What kind of food bowl or water dish should I buy for my cat?
There was a term coined in the 1970s called “choice overload” that perfectly describes what I feel every time I walk into a Big Box pet store. Head down the cat-bowl aisle and you’ll see what I mean: glass bowls, metal bowls, ceramic and stoneware dishes, and plastic feeding stations in every possible shape and size. How to choose?
Growing up, my mother fed our cat off of paper plates. With a house full of kids, she probably didn’t want to wash ONE MORE THING. It turns out that paper plates, so long as they’re thrown away after every meal, are actually not a bad choice. In fact, many veterinary offices feed their overnight patients off of paper plates because their disposability makes them more sanitary.
Are you purchasing cat bowls or dishes for the first time? Or are you looking to replace worn, dirty, or rusted bowls? In this post, we’ll share the facts about food and water bowls and help you narrow down the choices next time you head to your local pet store.
Metal, ceramic, glass, or plastic food bowls. Which is better for your cat?
(*Note: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
We know that cats need to eat or they get very sick, very fast. Read, “Hepatic lipidosis in cats,” to learn why.
The most important thing when feeding a cat is to find a food that your cat will eat, and a bowl she will eat it out of. Stainless steel is my material-of-choice for food and water dishes for all my pets for reasons I will explain below. But if your cat will only eat out of her favorite pink plastic bowl with the kitty pawprints on it, by all means, feed her out of that bowl.
Stainless steel: the material of choice for your cat bowls
Stainless steel is the best material for pet bowls, but not all stainless-steel products are created equal.
Assuming you’ve chosen a high-quality stainless-steel bowl, you notice the benefits right away. Stainless steel is sturdy, unbreakable, and dishwasher safe. It shouldn’t scratch, rust, or stain, even with constant use.
Stainless steel is easy to clean and less likely to harbor bacteria. This quality alone is why it’s often used in pharmaceutical and food-processing plants and in the manufacture of surgical equipment.
But all stainless steel is not alike. For one thing, it’s not an element, like copper. It’s an alloy, meaning it’s made from a mixture of ingredients, and the “recipe” can be different from manufacturer to manufacturer.
Iron, which is the primary component of stainless steel, rusts in the presence of oxygen and moisture. It’s also very soft. Manufacturers add different ingredients to strengthen the iron and to protect it from rusting, such as chromium and nickel, to turn it into stainless steel. Adding other ingredients produces metals with different qualities – and sometimes problems.
In 2013, Petco recalled three stainless steel pet bowls because they contained a small quantity of radioactive cobalt-60. This is what happens when manufactures don’t take care where they source their stainless steel or how they produce their bowls.
When you buy stainless steel, you should know a little bit about what you’re buying. Good manufacturers like to brag (and they should!) about the grade of stainless steel that they use in their pet bowls. “Grade” is a reference to the composition of the stainless steel, which, in turn, says something about its quality, durability, and temperature resistance.
American manufacturer Americat uses 18/8 304 series stainless steel that is sourced in the USA. “18/8” refers to relationship of chromium to nickel and is the metal of choice in the manufacture of food and beverage equipment. 18/8 304 stainless steel is favored because it does not affect food taste, is easily cleaned, and is good at resisting erosion. You can buy a set of two Americat cat food/water bowls here.
Dr. Catsby makes a stainless-steel bowl that is designed to be whisker-friendly (see more on this topic below). This bowl is manufactured in China but the manufacturer states it is also made of 304 stainless steel. We’ll touch on the concept of whisker-friendliness below.
Glass cat food bowls: another excellent choice (with a caveat or two)
Glass can be a terrific choice for a cat food or water bowl. But not all glass is necessarily food safe.
Glass is considered the gold standard for human food packaging because it does not react when it comes into contact with food, and consequently doesn’t change the flavor of the food. Glass is usually made with only three ingredients: sand, lime, and soda ash. A fourth ingredient, boric oxide, can be added to make borosilicate glass, which is able to withstand extreme changes in temperature.
In the U.S., The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food-safe glass. So, any glass manufactured in the U.S. for use with human food is considered extremely safe. Glass manufactured elsewhere is not governed by the same restrictions and could include additives that would make it unsafe for food contact.
Aside from safety, another advantage of glass is that it’s clear, making it easy to see if your cat has finished all of his food without having to walk over to the dish and look in.
The main disadvantage of glass is that it’s breakable, of course. If you’re feeding your cat on the counter and your cat is the kind who likes to knock things over, glass might not be the material-of-choice for your cat dishes.
Glass chips, too. Drop it a little too roughly into the sink and a tiny shard can chip off, making for a barely noticeable, but extremely sharp edge. If you can discipline yourself to check your food and water bowls frequently, glass is a superb choice.
But don’t use vintage glass or crystal no matter how gorgeous it is, as many of these items contain lead. Lead can leach into food over time and cause lead poisoning. Most modern crystal does not contain lead (or if it does, it should be labeled as such).
For safety, choose American-made glass for your cat food and water dishes. American glass companies might not make dishes specifically designed for cats, but there are some designs that work fairly well.
