Cat Food and Diet
Cats have specific nutritional needs and the nutritional quality of cat food is one of the most important factors in cats’ health and longevity.
These resources will help you learn all you need to know about cat food and the nutritional needs of cats.
Cats are obligate carnivores and are very different from dogs in their nutritional needs.
This means that they need to eat animal-based proteins (meat).
Cats do not have the right enzymes to use plant proteins as efficiently as animal proteins and get less nutritional benefit from plant-based proteins (vegetables).
- Taurine is one of the most important amino acids that is present in meat but is missing from plants.
- Taurine deficiency will cause blindness and heart problems in cats.
We Are Feeding Cats Too Many Carbohydrates
In their natural setting, cats would not eat the high level of carbohydrates (grains) that are in the dry foods that we routinely feed them.
In the wild, your cat would be eating a high protein, high-moisture content, meat-based diet, with a moderate level of fat and with only approximately 3-5 percent of the diet consisting of calories from carbohydrates.
Cats Need Plenty of Water With Their Food
Water is an extremely important nutrient that contributes to overall health in every living creature.
Cats do not have a very strong thirst drive when compared to other species and it is critical for them to ingest a water-rich diet. Cats are designed to get most of their water with their diet since their normal prey contains approximately 70 – 75 percent water.
Dry foods only contain 7-10 percent water whereas canned foods contain approximately 78 percent water. Canned foods are closer to the natural diet of the cat and are better suited to meet the cat’s water needs.
Once your cat reaches maturity, at around 12 months, you need to settle into a regular feeding routine. Your cat’s diet needs to include the right balance of the five major nutrient groups; proteins, fats and oils, minerals, vitamins and carbohydrates. Any good-quality, manufactured complete pet food should give your cat this basic nutritional balance.
What to feed?
There are many types of cat food available – different recipes, formats and formulas, as well as the choice of wet or dry. Whether you serve wet or dry food is a matter of personal preference (yours and your cat’s) or may be influenced by certain medical conditions.
- Dry complete diets have some good points. They are convenient, easy to measure and use, easier to store and have a longer shelf-life once opened than wet foods. If you choose a dry food, you can expect your cat to chew it more actively and take longer to eat, to drink more water and to return regularly to the food rather than eating it all at once.
- Some cats simply prefer wet food’s aroma and texture, and wet can still be very convenient with single-serve formats ensuring a fresh, easy-to-serve meal each time. Your cat will also eat more in one sitting rather than going back and forth, and will drink less. Serve the food at room temperature to ensure your cat can taste and smell it properly.
- Many owners serve a mixture of dry and wet, as some cats prefer wet food in the morning and to have dry food left out during the day.
Make sure your cat has clean, fresh water to drink at all times, preferably in a large ceramic bowl. Plenty of water is especially important if you are feeding dry food. If your cat is reluctant to drink, try a bigger bowl – some cats don’t like it when their whiskers touch the sides. Metal bowls can put a cat off drinking too as they see reflections and shadows when they put their head down to drink.
Water should not be positioned directly next to food as cats prefer some separation between resources.
If cats go outdoors, a bowl to collect rainwater may be more popular than the clear, fresh water indoors.
Milk is not a substitute for water. Cats don’t need milk after weaning and many are intolerant of lactose (milk sugar) that can cause diarrhoea. Even specially formulated low-lactose ‘cat milk’ should be treated as a food not a drink, with food intake adjusted accordingly.
Treats and snacks
Most owners like to give their cats something nice to eat in addition to their main meal. Scraps from the dinner table or a small piece of food fed by hand are seen by many as a way of showing affection.
Human foods are high in calories and sometimes salt, and lack many essential nutrients, so you risk overfeeding or upsetting the balance of your pet’s diet.
When you do give treats, always reduce your cat’s main meal by an equivalent calorific amount. Limit treats to no more than 15% of their daily energy needs to prevent putting their overall diet out of balance. If your cat is on a special diet advised by your vet, for weight loss or another medical condition, treats may be forbidden as even a little human food can upset such a diet. Ask your vet what you can and can’t feed if this is the case.
Many cats, given the choice, would prefer several small meals a day. This is not very convenient for owners, but cats are quite happy to take food in fewer, larger meals and most cats adapt to eating two meals a day quite happily. Nonetheless, as they’re natural ‘grazers’, leaving some dry food out between meals suits feline eating habits well.
