Becoming a first-time owner of a cat entails answering a lot of questions that you’ve never really had to consider before.
But there’s a one question that pet owners rarely try to really answer definitively: how much food should we give our cat, really?
If you try to answer it on the fly, you might find yourself trying to measure out cat food in your head or defaulting to the timeless “Enough, obviously.” But, in reality, the answer to this simple question is anything but that.
How Much Should I Feed My Cat?
You’ll get the most accurate answer to this question from a veterinarian. They are the people who are best suited to offer medically sound, customized nutrition guidelines for your cat and answer any questions that you have.
That being said, there are a couple of ways that you can get a general idea of how much food to give your cat.
Check the Nutrition Guidelines on Your Cat’s Food
Both dry and wet cat food containers will often contain labels that display ranges of how much you should feed your cat based on their weight.
However, be warned that these feeding instructions are based on the caloric needs of an average cat at that weight with an average activity program. You’ll need to take some additional steps if you want to determine the ideal amount of food to give your cat.
Use Rules of Thumb, with Caution
If you’re someone who just wants to abide by a simple rule, then consider this: the Animal Medical Center in New York says that a healthy, active 8-pound cat requires 30 calories per pound, per day.
If your cat feeds on a set schedule twice a day, then you could theoretically split a cup of dry cat food (typically ~300 calories) between two meals and provide your cat with sufficient calories for the day.
On the other hand, you can just drop this amount of food into your cat’s feeder each day if they free feed.
But truly determining the precise amount of food your cat needs per day requires you to take a whole range of factors into consideration.
What Factors Affect How Much Food to Give Your Cat?
As much as we wish there was a simple formula that we could use to answer the question “How much food should I feed my cat?”, there isn’t. In reality, the amount of food that a cat needs every day is dependent on Your answer to a battery of questions. Here goes:
For starters, your cat’s age plays a large part in determining how much food they need. According to Francis Kallfelz, DVM, Ph.D., and James Law Professor of Nutrition at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, kittens up to six months old may require three meals a day, while kittens six months old to maturity will usually require feeding twice per day.
Once the cat reaches one year old, Kallfelz says, they should be fed once or twice a day. Kallfelz also notes that senior cats who are seven years old and up should maintain the same feeding regimen they’ve had since becoming adults.
Your cat’s weight will also determine how much food they should be consuming on a daily basis. Larger breeds of cats tend to require more food than smaller breeds of cats. Although, this is not a hard and fast rule – some cats that appear to be large have surprisingly small frames. The “large” is simply a lot of hair! You don’t want to accidentally overfeed your cat just because they look extra fluffy!
Weight and Metabolic Level
Overweight cats should, of course, eat less food per day than cats who are underweight or of normal weight. Unfortunately, many pet parents are unaware of proper feeding guidelines for their furry friend and end up overfeeding them, which puts them at risk for obesity. According to Dr. Ernie Ward, DVM, obesity is the most common nutritional disease in household pets.
And, while people might flip out to show you the latest video of chubby cats acting adorable, trust us when we say there’s nothing cute about the effects of feline obesity. Feline obesity is associated with a considerable number of potentially devastating health issues in cats including diabetes, arthritis, urinary tract disease, and more.
Along those same lines, cats who are regularly active will require more food to maintain their continually active metabolism per day than cats who are sedentary.. This makes tons of sense if you think about it – when you, as a human, exercise regularly, you’ll often hear your tummy rumbling to remind you to keep the fuel coming!
A number of diseases and ailments can affect both your cat eats and how much they end up eating.
Cats who suffer from diabetes, for example, should only eat when they’re receiving insulin. This helps ensure that they absorb all of the calories in their food and that their blood sugar levels stay balanced throughout the day.
Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism tend to cause an increased appetite in cats. However, while hypothyroidism is often associated with weight gain, hyperthyroidism often presents with weight loss. But, in both cases, you might find your cat purring up to you for a bite of whatever you’re snacking on with more regularity.