This 6-inch mini pie plate by Anchor Hocking is a great choice for wet or dry food, unless you’re trying to feed a crowd.
Libbey makes a 4-piece set (plus lids) of 14-ounce bowls that might also work as water bowls, or if your cat doesn't mind reaching into a deeper bowl for his food.
Ceramic cat bowls: some pluses and minuses
Ceramic, as a material, is thousands of years old. Today, we’re surrounded by ceramic in our everyday lives: it’s in our dinnerware, building materials, and decorative objects.
Making ceramic involves mixing natural raw materials, such as clay, with water, shaping this mud into the desired form, and then heating it in special oven, called a kiln, at high temperature, to make the ceramic durable and heat resistant.
“Ceramic” is an umbrella term that includes many kinds of pottery, including earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain. The kind of ceramic that we’re typically concerned with, when talking about cat bowls, is stoneware that has been glazed to make it non-porous. Glaze keeps the pottery from absorbing the fats and juices in your cat food.
Ceramic offers a lot of advantages as a cat-bowl option. Most pieces are relatively heavy, which means they won’t get pushed around the floor. They’re easy to clean, and are usually dishwasher safe.
But the main reason people like ceramic cat dishes is that they’re not just utilitarian. There’s no limit to the designs that are possible with ceramic, from cute to stunningly beautiful.
But ceramic, like glass, can shatter fairly easily. Worse, ceramic can chip or crack. The cracks can be so fine that you might not even notice them. This is not cosmetic problem, but a safety hazard. Bacteria from your cat’s food or saliva can find a safe haven in those miniscule cracks and chips and multiply, multiply, multiply. You will never be able to clean a cracked or chipped ceramic bowl well enough to make it safe for your cat.
The other potential risk involves the glaze. In the U.S., today’s ceramic glazes are regulated by the FDA to make sure they don’t contain harmful lead and cadmium. American-made ceramics should have a label stating that the piece is food safe. But if you purchase a piece made elsewhere, or if you purchase from an unscrupulous seller (or one lacking the proper knowledge), you might not know what you’re getting.
This goes for vintage ceramic, too. Pieces made before the 1970s might have toxic lead in their glazes. Better safe than sorry: don’t use older or antique pieces as a cat bowl.
Since I think there are better materials for your cat bowl, I am not going to recommend any ceramic cat dishes here.
Plastic bowls: not a good choice for your cat
Plastic food dishes are ubiquitous. They’re cheap and they’re easy to manufacture. Buyers like having so many inexpensive design choices.
But don’t buy a plastic food or water dish for your cat.
Similar to cracked ceramic, plastic develops minute scratches on the surface that make perfect breeding grounds for bacteria. Washing, even dishwashing, really only gets the smooth surfaces of the bowl clean. The bacteria, meanwhile, are having a party in those infinitesimal scratches.
Plastic absorbs odors. Fussy cats might not like the taste it imparts to their water, especially. Getting cats to drink an adequate amount of water is problem enough. Don’t add to your troubles. (But do read, “Why won’t my cat drink out of her bowl?”)
Plastic can be made a million different ways. What’s in your plastic? Bispehnol A (BPA), phthalates, and other toxins found in plastic can leach into food. These substances have been shown to damage the liver, kidneys, and other organs and cause reproductive problems in humans and rats. We can assume they might be dangerous to cats, too.
Some cats seem to have an allergy to plastic, or at least a sensitivity. We know that humans can be allergic to plastic, and while similar studies have not been done in cats, there seems to be an association between plastic food bowls and skin issues in some cats. Cats may develop lesions called “feline acne” on their chin and face that resemble blackheads or whiteheads. These are not life-threatening, and they can be treated, but they make some cats very uncomfortable.
Plastic can also cause a condition called “Plastic Dish Nasal Dermatitis.” This condition causes the loss of pigment on the nose and sometimes the mouth. It’s believed to be caused by the chemical p-benzylhydroquinone, which is in many plastics. This compound inhibits the production of melanin, a chemical in the body that produces dark pigment.
I do not recommend any plastic food or water bowls for your cats.
What size bowl should I buy for my cat?
You should buy a bowl that is large enough to hold a whole can of cat food with some space around it. I suggest a volume of one to two cups.
Does the shape of the cat bowl matter? How about a tilted bowl?
Short-faced breeds, like the Persian, will have an easier time eating from a shallow bowl. In fact, many cats seem to feel more comfortable eating or drinking out of a container that is wider rather than deep (read about whisker fatigue below).
A tilted bowl may also help a cat without a protruding muzzle to more easily access his food. I’m not sure it’s necessary for cats with typical muzzles and may cause more food to spill from the bowl.
A food dish with sloping sides is probably better than one with straight sides. Food can get trapped in a dish with “corners.” You don’t want to make it hard for your cat to get at her food.
If you can, find a bowl that has a non-skid ring or padding on the bottom so that the dish doesn’t scoot around the room.
Does my cat need an elevated (raised) feeder?
