I've lived with cats all my life and spent a lot of time volunteering at my local animal shelter, and I've learned a thing or two in that time. I'm also one of those people who reads everything I can about things in my purview, and I'm obsessive about optimizing my systems. So here are a few cat feeding tips and tricks from my experience:
The most convenient way to feed cats (for us humans) is to put out fresh food every day and let the cat decide when she will eat. This can work really well, depending on the cat. Some cats will self-regulate, but most will not. Younger cats especially are often bored when they're home alone, and will walk their circuit trolling for something to do. Food is something to do.
If you want to try free-feeding make sure your cat has lots of activities her daily path (cat fort!), and see how it goes. If your cat starts gaining weight, you'll have to switch to feeding once or twice a day at a fairly consistent time. Fat cats may be cute, but just like humans the extra weight puts a strain on their health, leading to more vet bills.
Dishes and Location
Cats are not terribly picky about what they eat out of, but you should be. Here's why:
- Did you know that cats get acne? It's not pretty. The primary cause of cat acne is their face rubbing on the greasy sides of their cat food bowls.
To prevent this, use bowls that are made of a non-porous material like stainless steel, glass, or ceramic, and keep them clean. I switch out Zena's dry food bowl every other day, and use a clean bowl for wet food at every feeding. Also make sure the bowl isn't too deep — no deeper than the depth of the cat's muzzle. The idea is to minimize contact with the sides of the bowl.
- Cat farts. Also not pretty. Cat digestion is sensitive, and both the shape and position of their dishes can affect how they take their food in, and how much stink they make.
Bowls should be big enough to hold the food portion, and have somewhat upright sides. This makes it easier for the cat to "corner" her food and get it in her mouth without gulping. Some folks recommend elevated bowls to make the eating position more natural, too. I think it's a great idea. I don't use elevated bowls myself because most of the ones I've shopped tip over too easily, but this one looks pretty good.
Cats are, however, a bit sensitive about where they eat.
Ideally you can feed your cat in a location where she can get some privacy while she eats. If a cat is at all anxious she'll tend to wolf her food, which makes for digestive badness. The kitchen is often a preferred feeding location, but I recommend against it if it's generally a busy place in your home. Personally I like to keep food happenings in the kitchen because I'm a clean freak, so I feed my cat there, but I also am willing to leave the kitchen for a few minutes after I plunk down her food.
On the cleanliness tip: In the past I've put placemats on the floor under my cats' dishes. I'd shake them out every couple of days and launder them every week to keep things neat. Nowadays my cat actually has an elevated dining table of her very own, which keeps crumbs off the floor and looks darn cute.
This is a big topic and merits a separate discussion, but here is my opinion in brief: Feed both canned and dry food. And unless you are financially unable, buy high quality food for your cat.
By high quality, I mean food made from actual meat. Most of the stuff you see in grocery stores is made from meat processing by-product — what I like to call "lips and assholes". There are people who truly can't afford more than 59 cents for a can of Friskies. If that's your situation you are a wonderful human being for sharing some of your limited income to feed a feline friend, and by all means buy the Friskies. But barring poverty I say pay the extra $5-10 a month for decent cat food. To me it's worth cutting a few dinners out to keep my cat happy and healthy.
There are many great brands of cat food out there. A store like Mud Bay here in Seattle specializes in carrying only high-quality foods, and the staff are often super knowledgeable. Stores like Petco usually carry both the good stuff and the stuff made from lips and assholes, so do your research. Here is a good place to start learning more.
Sometimes cats have medical conditions for which vets will prescribe special diets. Vets also often sell prescription foods from their offices. Most of these foods are relatively high quality but still contain meat by-products (though several natural food companies like Wysong are starting to make prescription diets as well). In my opinion, if the medical issue is serious, like pee crystals or renal failure, you go with the prescription diet.
I find that feeding dry food out of the bag is a pain, so I've invested in an airtight container. I spent $13 on a plastic container a few years ago, and if I keep it away from light in a cupboard, it seems to work just fine. Someday I hope to upgrade to the beautiful stainless steel simplehuman container. It has the added bonus of being opaque, which helps keep food fresher by blocking light, and the liner is BPA-free.
There are many ways to store unused canned food, and the relative merits of each have been debated (yes, really). It definitely needs to be refrigerated, and the most common way of handling this is to slap a lid or some tinfoil on the can and plunking it in the fridge. This can be ok IF the cans are lined, and IF you use the food quickly, otherwise you risk metals leaching into the cat food. Personally, I take a few seconds to put unused cat food in a small glass storage container before I put it in the fridge. I have used plastic containers in the past, but glass has even lower leaching risk and cleans up so much easier.
If you feed your cat raw food, glass containers can also be used to rotate portions from the freezer through refrigerator for thawing. With raw food it's super important to use it within 2-3 days of thawing, so when I've fed it to my cat in the past I've used masking tape to write the date I pulled a portion from the freezer on the container.
As an extra kindness to your cat you may consider adding a teaspoon or so of hot water to her wet food when it's been refrigerated. Most cats are just grateful to get the food, but if you think about how they eat in the wild, the meat is body temperature — not refrigerator temperature. As an added bonus, adding some hot water increases your cat's moisture intake, something they are not always great at managing themselves.