This guide is about feeding adult cats. If you have a new kitten in your life, you need one of our kitten guides. You can follow this link to learn about feeding an 8 week old kitten, and you’ll find more kitten guides in the menu at the top of each page on this site.
We’ll talk about cats with special dietary needs below. But for now we’ll go over the basic nutritional needs of a grown up cat.
What is the best food for my cat?
There are four basic ways to feed a cat. None of these is right or wrong, and each has advantages and disadvantages. Your options are:
- Raw meat diet
- Home cooked
- Dry kibble
- Wet food in pouches/cans
The first two options require quite a bit of effort on your part. We have a useful guide to homemade cat food, so I won’t go into that here.
If you feed your dog on a raw diet you may want to do the same for your cat. It’s a little more difficult to get this right with a cat because they are obligate carnivores. That simply means that cats need to get the range of nutrients that would be found in their natural prey.
The natural prey for a cat is a very small animal such as a rat, vole, or small bird. These kinds of foods are not readily available to householders and just giving your cat a piece of chicken or beef steak is not going to provide the nutrients they need to stay healthy. In addition, a cat’s innate fussiness (see below) is likely to complicate matters further.
For these reasons, most cats are fed on kibble or moist cat food in pouches or cans, or on a combination of those two. And its mainly those two types of feeding that we are going to be talking about in this guide
Which is better, wet food or dry food?
There is quite a debate on this topic. There have been a number of studies looking at the impact of wet food and dry food diets on various aspects of cats’ health.
Some of these studies have shown poor hydration and an increased risk of painful bladder stones in cats fed on dry food, compared with cats fed on wet food. However, other studies have contradicted these results and in some cases indicated that wet food may be more likely to cause health issues than dry food. So it’s not straightforward.
When Billy was a kitten, the consensus was that wet food was much safer for male cats. So he has been raised, and is still fed on, wet food. Now, the decision seems less clear. This article by Brennen McKenzie contains links to the scientific studies if you’d like to learn more. And of course, new research is coming out all the time, so it’s a good idea to ask your veterinarian what the latest thinking is on wet vs dry cat food.
Individual cats may vary of course, but all cats fed on kibble must be given access to fresh clean water. Just providing that water is not sufficient, you do need to keep an eye on your cat to make sure that they are drinking regularly
In the wild, cats get nearly all of the water that they need from their food, and the drive to drink is not particularly strong in cats. If your kibble fed cat is reluctant to drink water, as some cats are, you may need to think of ways to ensure they are adequately hydrated. Cat water fountains may help some cats drink more, but ultimately if your cat simply isn’t drinking enough you might need to consider switching to wet food.
How often do cats need to be fed?
Many pet parents feel duty bound to cut down the number of meals their cat has once the cat has reached a particular age. There’s no law that says a grown up cat must go 24 hours between meals. You can feed your adult cat once a day, or if you prefer you can feed them several times a day, just as you would a kitten.
If you are out at work all day, then once or twice daily meals is going to work better for you. I work from home and like to offer multiple meals to my cat.
There are benefits to dividing a cat’s daily food ration into several sittings, including:
- Opportunities for bonding between cat and owner.
- Multiple opportunities to rehearse recall
- Helps to keep outdoor cats nearer to home
- Some cats struggle to eat all their food in one sitting
Sharing food is a deeply bonding experience. It helps your cat to build a relationship with you based on your generosity and kindness. What could be nicer?
And the more meals you feed each day, the more opportunities you have to forge and deepen that bond.
Each mealtime is an opportunity to practice recall with a high value reward. Six year old Billy is still fed four times a day, and now has a better recall than most dogs! Here he is coming home for tea.
Staying Close To Home
Billy is free to roam wherever he chooses, and frequent small meals are a great way to help ensure he never goes too far away.
If you are in an urban area and your cat is allowed outside, multiple mealtimes are very important. Your cat will almost certainly beg food from your neighbours if you don’t offer more than one meal a day.
This can end up with someone else replacing you in your cat’s affections, or in your cat getting into trouble with neighbours that don’t welcome his visits.
Should I leave food down for my cat?
Cats that are given a whole day’s food at once may struggle to finish their meal. This means that their dinner ends up in the dog, or going stale and attracting flies.
If you remove what your cat leaves, they’ll probably be hungry later and head for a more generous household, or spend the evening wailing. Either way, frequent small meals helps avoid this.
How much food should I give my cat?
The quantity of food that your cat needs each day depends partly on their weight. A Maine Coon or Ragdoll cat is going to need more food than cats that are naturally smaller cat. But calorie requirements also vary between similar sized cats.
