How to transition a cat to free feed
September 2, 2014 1:30 PM   Subscribe

So since we got Molly, she's been a joy. But we're still trying to settle into a feeding regimen. We're currently on a morning feed (wet), an after work feed (wet), and a right before bed snack (high quality dry). It's fine, but it would be great if it could be a bit more flexible or less frequent. I wonder if we could put her on a free feed system like my friend does with her two cats, but I'm scared of overfeeding her. Does anyone have advice on how we could try transitioning to that sort of thing? I'm not sure about doing it gradually because I feel like that would just make her eat more and more. But if we just go straight to an always full bowl, will she just gorge herself all of a sudden and make herself sick?
posted by like_neon to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have always free-fed my cats and they have always been fat. It's too late to do anything about my current ones for an annoyingly wide variety of reasons, but I will never do it this way again and if I were you I'd stick with what you're doing. Yeah, it's more work, but it's a lot better for the cats. You could look into getting a timed feeder system if you're just wanting more flexibility to be away from home.
posted by something something at 1:35 PM on September 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Cats aren't dogs. In my experience you can usually just leave food around and they'll eat or not, and you don't have to worry about overfeeding them until they get geriatric.
posted by colin_l at 1:36 PM on September 2, 2014 [7 favorites]

I free-feed my two cats dry food (and now the kitten as well) and they're skinny as a rail and perfectly healthy, respectively. They get some wet food in the evening, and the healthy-weight one adores it and sings for her supper, and the skinny one condescends to nibble a little of the leftovers, but neither of them seem to eat too much. (Who knows how the kitten will turn out, he's five months old and has paws that would better suit a lynx.)

So I'm generally in favor, but I do think two things are important here: I feed grain-free, high-end food exclusively (both wet and dry) and I don't vary the flavors often or do anything to make food unusually interesting. For a while I was switching canned flavors every day, and Mags ate the whole serving and wanted more. Now it's about once a week, and she eats what she wants and leaves the rest for later (or for Dottie.) Rotating protein sources is important, but I don't want anyone to be *too* excited about dinnertime.

There's a fair bit of evidence that suggests wet-only is the best option, but I need the girls to be ok with being left with daily-at-most visits when I'm traveling, so I've never weaned them from the dry. As the older one is 14 and fit as a fiddle, I think it's ok for these particular cats. Yours will almost certainly vary.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:42 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Cats I've had have always been free fed. I just filled the bowl once in the evening. My cats were always at a good weight.

When I got little kittens the last time, the rescue insisted I feed wet food twice a day. I did that for about 6 months and it was nothing but endless yowling and tripping me as soon as it was within an hour of mealtime, especially in the morning, starting an hour before my alarm went off.

I went to always available dry food and I suddenly had content, happy cats who did not drive me crazy. I know wet food is supposed to be better, but... I needed my sleep.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 2:01 PM on September 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do you know anything about Molly's past? In my experience with two rescue cats -- both outdoor strays -- if a cat has had food insecurity in their life, it's hard for them to be free feeders. Both of my cats overate when there was food always in their bowl.

In your first post, you said Molly wasn't that active, has that changed? If she's an active, playful cat who gets a lot of exercise, free feeding might be okay. If she's a sedentary cat who spends most of her time laying around, I think it's not the best choice.
posted by gladly at 2:05 PM on September 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

In contrast, my cat was incredibly food insecure for awhile when she was feral, and then she lived in a shelter where they free fed for six years. She feels scared and sad when I don't free feed, begs constantly, eats every drop of food I give her, and lo, she transfoms into a chubby munchkin. If I free feed she regulates herself and stays pretty trim.

So as with many things cat ymmv. I'd try it and see how it goes. I actually transitioned into free feeding by giving her two days of food at once (she can't tolerate wet and does best with grain free dry) and she regulated fine so after doing that for a few days I just stopped measuring and started filling the bowl whenever it was empty. Little chunkernutter lost weight after just a few weeks of that.

My cat is not active but she's used to food being there and I think not having it at all times causes her to overeat when it is available.
posted by sockermom at 2:18 PM on September 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

She is an indoor cat. We try to play with her daily (up to about 20 mins), during which she is very active and engaged with us. The previous owners told us she was about 1.5 years old but I don't know much about her prior food situation. I'm hoping we got her young enough and that we've been consistent with her enough to allay any food scarcity issues?

