Feeding cats is easy, right? Just grab a cat bowl, pour in some kibble, refill as bowl gets low, and you're done. Right? Well, umm... not really.
Not all "cat bowls" are created equally, nor are all cats created equally. Two things are (almost) universal though: The first is that "free feeding" a cat in the manner described above is a pretty sure recipe for obesity, "scarf-and-barf," urinary obstruction, and a host of other problems for your cat. And second is that most cats are natural-born hunters, and they LOVE to work for and play with their food! And you can use that to your (and their) advantage to help provide environmental enrichment and prevent a whole lot of problems.
As a general rule, meal feeding is a far better way to feed your cat and it's also a good idea to have a good portion of their calories come from a high-quality, high-protein/low-carb wet food diet. But those are topics for another time. This article will help you figure out what to feed (and water) your cat from; i.e., the types of bowls (or even non-bowls) that will be best for your cat, regardless of what you're feeding them, or how often you're doing so. And there's also an easy bonus trick for how to quickly, inexpensively, and effectively disinfect your cat's bowls included at the end.
What Type of Cat Bowls You Should Use for Food and Water
The shape, size, depth, and material their bowls are made of can matter to and impact your cat. Some materials are more durable and less likely to harbor bacteria. And, of course, every cat is different and may have different preferences for the size, shape, and depth of their bowls. But here are some general guidelines to help you make the best decisions when you're faced with the (often) overwhelming options of cat food and water bowls.
Best Material for Cat Bowls
In most cases, stainless steel is the best material for cat food and water bowls. It’s easy to clean and disinfect, and extremely durable.
Glass and ceramic dishes are also easy to clean, but can chip, crack, or break more easily. And any chips or cracks can lead to cuts on your cat's tongue, paws, or chin, or provide areas where bacteria can grow and fester.
Plastic bowls and dishes are best avoided for regular use. Plastic materials can get easily damaged by hungry teeth, playful nails, or even in the dishwasher. These scratches or other imperfections can create perfect hiding spots for bacteria that could cause a bout of digestive upset or a case of cat chin acne if they're on the rim or inner sides of the bowls.
Best Size and Shape for Cat Food Bowls
There’s no "one-size-fits-all" or even "one-shape-fits-all" rule for cat bowls. All cats are different and each has their own particular preferences and quirks when it comes to their bowls. If you're going with "standard" bowls (as opposed to "food puzzles" — see more on those below) for your cat's food, you’ll probably have the most success starting with bowls that:
- Are wide, but not too deep.
- Have gradually sloping sides, rather than sides that rise up at a 90-degree angle — to avoid "corner traps" where it can be difficult for your cat to easily get at their food.
- Have non-skid padding or other surfaces on the bottom to prevent their bowls from "running" away from them.
Here are some great and simple "basic bowls" that I recommend, and they're inexpensive enough for you to have a large supply so you can more easily rotate them out as you wash your cat's food dishes at the end of each day!
A special note about "Whisker Fatigue," in case you've heard of it. It was all over the news in the summer of 2017. Whisker Fatigue is a (proposed) condition where a cat's sensitive whiskers, called vibrissae, suffer from nerve exhaustion due to repeated stimulation from hitting the sides of their deep and narrow food bowls. Is it real? Could your cat suffer from it? The answer to both is that it's possible, but right now Whisker Fatigue falls under the category of conditions that are not definitive, completely plausible, but not worth getting freaked out about (at least, not to the point of spending $60-plus on a special bowl). Any wide, low-sided, curved-bottom bowl (like those we recommended above) will work just fine for most cats. Learn more about whisker fatigue and the many other reasons why your cat could stop eating — and what you can do about it.
Best Water Bowls for Cats
Some cats are perfectly fine drinking from a plain ol' water bowl. But there are other cats that much prefer a random mug or water glass — you'll know if your cat is one of these if you wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of your kitty lapping up the water from the glass next to your bed! Other cats are entralled by the look, sound, and taste of running water — these are the cats that jump into the sink or shower after you're done to lap up the residual water as it drips out of the faucet.
Since water (hydration) is so important to your cat's health, you really should provide them with multiple water sources. All cats should have a plain ol' water bowl or two laying around, and it's typically best if those are stainless steel (for the reasons outlined at the beginning of this article). If your cat likes to drink out of cups and mugs, leave out a few of those, too. And if your cat loves running water, but you don't like the thought of a super high water bill, consider getting a water re-circulator (a.k.a. "kitty water fountain") for your cat. You can see our kitty water fountain recommendations below.
Whatever you decide on for your cat's water "bowl" needs, just be sure to refill and clean them daily. Nobody likes stale water! See below for tips (and a trick) on cleaning and disinfecting your cat's bowls and other feeding and drinking vessels.
Food Toys & Puzzles are Great for Cats
Sometimes the best food bowls for cats aren't actually bowls! Food puzzles — also known as interactive feeders, food puzzle toys, or puzzle feeders — can provide cats with important mental stimulation and entertainment (an important part of environmental enrichment for cats) and can also help slow down their feedings to avoid scarf and barf.
Not all feeders are created equal, and not all feeders will work for your specific cat or home situation.
Many food puzzles only work with dry kibble, though there are plenty that can be used with wet food. Most food puzzles and toys for cats are also mostly made out of plastic. This shouldn't be a deal breaker though. Just know that they can take a bit more effort to clean and disinfect (see some cleaning tips below). Interactive feeders can also be challenging in a home with dogs, or even multiple cats (although, they can be helpful to slow down any "food gobbler" cats you have so they’re too preoccupied to steal food from the other cats in your home).
In the end, I believe that the pros of food puzzles for cats often far outweight the cons, and therefore highly recommend that all cats have one or two to play with, "hunt," and eat from. The site FoodPuzzlesForCats.com is a great (and entertaining) resource, including some instructions for several DIY food puzzles you can make for your cats. Prefer to buy? Here are some of my favorites:
Feeders That Also Work With Wet Food
Dry Food Feeders That Cats Can Push, Chase, and Hunt
Ideally, you should clean your cats food and water bowls (or interactive feeder) every day. Admittedly, this is not always practical in a busy home. Try to clean as often as you can, but especially if you can see bits of caked-on food clinging to food bowls/feeders, or if your cat's water starts to collect a layer of visible saliva and/or cat fur.
If possible, use the dishwasher to clean and disinfect bowls. If you choose to handwash, set aside a dedicated sponge for your pet bowls (you probably don’t want to transfer the gunk from pet bowls onto your human dishes, or vice versa). A trick I use to avoid confusing the sponges is to write “Pets” on one sponge using a Sharpie marker.
For a quick and effective daily disinfection, spray the bowls/feeders with vinegar and then hydrogen peroxide (or hydrogen peroxide and then vinegar). It’s easy and non-toxic to pets — just rinse off the bowls thoroughly after 10–15 minutes of contact time. IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t mix the vinegar and hydrogen peroxide together in the same bottle, as it's the chemical reaction that occurs when they come together that is responsible for killing bacteria and you don't want that happening in the spray bottle. (Check out this study to learn more about disinfecting with vinegar and hydrogen peroxide.)
Other Recommended Reading About Feeding Cats