If you have been leaving food down for your kitty to consume at their leisure, it is very important to understand that starving cats into eating doesn’t work and can be dangerous, especially in overweight kitties. Hunger, however, IS good for them (and a motivator in this process). It is VERY important that your cat eat enough food during the transition to either a new food or timed meals. Cats are not metabolically designed to use fat stores, and their livers easily get overwhelmed with fat, causing a disease called Hepatic Lipidosis (fatty liver). The way to avoid this is to ensure your cat is eating enough calories during any transition. This is essential. THAT they eat is more important than WHAT they eat until they are reliably eating enough food at timed meals. The road to better health is a journey, not a race.
The Key to a Successful Transition: The Concept of Meals
Obviously critical to a successful transition to timed meals is getting those nibblers to eat enough food AT meals. The components of establishing “meal time” are:
The Time. Establish a routine for the TIMING of meals. Determine when and how often you can feed meals based on your schedule. Feed meals as close to the same time every day as possible (at least during the transition). If you are usually home during the day, and you can feed 8 or 10 small meals over the course of a day (at first), you’ll be able to pull that free-fed kibble sooner. If you work, you may need to leave the kibble out (or out part time) at first to ensure your cat is eating enough calories daily.
The Place. Designate a specific AREA where meals are fed. This is part of the routine: an established place for eating meals. This should be someplace that is as different as possible from where their free-fed kibble is or was – but a place where you want them eating: a different part of the kitchen (or whatever) is fine. DO NOT CHASE AFTER YOUR CAT TO GET THEM TO EAT. Meal time is at THIS time, in THIS place.
A Signal. Designate a “call” that signals to your cat that it IS meal time. Pick a word, phrase or sound, and get your cats associating that word, phrase or sound with coming to eat.
The Amount of Food to feed?
This has two components:
1) Determine how much food (how many calories) your cat is currently eating in a 24-hour period. Assuming you are free-feeding kibble, the method is simple. Measure how much food is out. The same time the next day, before you clean and refill dishes, measure how much food is left. Record how much is gone. Refill the dishes, but again, measure the total amount of food that is out. The same time the next day, measure how much food is left. Record how much food is eaten each 24 hours for one week. The average daily consumption is how much food or how many calorie equivalent your cat should initially eat during the transition.
2) Determine how much food your cat will eat at one meal. Free-feeding is when food is left behind after eating. A meal is where all of the food is consumed in one sitting. Set your cat up to be successful! Determine how much food your cat(s) will eat at one sitting. Put whatever you’re going to feed them down for 10 to 15 minutes – or just pull it up after they eat some and leave. How much did they eat? 10 pieces of kibble? Half an ounce of canned food? One quarter can of food? One quarter ounce of raw or homemade? Whatever you’re using, and whatever that amount is, for subsequent meals, track how much food they eat at the meals you offer them over a period of a few days. Use that as your guideline to measure how much food to put out for a meal. Do not expect them to eat more than that at “meal time” at first.
Pulling the Free-Feeding Kibble.
It is how much food your kitties will consume at those designated meal times that determines how often you need to feed them OR when you can pull the free-fed kibble if your schedule is not flexible enough to feed as many meals a day as they “need” initially. Pulling the free-fed kibble can be done in stages. If you are not at home to feed many small meals, you can start by pulling the food when you get up, feeding timed meals during the day / evening, and putting down a measured amount of kibble before you go to bed. During the day, feed only meals. If your cat is hungry after a meal, increase the amount of food offered (up to the point that the amount they should be consuming daily has been divided into the number of meals you are targeting).
Remember: for nibblers, you will likely have to initially feed more meals than you plan to keep once fully transitioned to eating individual meals. Once they are eating only meals, start increasing the amount of food fed at the meal times you want to keep, and slowly drop the “extra” meals one by one.
Some cats will transition to timed meals within a few weeks. Some cats may take a few months (or more). The time required is usually related to age. Do not push kitty because you are frustrated. The last thing you need is a stressed, confused cat. This is not a race! Go at kitty’s pace.
How Many Meals is Ideal?
According to the Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats by the Nutrition Research Council, domestic cats relying on their hunting skills in the wild typically eat 8 to 12 very small meals a day. But this isn't practical for our human schedules. Combining our schedules with their needs, most cats do well with at least three meals a day. Young kittens need to be fed more frequently: until they are older than four months, kittens’ stomachs are not large enough to accommodate just three meals a day. Cats with pancreatitis or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) should be fed frequent small meals to the extent possible.
Meals for our cats do not need to be evenly spaced. Many find that before work, after work, and before bed works well, whatever that schedule is.
Managing Morning Meals
When you begin feeding timed meals, if you ever want to sleep in peace again, do not stumble half-awake out of bed and feed your kitties first thing. You do not want "waking up" to be the trigger that identifies feeding time. Find something to become part of the morning routine that happens before you feed them: make coffee, shower, eat your breakfast, &etc. Whatever that activity is, allow that to become the trigger that means they'll be fed next after you've completed that activity. Your kitties need to understand right out of the starting gate that there is no benefit to waking you up for food!
Troubleshooting the Transition
In your transition to timed meals, if you find that kitty vomits stomach acid between meals once you’ve pulled the kibble, this means you do need to feed more frequently. Their bodies will adjust with time. The additional food does not need to be a meal: a small treat may be all they need to absorb the acid build-up and tide them over to meal time. Freeze-dried meat or liver treats are the perfect tool to put that stomach acid to work.
The most common times acid build-up vomiting occurs is after you’ve come home from work after being gone all day or overnight. When you come home from work, give your cat a small amount of freeze dried meat treat to keep kitty comfortable until meal time. For overnight pukes, you may need to feed the last meal of the day later; the first meal of the day earlier; or leave a measured amount of kibble out overnight until their bodies adjust to the new food / schedule / internal environment.
If you have only one cat, you can purchase a timed feeder (one that holds ice so you can put your homemade food in there – always good to plan ahead!) to provide meals when you are not home or are asleep.
Praise helps. Praise kitty for eating at meal time.
Make meal times exciting. Have a quick play session before a meal (when possible) or after a meal – however it works for you, kitty, and your schedule. Before meal times is in sync with their natural hunt-and-eat instinct.
Incentivize them to eat meals. Stop feeding treats between meals (other than to absorb stomach acid as necessary), and sprinkle bits of treat (toppers) on the meals.
For any other questions or problems, you’ll find wonderful support from people with experience in the Facebook group Raw Pet or the group co-founded by the owners of Food Fur Life, Raw Feeding for IBD Cats.