Why Free Feeding May Put Your Cat’s Health at Risk

Some veterinarians advise against letting your cat “graze,” especially when it comes to dry food.

Free feeding could mean weight gain and possibly diabetes. By: d.aniela

I brought Cheshire and Dervie in for their checkups the other day. The brothers are big boys. For the past year, I’ve been trying to get their weight down by putting less food out.

Alas, both boys had gained weight. Apparently, portion control doesn’t work for cats. Cheshire, our former runt, had morphed into a striped barrel with short legs, and we couldn’t figure out how it had happened.

My veterinarian could. Cheshire was a grazer, he said.

The Lowdown on Grazing

For cats, grazing is basically nibbling at their food off and on all day. It’s not exactly normal to them.

“The types of animals that graze are herbivores: goats, cows, horses, sheep and so on,” remarks writer JaneA Kelley. “They graze because their bodies are built to chew, digest, regurgitate, chew again and digest again…. Cats, on the other hand, are carnivores. Their stomachs are not designed for grazing.”

At first, free feeding — another term for grazing — seems like the best answer. If you work all day or have to be away for any length of time, there’s an ever-ready bowl of dry food available, and your feline will be fine until you get home.

It also makes life a little easier in a multi-cat household. Most of my pet-sitting clients have more than 1 cat. Some of the cats get canned food, some of them don’t, but all have some kibble nearby. At one home, each of the 5 cats has their own bowl of dry food.

When Free Feeding Becomes a Problem

The issue with free feeding, explains Dr. Thomas Morganti, DVM, of the Avon Veterinary Clinic in Connecticut, is that every time your cat goes for that kibble, there’s an insulin spike. The pancreas can’t handle the long-term overload, and eventually you’re looking at a cat with diabetes.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, has explained here at Petful that offering all-day dry food is especially problematic: “Cats conditioned to the never-ending dry buffet are at risk for developing obesity, urinary problems and kidney failure, to name just a few of the top feline health risks of a dry food diet. It would be like a human moving his recliner to a Las Vegas buffet.”

That said, it really doesn’t matter what you feed your buddy — it’s the frequent feeding, not the type of food, that’s could be a problem.

Free feeding is convenient for humans but risky for cats. By: Isabelle Blanchemain

Meal Feeding

Meal feeding is the solution, says the Cat Hospital of Chicago. “Start by picking up the food when you leave for the day,” the hospital advises, “and putting it down when you return. The cat(s) start to realize that the food will not always be available.”

With meal feeding, each cat receives “a measured portion of food, usually 2 or more times a day. He or she eats the food immediately in a meal fashion, as opposed to grazing on food all day.”

A Counter Story

In February 2014, UPI published an article that seemed to contradict all this. “Fat cats can slim by ‘grazing’ their kibble all day,” claimed the headline.

At the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Science (ACES), researcher Kelly Swanson and his assistants found that upping “the frequency of meals fed per day, as well as offering meals that contained added dietary water, promoted more physical activity among cats.”

The felines in the 4 study groups all received the same amount of food; the only variable was the number of meals. Activity apparently increased 2 hours before each meal. “If they know they are going to get fed, that’s when they are really active, if they can anticipate it,” Swanson commented.

The point is, the cats were getting meals. Grazing had nothing to do with it. So the headline turned out to be totally misleading.

This video from Jackson Galaxy helps explain the differences in feeding for cats:

YouTube player

Other Solutions

  • Put your cat’s dry food in “a rolling puzzle ball so he has to work for his meals,” says Kelley. “But just don’t load up a huge bowl of kibble and go about your merry way.”
  • Play with your cat. He’ll get a light workout, and you’ll have some quality bonding time.
  • No “extreme” diets. Newsflash: They don’t work for anybody. In fact, they can “produce serious abnormalities that may jeopardize the cat’s life,” according to The Cornell Book of Cats.

I’m taking a moderate approach. The food bowls go down early in the morning and stay down for a few hours; they reappear in the late afternoon, then disappear at bedtime.

Cheshire’s still looking anxious, but I assure him it’s worth it.