We do have high quality grain free dry food and she loooooves it. But it is given to her as a treat kind of thing, very small amounts and right before bed - maybe that's not the right approach. The point about making her food a bit more boring is a good one - we currently use a variety pack for her wet so it's something different every meal. These are all good threads for us to pursue, thanks. But I could also use some more advice on how to make that transition, sort of like what sockermom said about just starting cold with two days of food out?

AllieTessKip the endless yowling and tripping underfoot is exactly the situation we live with right now! Could you also give a bit more detail on how you made that switch, thanks!!
posted by like_neon at 2:22 PM on September 2, 2014

My boyfriend and I have been trying to feed our four cats more wet food recently in an attempt to make their diet healthier and I ended up breaking down and buying an automatic feeder for the morning because I just wasn't in the mood to deal with them being SO ANNOYING at that time. This way, the feeder automatically gives them food before I even wake up so that the kitties are sated by the time I have to deal with them.
posted by foxfirefey at 2:44 PM on September 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

We more-or-less free feed our guy. That is, I put a little food in his bowl in the morning, and let him feed at-will through the day, then I add a little more at night before we go to bed. Seems to work fine for all concerned.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:48 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


We started out free feeding our kittens because babies need frequent feedings. That worked out well.

On their first birthday we got rid of the free feeder and tried to get them into a twice a day routine. They screamed for crunchies. They woke us up at the butt-crack of dawn, they threw themselves at the front door when I came home from work. They were complete assholes.

I had washed out the free feeder and left it on the counter. We heard a commotion and saw Eartha's head encased by the feeder and our kitty screaming in annoyance.

That was the end of the routine.

Now Eartha and Malcolm get a can of Pro Plan to share in the morning, a can in the evening, and crunchies throughout the day.

We keep it as high protein as possible.

Are they over optimal weight? Yeah. Are they fat? No.

Sometimes you've just got to stay sane.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:04 PM on September 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Agreeing that cats are much less likely to gorge on an available food source than pups. I think it's unlikely that (adorable!) Molly would eat herself sick - but it's easy enough to test without putting her overall health in danger. Try it, monitor carefully, see how it goes, intervene if necessary.

I think you should try the method that's worked well for me and my furbeast for the last 15 years. It's a combination approach. Kitty has a bowl of dry food which is kept full and available to her at all times. She also gets small plates of canned food at breakfast and supper. This is her routine. She reminds me if I get off schedule (!) but does not pester me for food between meals.

She has never overeaten from the bowl of cat chow, she nibbles at it sparingly throughout the day.
posted by falldownpaul at 5:05 PM on September 2, 2014

I have always free fed my cats (except for foster cats). I have cats who have ranged from underweight to obese (at the same time). You can free feed in a bunch of different ways. You can start out by seeing how she does with it, you can plan to put out 2/3 of her food in the morning and 1/3 at night or vice versa, you are not obliged to stick with one method of feeding permanently.

As a general rule, I have found that boycats are likelier to be overweight than girlcats, but also cats who were once food insecure are more likely to be overweight than cats who have always lived in places where they got lots of food.
posted by jeather at 5:17 PM on September 2, 2014

Totally depends on the cat. Try it and see how it works.
posted by wotsac at 5:18 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Y(cat)MMV, of course. I've gotten into the routine of feeding my two guys wet food am & pm, with freely available dry food (refill the crunchies every am). It works well; yes they prob are bit overweight (particularly now that they are indoor-only), but they are healthy.

Also, they will totally let me sleep in on weekends, because if they are hungry there's dry food in the bowl.
posted by maryrussell at 7:07 PM on September 2, 2014

I have a very fat cat and my vet told me I should put her food in these egg-shaped cat food dispensers and make her work for it. The vet said that cats also enjoy hunting for their food, so you should switch up where you leave the food dispensers.

My cat is a lazy, lazy animal, though, and when I tried this she just yowled at my 4-year-old until the little human gave her food anyway.
posted by Ostara at 7:22 PM on September 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is a total YMMV (or, at least, the cat's MMV). My family's first cat wasn't free-fed, and he was drastically overweight (nearly 19 pounds). Subsequent cats, both my parents and mine, have been free-fed and, with one exception, have remained well within recommended parameters.

