How, and what, should cats eat?

How hard can it be to feed a cat? You just set down a bowl of dry food and go, right? Wrong.

Feline experts would prefer that you feed cats on a schedule, measure their food so they don’t eat too much and switch them to canned food for a healthier diet. What’s wrong with free-feeding – setting out a bowl of dry food and refilling it as needed so cats can snack at will?

“Pouring a bowl of dry cat food and topping it off is the way to diabetes,” says Deb Greco, DVM, senior research scientist at Nestle Purina. “It’s unlimited food, and cats often never get satiated. If you’re eating constantly, you never have time to burn fat.”

Measuring an appropriate amount of food and giving only that amount per meal is one way to ensure cats don’t take in too many calories. For the average cat, that might be one-quarter cup twice a day. Use a measuring cup rather than a scoop so you know exactly how much you’re giving. The amount recommended on the package is a guideline. Don’t be afraid to adjust it up or down depending on your cat’s weight.

Why canned food? Cats need high levels of protein and plenty of water. A canned diet provides both. While dry food is convenient and can certainly meet a cat’s dietary needs, it has drawbacks. Dry food is high in carbohydrates, and cats’ teeth aren’t made for eating it. Their sharp molars are made for tearing meat off bones, not grinding pieces of kibble. A cat’s digestive system isn’t suited to dry food, either, says Kristi Krause, DVM, a feline medicine specialist at Serrano Animal and Bird Hospital in Lake Forest.

“They don’t have the salivary amylase to start breaking down the carbohydrate portion of the food,” she says. “They preferentially use protein, preferentially use fat, and store the carbohydrates. That’s where we start getting our fat cats and diabetics because they eat these higher carbohydrate diets and automatically store the carbohydrates.”

Cats who do eat dry food need plenty of fresh water, so make it attractive to them. It’s difficult for cats to see still water, Greco says, so simply setting out a bowl of it may not be enough.

“They may feel vulnerable sitting at a bowl, especially one that’s in a corner with their back to other cats that might jump on them,” Greco says. Greco and Krause advise new kitten owners to give canned food from the start, but if your adult cat has the munchies for his crunchies, or you can’t give up the convenience, they recommend giving some canned food every day as a treat or a topper to dry food. That’s because cats may require a canned diet at some point in their lives.

“If your cat ends up with some kind of bladder condition, kidney disease or diabetes, I’m going to tell you that he can no longer eat dry food,” Krause says. “I want that cat to at least be accustomed to eating canned food.” And if you feed primarily dry food, give your cat a workout by placing his kibble inside a food puzzle so he has to work to get at it throughout the day. That will help keep him from gorging and ensure that he gets plenty of activity.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with