once, or is grazing from time to time, as cats tend to do when they know food is readily available. I usually keep just over two days' worth in one.

Fellow Maine Coon beasty human. He's five now and at a very healthy weight. (I do feed a carnivore-specific dry food for cats, btw, but that would be a tangent.)
posted by fraula at 11:28 AM on January 2, 2014

On reading the comments, I like the solenoid release for the food ball, but came here to post about this VCR-driven cat feeder from one of the first issues of MAKE.
posted by chazlarson at 11:42 AM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

We had this same problem with our Maine Coon Toshi
and we got good advice on the green.

The solution was to put a vacuum outside the door. Attached to a power strip, when said cat pawed/meowed, just powering it on was enough to have him stop.

Now he won't go near the closed door with the vacuum outside it. Easy.
posted by gregjunior at 11:43 AM on January 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I successfully trained my naughty cat to stop waking us up (pteferrably by breaking things) when he got bored in the middle of the night. We tried all sorts of things, what finally worked was ignoring him completely for several nights in a row. We didn't sleep well, but it was temporary. Memail me for details.

Bookmarking the food ball for naughty's chubby sister!
posted by jrobin276 at 12:38 PM on January 2, 2014

I'm not going to answer your question directly, but suggest what worked for us - start feeding him in the evening. This serves multiple purposes with our cat who try as we may, we couldn't keep indoors completely. It gets her in before it gets dark to get her fed, and then we lock up the house for the evening to keep her and local wildlife safe. It also means we don't get woken up at 5am for her to get fed. Give it a shot, it works...
posted by Jubey at 1:54 PM on January 2, 2014

Response by poster: jubey we feed them three times a day, once right before bed. Perhaps feeding them non-preferred food in the morning (the second half of the can of wet food) would be the way to go... I'll think about it!
posted by rebent at 2:35 PM on January 2, 2014

At one point, we zip-tied a whiskey tin at an angle to an anchor, rigged lego gears and engine to a timer and attached the lid, and had ourselves a timed food ball release mechanism. At the appointed time, the engine would run for several seconds, causing the gears to rotate the lid from the front of the tin, and the ball would come rolling out. This only worked because the cat couldn't reach it.

We currently use these feeders for multiple daily feedings.
posted by moira at 2:38 PM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I use this automatic feeder for my cat and it's pretty much the greatest thing ever. She no longer wakes me up begging for food because she knows the feeder will open. My cat has not even tried to break into it, so I don't know how well it holds up to cat attacks. The cover does feel flimsy to me though.
posted by whatideserve at 3:11 PM on January 2, 2014

I have this one and it also allows me to sleep in. I got it on kijiji for $10.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:48 PM on January 2, 2014

Just a thought on the fixing the problem front- I (almost) never feed Karl and his pals for half an hour or so after I wake up, and (unless I have a very good reason) never earlier than a set time 7:00-7:15. I'm not going to claim that its a panacea, but the adult cats in the house do seem to let me sleep until feeding time and a little longer. Bear may also be trying to wake you up just because he's awake and bored, or lonely, and food isn't going to help as much there - you'll need to ignore him until he stops, shoo him off, or accommodate him.

One more thought - 5 am is probably the coldest part of the night in your house. Might a heated mat help?
posted by wotsac at 9:23 PM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

We used an older version of this. It worked mostly fine, although we did have to duct tape the top onto the bottom because the devil cat eventually figured out she could knock the whole shebang over for separation and food access. This newer model looks a little more firm attached, top to bottom. We had the food set on a timer for when we were away at work, and then at night. It worked really well for my former-stray-with-food-issue: the humans were eventually divorced entirely from the feeding schedule, and she seemed to think that the robot machine had all the control. You can also control portions, which she needed. (My current two free feed and are OK with that, but this older one would eat until she vomited. I miss her.)
posted by lillygog at 10:33 AM on January 3, 2014

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