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Manual vs. Free Choice Feeding for Your Cat

Veterinarian Reviewed by Dr. Janice Huntingford, DVM on June 6, 2018
Posted in Food & Recipes

In the wild, cats are natural hunters. A wild cat might hunt down and eat 10 small meals per day, filled with meat because of their carnivorous diets! When it comes to domesticated cats, though, hunting for food isn’t an option or a necessity. It is up to the cat owner to provide enough food for the pet each day.

Feeding your cat might be a source of uncertainty for you, and that’s understandable. A nutritious diet is absolutely necessary for your cat to live a long, healthy life and stay playful and happy. But when it comes to feeding time, many cat owners are unsure of how to do it properly.

There are two major types of feedings you can give your cat: manual or free choice. The decision to do one over the other may require you to speak with your veterinarian and inquire about the possibility of overeating and how many calories your cat should ingest every day. It’s important you know the difference and the pros and cons to each before making a decision, so you can be more aware of your cat’s dietary habits and ensure its health.

Manual feeding

If you manually feed your cat, you provide meals to them a few times a day, generally at specific times. This is the only time your pet is given food aside from some small treats, if you provide them. If you manually feed, you are able to give your pet wet or dry food since it will be eaten before it can spoil from being left out.

One of the major benefits of manual feeding is that you are able to monitor the amount of food your cat eats each day. Additionally, you’ll be able to tell right away if your cat is exhibiting one of the earliest signs of illness: poor appetite. This method also often allows cats to eat alone, which they typically prefer to do.

The downside to this method is that your cat will not be able to eat whenever it wants, which is different from how it would hunt naturally. The cat may also take to begging for food between meals, which should be addressed and stopped as soon as possible.

Free choice feeding

During free choice feeding, a bowl of dry food is left out for the cat to nibble at all day. Your cat may eat a lot at one time or may eat small amounts and return for more later. Unfortunately, wet food would go bad if left out all day, so this method can only be used with dry food.

Free choice feeding is convenient for pet owners who are unable to get home for a specific feeding time each day. It’s also nice for the pet to be able to eat at its own convenience, as it would when hunting in the wild.

However, leaving food out all day can lead to over-eating and obesity in cats if the cat continues to eat without limits each day. It can also make it difficult for the cat owner to see how much food the cat is actually eating or if it’s not eating and might be sick.

Which is right?

There is no right choice when it comes to feeding your cat. It’s best to speak with your vet about how much food your cat should be eating each day and whether they have a suggestion on what kind of feeding method to use.

Manual feeding is usually the best choice if you own multiple cats, to prevent problems with one cat blocking or hogging the food. It’s also a good choice if one cat needs to have a certain kind of food and can’t eat the others’ food, or if it is on a weight-controlled diet or needs medications mixed into the food. It’s often a good choice for cats just getting over an infection or illness, allowing you to monitor eating habits and ensure they’re acting healthy while they heal.

There is also an alternative option called combination feeding that might work for your pet. This involved designated meal times where the bulk of the food is provided like in manual feeding. However, a smaller amount of food is also left out for the cat to eat between meals. This method allows your cat the freedom to eat when it wants, but still runs the risk of obesity or overeating.

Overall, you know your cat and its eating habits the best and can make an informed decision about how to feed it properly. If you do opt for free choice feeding, try to keep a close eye on your pet’s behavior to make sure you don’t miss any signs of illness.

Read also: Why Does Your Cat Leave Its Mouth Open While Sniffing?

Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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