It is more natural for cats to have meal times but not set meal times. I am referring to how wild cats feed. To put down dry cat food 24/7 and allow free-feeding is akin to turning your cat companion into a scavenger. Inherently domestic cats are not scavengers. They are hunters and highly effective at it.
However, they are also domesticated and I think that in this instance it is unwise to try and replicate the life of the domestic cat’s wild ancestor, the North African wildcat.
Jackson Galaxy’s set meals
If you are a fan of the cat behaviourist Jackson Galaxy you’ll be persuaded by his argument that cat owners must provide their cats with set meal times. For him it is a non-negotiable topic. To fail to stick to meal times destroys their Mojo. He means it works against the cat’s natural instincts and it is the role of cat guardians to feed those instincts in order to make them happy.
There is a third hybrid way: provide a background feed of high quality dry food such as Hills Oral (large pellets) which is available 24/7 and also provide high quality wet cat food meals when your cat indicates that he is hungry and wants variety. This is what I do even if Galaxy would disapprove.
If you do decide to go the Jackson route, I don’t believe it has to be set meal times i.e. meals at the same time each day because wild cats don’t have that luxury and the certainty of getting a meal at a set time would seem to undermine the challenge element of finding food.
Number of meals
How many meals should be provided if you reject free-feeding? Between two and four is the answer. I provide three meals a day normally but I don’t count and I don’t limit it to that. I respond to what I consider to be my cat asking for food. I have learned to read his behaviour and vocabulary.
Obesity and outdoor cats
There are other aspects to this answer. If your cat is naturally slender, like mine, there is no danger of him becoming obese. Feline obesity is one reason for set meal times as it is an obvious way of controlling the amount of food a cat eats. In my case I don’t have that motivation to control his food intake. If anything I want him to eat more. He is very active and burns all the calories he eats. Obesity is an important factor for deciding to provide set meals.
Another is to entice your outdoors cat back home. Having mealtimes will encourage a cat to come home at those times. It helps a cat guardian retain a measure of control over their wandering cat outside.
To return to the question: Should cats have set meal times? The default position should be unset meal times in my view, about three times per day of the highest quality wet cat food that you can find. If you are experienced and have the time and inclination a raw cat food diet is recommended by many experts but vets advise against it on the basis that most cat owners are unable to make it and store it properly which can lead to it becoming contaminated with pathogens.
My preferred and recommended food of choice is a raw, meat-based diet which includes all aspects of prey…- Jackson Galaxy in Total Cat Mojo.
Note on dry food
One last word on the much maligned dry cat food that is so popular with modern day cat owners. I don’t believe that it is as bad as some make out provided it is the best you can afford. I use Hills Oral. My cat’s coat feels great after feeding on it. He appears healthy and at nearly 7-years-of-age his teeth look okay. Although I don’t believe that dry cat food cleans teeth as claimed. I am not recommending dry cat food just trying to add some balance to the argument. Galaxy says that dry should be used as a treat only. Dry can be addictive because of the added flavourings. We know that now.
Some more on cat food ingredients