Additionally, cats with moderate to severe tooth decay and/or gum disease may exhibit less of an appetite, as eating may become uncomfortable for them. Signs that point to your cat’s mouth as the root cause of disease include drooling, decreased appetite and/or pawing at the mouth.
We all know that spaying or neutering our cats can slow them down a bit for a day or so, but the effects that this has on their caloric needs are quite significant. Generally, cats who get spayed or neutered should consume fewer calories than before they were operated on. It’s generally advised to reduce your cat’s daily calories by a quarter following the operation. Then, try and observe what effect the procedure has on their appetite and weight before making any adjustments.
Conversely, pregnant cats will gradually increase their food intake from the day she mates through the end of her term. By the time that she has her kittens, a pregnant cat may be consuming between 50% and 100% more than her daily food intake pre-pregnancy.
Body Condition Score
While it may seem a bit strange to score things related to our pet’s health and wellness, using a Body Condition Score is a simple and intuitive way to determine whether Whiskers is overweight or underweight.
A body condition score is a number that’s assigned to specific cat body types, ranging from 1 to 9. A cat with body condition score of 1 would be considered very underweight, while a cat with a score of 9 would be considered very overweight. A cat with an ideal body type would score around a five.
How to Determine a Cat’s Body Condition Score
In order to get the most accurate Body Condition Score, get your cat evaluated by a trained veterinarian. However, you can attempt to get a rough estimate of your cat’s score by following the procedure below.
Before the exam begins, make sure your cat is relaxed. Pet them and love on them before you begin the exam. Remember to intersperse this affection throughout the exam, too! After all, who wouldn’t want some comfort while getting their body checked out?
To begin the exam, give your cat a visual once-over. Evaluate your cat’s profile and try to get a good look at their stomach, limbs, and neutral stance. Then, get a view from overhead where you can see their waist and lower back. After you’ve had time to look them over, it’s time to get your hands furry.
Gently but firmly rub your hands along your cat’s ribs. Your cat’s rib cage should not be visible through their coat. If you notice rib bones sticking out without applying additional pressure, your cat’s weight is probably too low. However, if you have a difficult time feeling their ribs even after applying pressure, your cat may be too heavy.
Next, move your hands toward their waist. Be careful: cats are often sensitive in this area! You should be able to make out an hourglass shape as you work your way down their waist. If, instead of feeling an hourglass you feel something more akin to a cat shaped blob, your cat may be overweight.
Finally, you’ll want to feel your cat’s stomach. A cat who is of normal weight will have a stomach that makes a straight line with their hips. If your cat has something of a small, sagging bit of skin that hangs, don’t worry; that’s just their paunch. Most cats have one! Just be sure it doesn’t drag on the floor when they walk!
Once you’ve completed the above steps, you should be able to roughly determine your cat’s body condition score. If you came away from the exam thinking, “Man, my cat sure is bony!” then your cat may score between 1 and 4 and they may be underweight. On the flip side, if you walked away thinking “Maybe I should stop feeding Whiskers so much popcorn…” your cat may have a score that’s greater than 5 and they may be overweight.
You can take a look at each of the Body Condition Scores and their descriptions here.
How Often Should I Feed My Cat?
You must feed your cat every day. It’s generally recommended to split your cat’s daily food consumption between two meals that occur at the same times each day.
While it may seem like a pain to spend time learning the best times of day to feed your cat, it’s worth it. Establishing a feeding schedule provides your cat with feelings of stability and predictability. By providing this constant for them, your cat may have an easier time coping with changes in the house.
A predictable feeding schedule can be especially helpful when you’re trying to get your cat to eat new foods, as it conditions them to be hungry at the same time every day. What better motivator is there to try food than being super hungry?
Ultimately, however, the time of day they eat matters much less to your cat’s overall health than how much they eat at each meal.