To raise or not to raise…
In most cases, healthy cats do not need an elevated bowl. There is no scientific evidence that suggests that raising the food bowl prevents any gastrointestinal troubles, such as vomiting. In fact, if you are concerned about excessive vomiting in your cat, look to a medical or behavioral cause first. (Read this post, “Why does my cat keep throwing up?”)
There is also no evidence that eating at floor level is bad for “posture.” Cats have been eating off the ground since there have been cats.
That does not mean that certain cats with certain conditions don’t benefit from not having to reach down for their food or water.
Cats with a condition called megaesophagus, in which the esophagus doesn’t contract normally, need gravity’s help in moving food to the stomach. Any other conditions that make swallowing difficult (neurological problems, respiratory infections, for example) might necessitate a raised bowl.
Cats with orthopedic issues, such as arthritis in the neck or spine, may find it less painful to not have to reach down to eat.
If you are deciding whether or not to purchase an elevated feeder, discuss the matter with your vet – and your cat.
Regardless of what you think is best, your cat will know what he prefers. If you’re unsure, you may have to try it both ways.
If you decide to purchase a raised feeder, choose something that’s easy to hand wash or put in the dishwasher. The feeder should raise the dish to about elbow-height on your cat. Consider a single bowl stand so that you can separate your food and water dishes (more on this below).
You can purchase the Americat bowl and stand together.
What is whisker fatigue?
Whiskers are a cat’s superpower. Each little whisker hair has a sensory organ at its base called a proprioceptor that allows cats to “see” the world around them in a unique way. Read this post, “Why do cats have whiskers?” to learn about the magic of a cat’s whiskers.
Whisker fatigue is still a controversial condition, but the idea behind it is that the proprioceptors get irritated from too much stimulation. The whiskers aren’t so much “fatigued” as “stressed out” from constantly touching things.
Cats who have whisker fatigue may avoid things that brush up against their whiskers, like the sides of the water or food bowl. Consequently, some cats may not get enough to drink, which can be detrimental to their health. Other cats develop interesting new behaviors, like scooping the food out of their bowls so they can eat it off the floor. (Read, “Why does my cat take food out of his bowl to eat?”)
If you suspect your cat may suffer from whisker fatigue, consider a food bowl that is either wide enough so that the whiskers can’t touch the sides, or very shallow. A “whisker-safe” food bowl like the one described above by Dr. Catsby, might work for your cat.
A water fountain is a good choice for any cat, but especially one that might suffer from whisker fatigue. Consider these models by Veken and PETLIBRO. You might want to offer your cat both a fountain and a bowl of water, just to be sure that your cat can drink in whatever way pleases her at the moment.
Note that cat water fountains, even stainless-steel ones, do tend to have plastic parts. It’s not ideal, but it’s a compromise you might need to make to ensure that your cat is getting enough to drink.
Where should you put your cat’s food and water dishes?
The place you want to put the dishes is exactly the place your cat doesn’t want you to put the dishes.
You want to put the dishes in a corner. Your cat would probably like you to put the bowls smack dab in the middle of the room so she can see who’s sneaking up on her while she’s bent over her dishes and momentarily vulnerable.
Don’t put your cat’s food or water bowls next to his litter box. Don’t put the dishes next to the dog’s dishes, or next to the dog’s anything. Don’t put the dishes in a high-traffic area or next to something noisy, like the washing machine. He needs a peaceful, safe (from his perspective) place to eat and drink.
And don’t put the food and water dishes next to each other. One study showed that if cats were given several water bowls to choose from, they’d more often drink water from a bowl that was placed in a separate room from their food bowls.
We don’t know why cats prefer their food and water dishes to be separated, but they do. Respect thy cat.
How often should you clean your food and water bowls?
You’re only putting dry food in the bowls. You don’t need to wash those, do you?
The water bowl only contains water. A quick rinse should be enough, right?
Every cat bowl needs to be washed daily in warm, soapy water, or in the dishwasher. Period. A dish that was used to serve wet food needs to be washed after every meal.
Here’s why: water bowls, you may have noticed, develop a slime on their surfaces. This slippery yuckiness is called “biofilm.”
Your kitty’s saliva contains bacteria and particles of food, which she transfers to the water bowl with every sip. Your household environment also contains microbes that can take up residence in the bowl. Biofilm is a collection of those materials, which, in turn, encourages other bacteria, fungi, and protists (microscopic organisms) to make themselves at home. Some of those microbes can be very dangerous.
Dry food actually has enough moisture and fats to create a biofilm, too. Wet food, as you may have guessed, is a prime growing medium for dangerous bacteria. Even if it looks like your cat has eaten every bit of wet food, there’s still enough left on the bowl’s surface to grow bacteria.
If you hand wash your bowls, consider keeping a separate scrubbing sponge that you use just for the cat’s things. Use a Sharpie to write “cat” on the surface of the sponge, so you don’t mistakenly transfer any bacteria from your cat’s dishes to your own dishes.
If you can, buy a duplicate set of cat bowls so you can always have clean, fresh ones waiting in the wings, while the dirty bowls are waiting to be properly washed.
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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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