When my wife and I leave on short trips (4 days or less), we let our two cats fend for themselves with an extra litter box and gravity feeders for water and kibble. I'm generally agnostic when it comes to the cat vs. dog debate, but one big advantage of cats over dogs is that you don't have to go through the hassle of boarding them every time you take a short day trip. (But to be fair, you may have the option of taking your dog with you, whereas travelling with a cat is basically a non-option.)
One problem with this approach, though, is that our cats eat themselves silly with unrestricted access to food. Both of our cats were rescued as strays. If a kitten grows up hungry, that behavioral pattern is imprinted on it for life. Even in the face of unlimited food, they'll eat as if it was their last meal on earth, every time. With the gravity feeder, they get extremely fat in a short period of time. And the more they eat… well, I'm sure you get the picture.
On a recent airplane flight I was browsing through the SkyMall catalog, when I saw the Petmate Le Bistro Electronic feeder. This looked great! An automatic unattended feeder could be the solution to our feeding problems. The Amazon user reviews were a little mixed, but most people were very happy with the device and said it works wonderfully.
So I ordered one in anticipation of our next trip, and we installed it over the holiday weekend. Since we have two cats, we picked up another Le Bistro electronic feeder at PetCo locally—that way they don't have to fight over a single bowl; we usually feed them from two individual bowls.
I'm happy to report that the Le Bistro "electronic portion control" feeder is a resounding success! It's a geek's dream: a robotic, programmable feeding assistant that does all the feeding for us. We set up the times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the LCD, and set the portion size to "1" for each meal. Then we filled it up with kibble and let it go. It has been totally reliable from the first meal, and the LCD shows ten feedings so far.
Unfortunately, one of our cats is very curious and likes "experimenting" with the feeders. The kibble container doesn't secure very tightly to the base and she was able to knock it loose after pawing at it long enough. To prevent this, I duct-taped the kibble container to the base of the feeder.
She is also able to reliably fish out some kibble from the dispensing slot by placing her paw in it and digging around in there. I tried making the dispensing slot smaller with duct tape, and putting a retractable flap over it, but she was still fishing kibble out. Not much kibble, one piece only after a lot of rooting around, but enough to intermittently reinforce the behavior— which is the absolute worst kind of reinforcement! I did some research, and came up with what I think is a very clever and effective solution: I duct-taped small metal soap holders over the dispensing outlet. The metal soap holders are a perfect size, and the metal grid of the holder is large enough to let big kibble pieces come out, while preventing those curious paws from getting in. All I had to do was make sure the bottom of the metal edge was below the dispensing lip, and no kibble gets caught in the grille.
What we ended up with looks a little bit like the Mad Max dystopian future, where kibble is scarce and each cat must fend for itself! It looks a little weird, but it works, and it's 100% Elsie-proof now. Or it will be, once I tape it to the floor before we leave on our trip…
Anyway, if you have pets, I can highly recommend the Petmate Le Bistro electronic feeder. Even if you don't go on trips, many Amazon reviewers pointed out one interesting benefit of automated feeding: your pets no longer think of you as a kibble dispensing machine, and will no longer wake you up every morning to get fed! My wife will definitely enjoy that perk.