Cats prefer to get their water by eating wet food instead of drinking it directly, which is one of the reasons vets recommend that you not feed kibble alone. (Speaking pragmatically, it's also easier to sneak meds into wet food instead of dry food.)
posted by thomas j wise at 7:33 PM on September 2, 2014

My vote: free-feed... and get her a kitten to play with. My cats love when I play with them, but they get most of their activity playing with each other. Philosophically, I'm opposed to the idea of controlled feeding for cats. Dogs are pack animals, they eat when the pack eats, so it's fine for them, but cats are hunters and used to eating on their own terms. I think that even for a cat that hasn't had food scarcity issues, it's psychologically difficult for them to not be able to control their eating schedule. As additional data points: I free-feed my 5 cats, and they're all at a healthy weight. Every fat cat I've ever known has been on a vet-recommended control-feed "diet" plan... and has managed to remain consistently overweight.
posted by storminator7 at 9:18 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have seen this debate play out on cat forums, and it really depends on the cat. Some do well with free feeding, some gorge. I'd try it out.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:38 AM on September 3, 2014

I have a gravity feeder that I feed my two with. Occasionally give them a small can of wet food to split but other than that, the kibble goes into the feeder and they eat when they're hungry. Neither is fat. Simple solution, really.
posted by Thistledown at 8:44 AM on September 3, 2014

I've always done the free feed. I've never done any official transition; however, one of our cats was adopted and she was pretty insecure about food when we got her. She would binge and purge! She's skinny as a rail, but it was obvious it was due to past experience of not knowing when she would get food again so she'd try to eat all she could as quickly as possible. Our vet recommended getting on of those dishes that has the raised center because it forces cats to slow down. Confession: we never actually purchased on of those but I put something in the middle of their dish to accomplish the same goal. After awhile, she relaxed once she realized she would always have food.

So, I would say just go for the switch. Maybe with the dish trick I mentioned. They might eat a bit more at first, but once they realize that food will always be there, they won't constantly gorge themselves. (unless there's some weird power struggle between your cats, that is)
posted by Eicats at 10:37 AM on September 3, 2014

YCMV. One of mine will binge and then purge if there is food left out. The other won't touch it. The first was a real fatso (22 pounds).

She went on a wet kitty diet. She's now down to 16 pounds and no loner looks like a bowling ball with a tiny head. Both kitties get fed twice a day. Neither pitched a fit when switching.

posted by kathrynm at 4:52 PM on September 3, 2014

So the great transition has begun this morning. We put out a massive bowl of food, like probably a full cup. She promptly gorged on it. She left a few kibbles. I refilled the bowl. She snacked a bit more with less gusto and the bowl is still pretty full. Now she's on the window sill and I hope seriously thinking about what she has done.
She's a small cat. I'm fully expecting kitty vomit when we come home tonight. But I'm getting all worried because she ate SO MUCH. And since it's dry food I'm worried it will expand too much in her tummy? Will she be ok and just throw up if it gets bad? Oh god she's snacking AGAIN.
posted by like_neon at 1:07 AM on September 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The worst likelihood is her vomiting and eating in a vicious little bulemic cycle. She will be ok. But she might not be a free feeder. You'll know after a few days if she's got that internal stopping mechanism or not.
posted by sockermom at 5:42 AM on September 5, 2014

Another update:
She likes the kibble too much to go free feed. Her tummy is so bloated and she'll stop and and take a few bites pretty much everytime she walks by the bowl.

We are now currently transitioning to giving her 24 hours worth of kibble + a bit of wet food in the evening. That still gives us a more flexibility than before and so far she's not wolfing down her food the way she used to so fingers crossed this is the routine that sticks.
posted by like_neon at 6:37 AM on September 12, 2014

Possibly final update:
We've bought an automatic feeder. It gives her dry food at 7am and 10pm and we give her some wet after work but we don't feel guilty if we're late. So far it's working out great. She seems less noisy in the morning and it's really funny watching her stalk the feeder.
posted by like_neon at 3:19 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

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