Today we’re going to be talking about what is the best food for outdoor cats. It was brought up in one of my comments from a reader, and it’s definitely important if you’ve never had a cat before. You might not understand how best to go about it.
If you’ve had cats your entire life, you probably have this covered. But just in case, read on!
This article is going to cover: What is the best food for outdoor cats? Plus other basic feeding information like:
- What is the best food for outdoor cats?
- Emergency Food Ideas
- What Not to Feed
- How Often (and how much)
- Feed Schedules
- Cat spats over food
- Cats with eating problems
- Pregnant and Nursing Cat Feeding Tips
- Barn Cat vs. Feral Cat Feeding
First, let’s get this legal stuff out of the way.
Important Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian or a nutritionist of any kind. This is not a substitute for veterinary advice on the nutritional needs of your pet. This is simply facts on cat food and my own personal experience and opinions based on what I have tried regarding outdoor cats and my own pets. Each individual cat is different and might have different needs. It’s up to you to seek a knowledgeable veterinarian who understands feral and community cats if you’re having medical issues with your colony.
Disclaimer #2: This post contains affiliate links. I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase. Thanks for supporting the kitties!
Next, before you feed that poor kitty you feel sorry for, make absolutely sure that you’re committed to being this cat’s caretaker. By feeding this cat, you will be teaching him to depend on you and if you aren’t committed to his welfare, don’t start to feed him. He will move on to keep searching for a place with adequate food and shelter.
What IS the Best Food for Outdoor Cats?
This answer is going to get me in trouble, but…
The best food for outdoor cats is whatever cat food you can afford to feed them.
Feeding a colony of feral or community or barn cats can be seriously pricey if you’re not rolling in dough, which is most of us caretakers. We’re all broke. We all do the best we can by our cats. If you can only afford 9-Lives dry food, then that’s what you can afford and it is better than no food unless you aren’t committed, as stated previously.
If the price is a problem, then here’s a quick list of cheap cat food brands my cats like:
- Friskies Wet Food – Amazon or Chewy
- Friskies Dry Food – Amazon or Chewy
- 9 Lives Dry Food – Amazon or Chewy
- Meow Mix Dry Food – Amazon or Chewy
- Purina Dry Food – Amazon or Chewy
- Purina One Dry Food (a little pricier) – Amazon or Chewy
- Fancy Feast Wet Food – Amazon or Chewy
- Sheba Wet Food – Amazon or Chewy
Other cheap options that I don’t use (cats preference, maybe yours will like it?):
- 9 Lives Wet Food – Amazon or Chewy
- Kit & Kaboodle Dry Food – Amazon or Chewy
- Meow Mix Wet Food – Amazon or Chewy
- Special Kitty brand
If the price is not a consideration, however, then read on!
Let’s get into a little biology, here. Cats are obligate carnivores. This means they absolutely must eat meat. They do not digest plants properly. This DOES include plant protein, so no you can’t make a cat vegan. You’d kill him in a horrible manner. They need higher levels of protein than most animals. They also need to get taurine from their food and that only comes from animal products like meat and milk. Cats do not make their own taurine as a dog would.
Cats have no need for carbohydrates at all. These are even considered possibly harmful to your cat in the long-term as carbohydrates often turn to sugar once ingested. This means stay away from the gravy varieties, except as a treat.
Another amazing fact about cats is they are designed to get most of their water intake from the meat of their prey. Because of this, they often have a low thirst drive and won’t drink as often as they need to. Cats that are often dehydrated have really concentrated urine and that can cause blockages and stones, which can be dangerous and life-threatening.
Okay, so you might be asking yourself why I told you all this?
If you truly want the best for your outdoor feline friends, take a look at the cat food aisle in your local grocery store. Stay away from food that has a high number of plant-based ingredients. Grain-free does not equal pure meat. They add things like sweet potatoes and such for filler to keep the price down. Stick to poultry type meat, like chicken and turkey, if possible, as it is more natural to a cat’s diet than say fish or beef.
Wet food is also super beneficial as it provides the water cats need in their diets.
Don’t be fooled by the ‘natural’ labels on cat food. A lot of those will add things like rice and other ‘natural’ ingredients that cats truly have no need for.
The best one that I’ve come across so far, ingredient-wise is Instinct cat food. Crave is also has a good ingredient list if Instinct’s price is a little much. I’m not an expert on the zillions of different cat food brands out there as I’m more concerned with the lives of outdoor cats rather than what they’re eating. If you have a favorite meat-only cat food, please tell me! I’m always interested in trying different brands.
