A cat’s eating habits are not always consistent, and many cat owners will be familiar with the sight of a half-finished bowl of food, or a meal with only a few bites missing. Sometimes this means your cat has had enough, but often they will return to the food later in the day for another helping. This brings about the question: how long can I leave cat food out? In this article, WHISKAS looks at when you should leave your cat’s food out, and when to clear it away.

How often should I feed my cat?

All pet owners are different, and when it comes to how and when we feed our cats, you may find that this varies greatly. Some cat owners prefer to set strict meal times for their cat, whereas others may ‘free feed’ – letting their cat eat as and when they please.

Having planned mealtimes tells you exactly how much your cat is eating and makes it easier to pick up on any changes in their behaviour or appetite. Cats also seem to prefer following a routine and may feel stressed if anything changes.

Free feeding means that your cat can eat when they want to. However, it can make it more difficult for you to monitor their appetite and weight; plus, if your cat doesn’t eat all their food, you may have to throw it away.

How long can you leave wet cat food out?

How long cat food can be left out depends primarily on what type of food it is. Wet cat food usually comes in sachets or cans, which can last for quite a while if left unopened. As soon as you open a sachet or can, though, the food is exposed to air, and bacteria as well. In warmer months, or if you put your cat’s bowl in a warm part of the house, this can speed up the rate at which the food will go off.

If your cat doesn’t eat a whole serving of wet food in one go, you should cover the food and refrigerate it. When your cat gets hungry again, gently warm up the food in the microwave, as most cats dislike cold food.

Even if your cat prefers to eat their food in a few sittings, don’t be tempted to leave wet food out all day, as this increases the risk of disease-causing bacteria developing. After a maximum of four hours, throw out the old food and wash the bowl properly with soap and water before refilling with fresh food. If you find yourself wasting significant amounts of food, it may work best to feed your cat dry food.

How long can you leave dry cat food out?

Dry cat food tends to keep longer and is generally safer to leave out for longer periods of time. For this reason, lots of cat owners leave out a bowl of dry food or kibble for their cat to graze on throughout the day. However, it’s still good hygiene practice to throw out any dry food remaining at the end of the day and wash the bowl thoroughly to keep the taste of the food fresh.

Although dry food won’t go off as quickly as wet food, its nutritional value will start to deteriorate the longer it is left out. Dry food that has been kept for too long tends to go stale and won’t be as tasty for your cat.

Should I leave food out for my cat at night?

Whether you leave food out for your cat at night depends on what kind of feeding regime you have. For example, if you choose to feed your cat at certain times each day, leaving food out overnight is probably not the best option. If you let your cat eat when they choose to, a bowl of dry food left out overnight provides a snack if your cat feels peckish. However, most cats are happy to spend the night without food and wait until their breakfast the following morning.

Why doesn’t my cat finish their food?

A cat’s stomach is quite small, so they naturally prefer to eat food little and often rather than all in one sitting. Therefore, it’s perfectly normal for your cat to visit their food bowl a couple of times per serving. However, occasionally there may be other reasons why your cat doesn’t finish their food, such as:

Type or brand of food

  • Some cats are fussier than others and may be more sensitive to the texture and flavour of their food. If possible, try your cat with both wet and dry food from a young age, using several different brands of food to determine their favourites.

Sensitive whiskers

  • A cat’s whiskers are extremely sensitive, and some cats find eating out of a deep food bowl an uncomfortable experience. This is usually evidenced by a ring of food left around the sides of your cat’s bowl after eating. If you think this may be the case with your cat, try swapping their food bowl for a shallower one, or a plate.


  • Cats can simply get bored of their diet and start leaving food. In this case, try gradually introducing a new brand or type of food by adding small amounts to the original food and increasing the amount over a seven- to ten-day period. Don’t try to suddenly change your cat’s diet, as this can cause stress, or even an upset tummy.


  • If you have other pets or small children in your household, it’s possible that your cat feels uncomfortable eating around them. Due to their wild ancestry, cats feel at their most vulnerable while eating, which may explain a reluctance to eat in busy, noisy environments with other pets or family members. Feed pets separately, use separate bowls, and try to keep children out of the room while they eat, creating a stress-free atmosphere for them.

If your cat normally eats all their food in one go and pesters you throughout the day for more, or they continually leave lots of food uneaten and don’t seem hungry, you may need to rethink how you feed them. For example, cats who eat quickly might benefit from a food puzzle or slow feeder, making it harder for them to wolf their food in one go.

If you’ve followed all the advice given on how long to leave cat food out and your cat still isn’t eating properly, book an appointment with the vet.