Oscar for example has two pouches of wet food each day, while Billy gets through four whole pouches (and still thinks he’s hard done by) The two cats are a similar size, fed on the same brand, and the manufacturer recommends 2-3 pouches per day for an average sized cat.
The manufacturer’s guidelines are a good place to start but you need to adjust quantities by assessing your cat’s body condition. Let’s explain how to do that.
Is my cat the right weight?
A lot of people look at cat weight charts and are worried that their cat is too thin. Some worry that their cat is too heavy which is a more common problem.
Healthy weights can vary widely even between cats of the same breed. You may find it interesting to look at our Ragdoll Cat Size Guide where you’ll find the weights of our readers’ cats recorded in a chart. It shows just how much variation there is.
To find out whether your cat is a healthy weight you don’t need a weight chart, you need to assess their condition with your eyes and hands.
How to assess your cat’s body condition
Look at your cat from above. Is the center of their body, where their ribs end, wider than their hips or shoulders. If so, this is a clue that they are overweight. Now run your hands down the cat’s spine, can you feel the spikes on their backbone? That’s a sign that your cat may be underweight.
Look at the cat from the side. Is there plenty of ground clearance? You don’t expect to see the big upward curve towards the groin that you do in dogs, but the cat’s stomach should not dip towards the ground in the center and in a healthy cat, the length of leg that is below the bottom of their belly is going to be as much as the depth of their body above. A low slung belly is a sign that your pet may be overweight.
If you think your cat is overweight, have a chat with your veterinarian. They’ll give you a more honest answer than most of your friends and family will! And if your cat is overweight, it’s time to reduce the quantity of food that you are giving them. Try cutting down by a third for a week or so, then reappraise the situation.
Billy would be very fat indeed if we fed him every time he asked for food. But not all cats are greedy, or as willing to overeat as our Billy is! In fact it can be challenging to get some cats to eat at all.
Why is my cat so fussy?
One of the main reasons that many cats are fussy is because cats instinctively seek out variety. Almost all cats prefer not to eat the same food for more than a few days in a row. One theory is that this instinct for change or variety is nature’s way of reducing the risk of poisoning from a single food source.
The theory sounds plausible enough. In the wild, if a cat were to feed on the same substance over long periods and that substance was contaminated with toxins, the cat might be harmed. So while it is annoying when your cat turns their nose up at a brand of food they were happily eating a week ago, there could be some logic behind that fussiness.
The best way to get around this is to purchase several different types of cat food and rotate them every few days. This solves the problem for most cats. It may be sufficient just to buy different flavours of the same brand, but with some cats you’ll need to switch the brand around too.
Cats that need a special diet
If you have a cat with special dietary needs it’s important to work with your vet to make sure you get their needs met.
Pet stores and online suppliers do sell both kibble and wet food specifically designed for certain health issues. The range and variety of different cat foods on the market can be bewildering. There are high protein foods, food to help with furballs, grain free foods, food for urinary health, weight control foods, the list goes on.
But don’t be tempted to diagnose your cat from the back of a packet. If your cat has a specific health problem, your veterinarian is the person to help you through this maze and point you in the right direction.
Feeding a senior cat
You can also buy cat food especially designed for senior cats. And perhaps surprisingly many cat food manufacturers designate any cat over seven as a senior cat.
Rest assured that most cats, provided they are a healthy weight, are not likely to show any significant signs of old ages until they are clear of their first decade and regular cat food is just fine for the average healthy cat for the first ten years and beyond.
Once cats move into their second decade then you need to pay a bit more attention to what they are eating and drinking. Kidney problems are not uncommon in older cats for example.
You don’t need to worry about this, just keep an eye on your cat and if you think they are drinking a lot more than usual, or losing weight, or in any way looking less happy and healthy than they were, a quick visit to your veterinary professional is in order.
A long and healthy life
So there you have it. Your cat will most likely thrive on wet pouches or kibble, or a combination of both. They’ll be more likely to eat everything you serve up if you ring the changes and offer a different flavor or brand every few days.
Feed the quantity recommended by the manufacturer to begin with and reduce or increase the quantity if your cat is too plump or too slim.
If you want to carry on feeding your kitten four meals a day once they are grown up, that’s fine. If its not convenient for you to do that then once or twice a day will be fine too. Cat’s are pretty easy to feed so try not to worry. Any concerns and a quick chat with your veterinarian should put your mind at rest.
I’ll end this guide with another nod to that often mentioned ‘healthy weight’. It sounds a bit cliched but being slim really will add years to your cat’s life and will help to keep them young and fit for much longer.