The first topic to get out of the way is whether it is acceptable to let domestic cats eat whenever they want to (ad libitum). I find that my cat can eat whenever he likes and food is always available for him. He does not put on weight. In fact he is on the slender side of normal. This is because he is very active and nowadays he is an outdoor/indoor cat which leads to more activity. Kittens can eat ad libitum. However this method of feeding is not recommended for adults as there is a risk of obesity.
Domestic cats are able to regulate their energy intake so why do around 40-50% of domestic cats in the US end up overweight? In the context of answering the question, one reason is that modern commercial pet food are highly palatable and calorically dense which fools domestic cats into consuming too many calories leading to weight gain. Therefore portion control feeding is preferable as it allows the human guardian to manage their cat’s calorie intake.
So how often should domestic cats be fed? It depends on the owner’s lifestyle, the age of the cat and how the cat responds to the ‘feeding regime’. The amount of calories consumed by a cat can be controlled by either limiting the amount of food when it is put down and/or controlling how often and when it is put down.
Domestic cats are by nature nibblers. They like to eat small amounts regularly. My cat who has free access to food, as mentioned, eats about 6 times per day at a rough estimate. That is his natural feeding rhythm. I believe it is fairly normal.
Some experts say a minimum of two meals should be provided per day. I would tend advise more but limit the quantity. The answer to the question in the title, therefore is several (more than 2 but not many) times per day at least.
Linda P. Case1 writes that in most households domestic cats are fed one meal in the morning and the second meal in the early evening. My cat feeds 2-3 times at night (Hills Oral) and thereafter, (1) when I come back from the gym (2) later in the morning and (3) early evening.
Feeding instructions on the food container is a starting point and cats should be fed as individuals. I find that it pays to provide smaller quantities of wet food from small sachets as opposed to wet food from cans. As far as I am concerned there is far too much in a can for a one cat. I am sure most people would agree with that. And is it not easy to store wet cat food once the can is open. If your cat eats all the sachet contents and leaves nothing left I’d think about giving him a second sachet.
I believe that it helps to give smaller portions than one might instinctively want to provide as it helps to control intake. All cat owners need to be aware of the potential for our cats to become obese. Protecting against that is one of our prime responsibilities as cat guardians. The other is safety.
I am open to contrary thoughts and entirely different ideas in comments.
1. Linda’s book is The Cat It’s Behavior, Nutrition & Health.