Debating Free-Feeding My Cat

Scared kitty at the vet.

Last night, I tweeted my intent to experiment with free-feeding Anakin. I was met with unanimous objection from my well-meaning followers, who relayed horror stories, photos of their own obese cats, and reason upon reason why free-feeding a cat is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea. 

Anakin is my first cat, so I'm really not sure what I'm doing half the time. Since day 1 (okay, day 5), she has been on a strictly portioned, calorie-controlled diet, as per my vet's orders. "Even though she looks small, she has the perfect amount of fat for her body right now," Dr. M said. "Don't let her gain any weight, or it'll lead to health complications and pain." I was told that it was especially important to be diligent since she is indoors-only and doesn't get much exercise.

Like many adopted animals, Anakin has a troubled past.

All I know for sure is that she was confiscated from a hoarder's house. She along with 60 other cats. Yes, 60 cats under one roof, all sent to the LA County Shelter in one fell swoop. When I found scared little Ani in her cage on May the 4th, 2013, the shelter employees were pretty desperate to get rid of her. I'm not sure what Anakin went through at that hoarder's house, but when I got her, she was very skittish, startled, and scared, even moreso than most cats. She'd bite and scratch at me frequently. I had no control over her, even having to cancel a vet visit once because I couldn't get her in the kennel. When I had to give her ear drops at one point (after already having had her for two years), I tried desperately to hold her down in a blanket burrito, but she squirmed out of it and slipped away every time (I tried twice a day for 7 days).

After a couple years and a bunch of research, I realized that she is probably still experiencing the effects of PTSD and trauma. (Thank you, Jackson Galaxy.)

Since then, I've been trying to figure out what could make her comfortable or even "happy." She meows, cries, and squawks all the time, and I never know what to do.

Actually, that's a lie: I've always known that I could feed her. Food was the one and only thing that could consistently calm her down, get her off my back, make the scratching and biting stop. Thus, I got in the habit of spreading her half cup's daily allowance over multiple small snacks per day; that way, I'd have something in my arsenal to distract her with whenever she bit, scratched, or meowed at me. It got to the point where I was feeding her six times a day, in tiny portions. Each time I filled her bowl, she inhaled the entirety of the portion within seconds. She was perpetually ravenous. Addicted? 

(Perhaps it was I who was addicted to soothing her in that way, using it as my own coping mechanism for not knowing how else to deal with her.)

When I first talked to my therapist about Anakin's "bad behavior" and my inability to control her, the first thing she asked about was food. Without passing judgment on my situation, she simply mentioned that she free-feeds her own cat. The idea shocked me at the time, and I shuddered at the thought of Anakin -- innocent, unbridled, food-obsessed Anakin -- inhaling 3 cups of kibble at a time and vomiting all over the place. After all, I'd given her a slightly bigger portion once, and she threw it up as soon as she finished eating.

I hate the idea of exerting control over another being, even a cat. I hate enforcing restriction. I've always had violently strong reactions to any sort of control or restriction from others in my own life, so this hits close to home.

I feel like a perpetrator in my cat's psychological struggle. I feel responsible for not helping her develop alternate ways of feeling soothed, for becoming addicted myself to this routine of feeding her to shut her up. 

As someone who has struggled with addiction (and yes, food addiction) and restriction in the past, it has never felt right to do this to my cat.

I've been depriving her of honoring her basic instincts, mistrusting her ability to self-regulate. In reality, these are all things I mistrust in myself, and if Ani were a human, the blatant projection would be easy to see. But because she's a cat, I get away with saying "it's for her own good," much like a controlling parent might claim that restricting their child was merely for her own protection (sometimes this is true, but it is also a slippery, debatable slope).

So I'm slowly weaning away from my old methods of feeding Anakin. I am nervous, especially with so many terrible warnings of free-feeding, but I feel that I must try this. I just found out that two of my best friends (siblings) free-feed their (formerly abused) cats too, and they've given me lots of wise, helpful cat tips this month. In the past couple days, I have given much larger portions than usual and been pleasantly surprised at the amount leftover in the bowl. When she meows, I try to pet her or play with her, and I've noticed that she uses her scratch pads more often (hallelujah to my couch and skin). Her biting, scratching, and begging for food is less frequent so far -- for the past two days, it's only been in the morning (at 5am, no less). I can't say with certainty that this will continue to be a success, or that she won't gain initial weight, or that my vet won't chide me, but I will try my best to keep tabs on the situation and be responsible about it. Perhaps I will weigh her this week and then check the status again in a month. 

Ani & me two days ago, the chillest I've ever seen her.

On a final note, I sometimes wonder what her life was like when she lived with the cat hoarder. With so many other cats competing for attention and resources, it wouldn't be a stretch to consider that she didn't always know when or where her meals were coming. Fearing basic survival sure does a number on humans, so why not cats?

Wish me (and my jedi cat) luck. This is a very nascent experiment-in-progress, so I am by no means claiming victory or wisdom at this point. And though I do feel committed to trying this for a little bit, I am open to suggestions and insight nonetheless.