I really, really don’t recommend some of the special ‘healthy foods’ IAMS or Science Diet. Unless it is necessary for urinary tract issues or stomach issues or whatever. I have never, ever had a cat actually EAT it and that includes hungry ferals. (No, I’m not kidding). Honestly, I don’t care how healthy it is, I’m not forcing a cat to eat something that tastes bad to them, especially feral and outdoor cats. Their lives are short enough, they get tasty food.
My recommendation (if you can afford it) is to feed both wet and dry food. I can’t get super fancy myself, but I do feed them both.
I don’t recommend you cook food for your cats unless you know the exact nutritional requirements that are needed for the species and have consulted with a feline nutrition specialist or veterinarian. Also, I don’t recommend that you feed raw food unless you know how to make sure it’s free of bacteria. Cats can digest raw food better than people, but they’re just as susceptible to things like Salmonella as we are.
If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details of feline nutrition, there is a great site about it at Catinfo.org. The Cat Info site advocates an all wet-food diet, or home-made, and is written by a veterinarian.
Emergency Food Ideas!
If you come across a homeless cat and don’t have cat food immediately available, you can choose a few of these options. These are NOT for long term food ideas and could cause harm to the cat if used as a primary source of food as they aren’t properly balanced for a feline. This is simply until you can pick up some cat food as soon as possible.
Again, do NOT feed this long-term.
If you own a dog, softened dog food is acceptable for one feeding. This is NOT a substitute for real cat food and a cat cannot thrive off of it, but just to get food to the cat before it runs off, this is acceptable, though not everyone will agree. However, do not do this more than once or twice. Dog food is not good for cats and cat food is not great for dogs. It can cause digestion issues. But it won’t harm a cat just once that is starving.
Another idea is cooked chicken, without bones. Never let any animal have access to cooked bird bones as is believed that they splinter easily. This could cause them actual harm digesting sharp bone splinters. Turkey or duck would also be acceptable. If no poultry is available, any cooked meat is okay.
Cooked is better than raw. Even though cats can digest raw foods better than humans do, they can still get sick from bacteria, as I stated in the previous section.
Another alternative is tuna. Fish isn’t the best for cats because it’s not usually a natural food source and more often causes food allergies than say chicken is some cats. Plus tuna fish is high in mercury which could be toxic if fed to a cat on a daily basis. But for one meal, it would be fine. As a treat, it’s okay as well.
If nothing else, table scraps should work too, and/or a saucer of milk (not too much, cat’s don’t actually handle lactose well), but be careful of the following:
Never Feed These Foods to a Cat:
- Garlic, onions and related foods
- Grapes and raisins
- Coffee, tea, energy drinks
If you suspect your colony cats or your pets have eaten something toxic, please call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426- 4435.
How Often Should You Feed Outdoor Cats?
Outdoor cats should be fed daily, at least, but twice a day is best. If at all possible, it is best to do it at the same time every day. Morning and Evening.
Adult cats eat around 5.5 ounces of wet food per day or about 1/2 a cup of dry food per day according to Alley Cat Allies. Some cats eat more and some eat less. If after 30 minutes there is still a lot of food left, you’re feeding more than you should. If they eat it all within 15 minutes, you’re likely feeding too little.
Do not listen to anyone who suggests feeding every other day or not at all for working cats or ferals. Would you eat every other day? There’s no guarantee the cats will be able to catch other food. It’s cruel.
As for working cats like barn cats, even the most well-fed pampered ones will hunt mice and other rodents, so depriving them of food does nothing more than cause them to go hungry. It does not help them be better hunters. Cats are excellent hunters and will kill mice on a full stomach. Plus no cat would stick around a place that isn’t offering food, even if there are plenty of mice. Feeding keeps them healthy and in once place.
The Importance of Scheduled Feeding
So you might be wondering WHY I gave you the above suggestions about feeding outdoor cats at the same time(s) each day.
- Your colony cats will all show up for feed times, enabling you to access them for injury or illness, or if one is missing. Although missing a couple of feed times is not uncommon in outdoor cats.
- You will become familiar with their eating habits and will notice when one of them has lost his appetite, which is a sign of illness.
- It is much easier to trap your colony cats to be fixed if they all show up for food at the same time.
- You will notice immediately any new additions to your colony that need fixed or veterinary care.
- There is no food left out to attract pest animals like raccoons and opossums or neighborhood dogs. It also lessens the number of ants, roaches and other insects in the feed area if there isn’t food sitting out all the time.
What about Water?
