How much should I feed my cat?
It sounds like a simple question, doesn’t it? But figuring out how much to feed a cat can be tricky.
Calculating the right amount of food for your individual cat involves a little science and a little art, as there are many factors at play. But it’s a worthwhile effort. A cat who is getting too much food, for example, will likely have a shorter and more uncomfortable life, and suffer with more illness than a cat who is being fed the proper amount.
Your cat’s metabolism is a big factor in deciding how much to feed
Cats, like us, and all other animals, eat food for energy to fuel their bodies.
The problem is that cats are individuals and so their energy needs can vary wildly from each other. We refer to energy needs as a cat’s “metabolic rate,” which just refers to how quickly a cat’s body breaks down the food he eats and uses it for energy. We often refer to this in terms of the number of calories that a cat needs to eat every day. Calories are just a way to measure units of energy.
Unfortunately, we can’t just say, “all cats need to eat 250 calories a day to survive,” or “All British Shorthair cats should eat three small cans of cat food,” or even, “all feral cats need to eat eight mice a day.” A cat’s individual metabolism determines how much energy or calories a cat needs to eat, and metabolism is affected by a number of factors, including:
Activity level. Some cats are playful. Others are couch potatoes. Cats who are always on the move: chasing, running, jumping, and playing, are burning more calories than cats who snooze the day away.
Age. A kitten is not only constantly on the move, but her body is busy building an adult cat! By contrast, a senior cat may spend very little time playing and more time sleeping, and may require fewer calories to survive.
Environment. Does your cat live indoors or outdoors? Outdoor cats are usually more physically active than indoor cats and require more food to support their body functions. But indoor cats are affected by their environment, too. Your household temperature can affect the rate at which a cat burns calories. A cat living in a colder home will burn more calories than a cat living in a warmer house.
Body condition. Overweight cats may be less active and thus require fewer calories. They will also need to eat fewer calories than their body might otherwise need, so they can begin to shed those extra ounces.
(Note: it is dangerous to put a cat on a diet without the advice and supervision of a veterinarian. Cats who aren’t eating enough can develop a potentially deadly condition called hepatic lipidosis, in which the liver stops working. Read more about it in this post, "Hepatic lipidosis in cats.")
Reproductive status. There is some debate about whether spaying and neutering will cause a cat’s metabolism to slow down. The possibility is something you should be aware of, especially if your cat seems to be gaining weight after either one of these important surgeries.
Pregnant or nursing cats need lots of extra calories to help support the important work their bodies are doing to grow or feed all those new lives.
The cat food you choose is a big factor in deciding how much to feed
Not all cat foods are created equal. A can of cat food is not just a can; a cup of food from one brand can have far more calories than a cup of food from another. You’re going to have to become a label reader to get this right.
Let’s compare the label from Meow Mix dry food, to American Journey dry cat food. You can see that the Meow Mix has 308 calories in a cup, while American Journey has 395 calories in the same cup.
And here we can compare a 3-oz can of a certain flavor of Fancy Feast, which has 64 calories in each can, while the same-sized can of Blue Buffalo has 176 calories. And don’t forget that wet cat food can come in different-sized cans, too, which will affect the amount you’re feeding and the number of calories.
So, in this example, If you feed American Journey dry food, or Blue Buffalo wet food, for example, you’re going to have to feed less food than if you feed Meow Mix or Fancy Feast.
So, how do you figure out how much cat food to feed?
First, let me state that any advice in this post refers to adult cats, not kittens. Feeding kittens is an entirely separate topic.
Calorie calculator: one way to start
You can start in one of two places.
I like to start with a calorie calculator, like this one by the Pet Nutrition Alliance. The Pet Nutrition Alliance is a coalition of veterinarians, veterinary nutritionists, animal hospital groups, and others who are committed to helping pets live healthier lives through proper nutrition.
To use the calculator, input your cat’s weight and whether or not he/she is spayed or neutered. Then choose a body-condition score by sliding the square left or right on the scale. (Hint: click the question mark on the right to reveal a body-condition score-card chart, which shows you how to rate your own cat’s body condition). Leave the “current calorie intake” blank, and leave the “ideal pet weight” section blank, too. Choose “calculate now” and the program will tell you approximately how many calories your cat should be eating each day.
Once you know approximately how many calories your cat should be eating, you can figure out how many cans or cups you should feed.
Let’s try an example with a fictional cat who eats Fancy Feast from a can. My fictional cat weights 8 ¾ pounds and is spayed. Her body condition is just right: she’s a 5. When I enter this information into the calculator, it says she needs about 198 calories a day, including about 20 calories worth of treats. So, she needs to get about 178 calories from food.
To find out how many cans of Fancy Feast she can eat each day, I divide the 178 calories by the number of calories in a can:
178 divided by 64 = approximately 2 ¾ cans of food each day.
If I feed my fictional cat twice a day, she should get 1 3/8ths cans at each feeding. This is starting to sound a little complicated – we’ll discuss how to make keeping track of a cat’s daily food intake a little bit easier in a moment.
A second way to start
Another place to start is the back of your cat food bag or can. Some pet foods, like this one by Castor & Pollux, provide a helpful feeding guide that is based on a cat’s weight. I like this chart because it offers suggestions for feeding a combination of wet and dry food, as many cat guardians like to do.
Note, however, that this chart is only valid for the food brand and type that it refers to. You cannot apply the information on this chart to other brands of dry cat food, nor even to other cat foods made by the same brand, because each type of food may contain a different number of calories.
Also note that the amount listed on the back of the bag or can is per day, not per meal. You will have to divide this amount again by the number of times per day you feed your cat.
What to keep in mind about feeding your cat
Remember that both of these methods are just a place to start. The cat calorie calculator does not take into account how young or active your cat is, or if she is pregnant or nursing, or if she has an ongoing illness that can affect her metabolism, for example.
The chart on the back of a bag of cat food is similarly limited. Plus, it reflects a wide range of weights and feeding suggestions, which can leave you feeling like you’re still just guessing how much to feed.
Consult with your veterinarian
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The next stop on the road to answering this important question about how much to feed, is a visit to your vet. Your vet will check your cat’s body condition and recommend adding or subtracting calories from your cat’s diet based on how much you’re currently feeding.
You can bring a bag or can of the food you’re currently using to your appointment and your vet can recommend a feeding regimen moving forward.
Earlier, I said that knowing how much to feed is as much an art as a science. Calculators and charts and even veterinarians can only go so far. The final answer rests with your cat.
Even if a chart says to feed 2/3 of a cup of dry food…even if the calorie calculator agrees…even if your vet thinks 2/3 cup of Food XYZ should be the right amount, your cat has the final say.
If your cat is gaining or losing weight on the amount of food you are feeding, you will need to continue to adjust the amount down or up. You can check your cat’s weight every two weeks on a pet/baby scale like this one by Beurer.
How to make keeping track of how much a cat is eating a little easier
Remember the earlier fictional calculation that resulted in a feeding our pretend cat 1 3/8ths of a can?
Who can scoop out precisely 1 3/8ths of a can? (The answer is no one.)
What I recommend is scooping out a whole day’s worth of food into a plastic container at the beginning of the day. Then every time you feed a meal, scoop from the plastic container. Each meal might not be exactly the same number of calories as the last meal, but by the end of the day, your cat will have had roughly the number of calories you intended for him to have.
The same goes for dry food. If you use a free-feeder, scoop out the day’s allotment into the feeder. That will keep uneaten food in the feeder from getting stale, and it will also help you monitor how much your cat is actually eating. If you have to take a thin cat to the vet, for example, it will be helpful for your vet to know exactly how much she has been eating.
Even if you don’t free feed, it’s good to keep “today’s food” in a certain bag or container. That way, if anyone else feeds the cat, they’ll know to use only the food in the special container, and not just scoop out a random amount.
Consider using a food scale
If you want to be even more precise, use a food scale to measure out the day’s food. A good food scale, like this one by Nicewell, will allow you to measure accurately down to grams or tenths of an ounce. It will also let you “zero” out the scale with the container on the scale first. That way you don’t have to subtract out the weight of the container every time you measure.
Here is how you would use a food scale to measure the calories in your cat’s food. Let’s start with a wet food example.
An example of how to use a food scale to measure wet food
I find it easier to work in grams rather than ounces, because with ounces you end up with very small decimals, which can make calculations a little confusing. So, the first thing to do is to convert the ounces in your can of wet food into grams. We don’t have to be too precise, so we can just multiply the number of ounces in your can of cat food by 28. (The real conversion is 1 ounce = 28.34952 grams.) We’ll use an imaginary 3-ounce can of cat food:
3 ounces X 28 = 84 grams of food in a can
Next, divide the number of calories per can by the number of grams of food in a can. Let’s say our fictional food has 110 calories per can, so:
110 calories / 84 grams = 1.3 calories per gram
So, we know that every gram of food has 1.3 calories.
Our pretend cat above needs to eat 178 calories a day. Divide the number of total calories your cat should be eating by the number of calories in every gram of food.
178 calories per day / 1.3 calories per gram = 137 grams of food
Set your scale to weigh in grams. Put a container on your scale, “zero” it out, or press “tare” if your scale has that button. This prevents the weight of the container from being weighed. Keep adding wet food until you get to 137 grams. Now you have all of today’s food in one container.
An example of how to use a food scale to measure dry food
Let’s use a fictional dry cat food that has 300 calories per cup.
Set your container on your scale and zero it out or press tare. Again, I like to use grams, but you can also use ounces.
Measure out 1 cup of dry food. Use a kitchen measuring cup, not an ordinary cup. Scoop out dry food so that the top is even with the top of the measuring cup. Weigh it.
Let’s say that one cup of dry cat food weighs 125 grams.
Divide the number of calories in one cup by the number of grams in 1 cup:
300 calories / 125 grams = 2.4 calories per gram.
So, we know that every gram of food has 2.4 calories.
Our pretend cat needs to eat 178 calories a day. Divide the number of calories your cat needs by the number of calories in every gram of food:
178 calories per day / 2.4 calories per gram = 74 grams of food.
Place an empty container on your scale, zero it out, and shake 74 grams of food into it. This is all the food your fictional cat should eat today.
How often should I feed my cat?
It would be easier to just feed your cat once per day. But there is scientific evidence that cats prefer to eat smaller meals multiple times per day and that they do better when fed that way.
Studies show that when cats are given free access to food, they tend eat several small meals per day on their own. Other studies show that cats seem to drink more water when fed several small meals a day, which can lead to better urinary tract health.
You should feed your cat at least two separate meals per day, but up to six times a day. More often is better, but do only what you can do and don’t feel guilty about it.
For information on a related topic, read, "What kind of food bowl or water dish should I buy for my cat?"
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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