Fresh, clean water should be available at all times. If there is a creek or river near the colony, you likely don’t need to worry about providing water.
Even if nothing else, a couple of buckets filled with water will do the trick. Cat bowls made for water are often dumped very easily. Just make sure to change it daily!
The Cats are Fighting Over Food! Help!!
It is a well-known fact that cats are territorial. While domestic cats are social creatures that prefer to gather in colonies of other cats, they do NOT share food bowls well. The more dominant cats will swat other cats out of their way and eat first. The cats lower on the social hierarchy will eat last.
To reduce hissing and spitting at feeding times, be absolutely sure to make food available in multiple bowls at one time. If you don’t have a colony of 50 cats, I recommend one bowl per cat. However, that might not be feasible in some areas with dozens of cats. Use wide plates and platters or serving trays to ensure they can coexist eating and use a few of those plates or bowls to spread out the cats.
They will move around and change feeding areas and might bully a cat out of the way, but this ensures there is less competition.
This behavior is observed in fixed cats as well as unaltered cats, but it is often more violent if you have intact cats in your colony. Altered cats are just plain less aggressive than intact cats, but if it’s a personality thing, fixing doesn’t stop it. I have a bully cat who is fixed and has been forever. He’s a big jerk.
Cats With Eating Problems
(A reader reminded me of this, so I’d like to give a shout out to the rescue she volunteers for in Rhode Island, PawsWatch!)
It’s an unfortunate fact of feral or homeless cat care that many of them have teeth problems or pain. Sometimes, especially in outdoor cats that have been lucky enough to survive past five years old, they start having problems eating. If you have cats in your colony or barn that cannot eat regular dry food well, you might have to switch to complete wet food for that cat or consider purchasing kitten food with smaller kibble bits.
Signs of trouble eating in an outdoor cat, including but not limited to:
- Not eating much
- Trying to swallow the kibble, not chew it
- Tongue often poking out
- They may be pawing, rubbing or scratching at the side of their face and ears if it really hurts them.
If at all possible, it’s best to get that cat into a veterinarian or rescue to get their teeth extracted if necessary.
Barn Cat vs. Feral Cat Feeding
I feed the barn cats a little differently than I outlined previously in this article.
Because I feed both wet and dry food, I free-feed dry food throughout the day and have scheduled times for feeding wet food. This is also feasible because they are being fed inside the shelter of a barn, protected from bad weather.
Before dark, I take the cat food that’s left inside with me. Feeding barn cats at night carry the same problems feeding feral cats at night do. (Raccoons and other wildlife become a nuisance and possibly a health risk!)
Whatever your cat colony needs, a schedule is important. So is making sure to protect your cats from the dangers that food attracts by being sure they consume it all in a reasonable amount of time.
Pregnant and Nursing Cats Feeding Tips
Pregnant and nursing cats, if found before being fixed, could benefit from being fed more wet food than normal and more nutritious food like kitten dry food. Another excellent trick I’ve been told is to mix kitten formula in with wet food, as pregnant and nursing queens are eating for multiples!
If you’re in an area with a high feral cat population and shelters forced to euthanize too many animals, you may consider getting the pregnant cat fixed before birth. This will be discussed more in-depth in a different post.
Let’s go over this again, in short form this time!
If you’re determined and committed to caring for a community cat colony, any cat food within your budget is perfectly acceptable. If funds are available, try to feed both wet and dry food, all-meat and no-vegetable type. Keep fresh, clean water available for the cats at all times.
If you have no cat food in your home, a one-time feeding of softened dog food or cooked chicken (no bones) or tuna will not harm a cat. Do not do this regularly as dog food and tuna are not good for them. Cooked chicken is just fine.
Schedule their feeding to one or two times a day, once in the morning and once in the evening at the same time. Do not leave food out all day or night to attract nuisance or dangerous animals to your colonies feed area. This ensures you can keep your pulse on the health and activity of your colony and makes it easier to trap and fix any unaltered cats.
Try to keep a lot of bowls or trays or plates out to avoid cats fighting over their food.
If a cat has tooth problems, consider an all wet food diet or a diet of kitten food with small kibbles that are easier to eat.
If your cats are barn cats with a shelter, you can free-feed dry food from dawn until dusk and schedule your wet food feedings, just be sure to remove all food before dark to avoid nuisance and dangerous animals.
Pregnant and nursing cats can benefit from more wet food and more nutritious food like kitten food or kitten formula mixed into their food.
Have any questions or concerns I haven’t addressed here that you want answered? Please leave me a comment below and I’ll be happy to answer! I love hearing from fellow cat lovers!