Every cat is an individual, so the most important consideration is to feed them enough to maintain a lean, healthy, ideal body condition. If you are in doubt about how much to feed your cat, contact your vet.
Giving your new kitten a proper diet is crucial to raising your new pet. In order for a baby kitten to stay happy and healthy, it is vital that all of their nutritional needs be met.
It is not just a matter of dropping some cat food into your pet’s bowl and then leaving to go on with your day. There is more to feeding your kitten then this.
Early Nutritional Needs
A kitten will get all of their nutritional needs from their mother for the first few weeks of their life.
The kitten will have been weaned off the mother’s milk by eight weeks of age, and will be eating a primarily kitten food diet.
It is important to make sure that your breeder provides you with some of the kitten food that your new kitten was eating, or at least get the name of the kitten food.
If you are thinking of changing the kitten food brand that your kitten started with, then you should still buy a small amount of their current brand and mix it with the new brand.
This will help your new kitten’s digestive system and allow them to gradually adjust to the new food that they will be eating.
How Much Should They Eat?
Kittens have small stomachs (about the size of a walnut at 8 weeks old) but large appetites, so feed small amounts on a frequent basis.
This should suit your kitten’s eating habits as well.
- After weaning, your kitten will eat at least four small meals a day for a steady source of fuel. If you are unable to do this feed, feed three times a day but also leave a little dry food out as a snack.
- Provide them with an unlimited supply of water all day long.
- Some people use a timed feeder to provide meals when they are away from the home.
- As kittens get older, gradually reduce their feeding to three meals a day and then, by six months old, to two meals a day. At this stage of their growth it is also important not to change their food from kitten food to adult cat food. Your cat is still in a growing stage.
- Some cats are natural ‘grazers’, preferring to take several small meals throughout the day (especially those eating mainly dry food), others prefer fewer, bigger meals. Generally cats do not adapt well to eating just one meal a day, as some dogs do.
- Your cat will be able to eat adult cat food when they reach a year old.
Feed your cat too little or the wrong kind of food, and they won’t maintain good health.
Feed them too much, and they’ll get fat.
But you can help get your cat by establishing regular feeding routines.
Although the food you feed your cat should be complete and balanced, the simple answer to how often you should feed him is that there isn’t a simple answer.
Cats are creatures of habit, so it is best to feed them in the same place and at the same times each day, in a quiet area away from the hustle and bustle of the house.
Choose a surface that can be easily cleaned, such as a tiled floor, or use a feeding mat. Always serve the food in a clean bowl; ceramic or metal bowls are preferable and some cats prefer a saucer or flat bowl.
Place the feeding bowl far away from the litter tray and, if you have more than one cat, put feeding bowls a reasonable distance apart to avoid confrontations. If the cats do not get along, completely separate feeding locations may be needed.
Kittens need more food per pound of body weight to support their growth than do adult cats, and should be fed more often throughout the day. Growing kittens up to six months of age may need three meals a day. From age six months to maturity, most cats will do well when fed two times a day.
Once the cat becomes an adult, at about one year, feeding once or twice a day is appropriate in most cases.
Senior cats, those aged seven and above, should maintain the same feeding routine. Once cats reach adulthood, once a day feeding is fine as long as they are healthy and have no disease problems suggesting a reason to feed differently.
Cats have a reputation for being fussy about what’s in their bowl. Many have favourite textures and flavours, and quickly turn up their noses at anything unusual.
However, fussiness can be the first indication of disease so always contact your vet if your cat’s appetite decreases.
As well as following any veterinary advice, there are additional ways to encourage cats to eat.
- Create more privacy at mealtimes. Switch feeding time until after the rest of the household has eaten, and feed in a quiet area.
- Make sure their bowl is clean. Many kittens won’t eat out of a bowl that has bits of old food in it. Wash food and water bowls after each use.
- Some cats prefer to use saucers rather than deep bowls.
- If they normally enjoy dry food, try replacing the food. Dry food absorbs moisture and becomes stale, especially in warm weather.
- Try to serve wet food at room temperature, as it smells more attractive and is easier to digest.
- Stronger smelling food may help tempt the fussy cat.
- Vary food type (dry and wet) and flavour.
- Cats that spend lots of time outdoors have plenty of opportunities for snacking. By dinnertime, your cat might not be hungry. A higher-quality food may help encourage them to reject outdoor alternatives.
- Hot summer days further suppress the appetite, but always check with your vet that there is no underlying medical problem.
If the fussiness continues
If your cat’s fussiness continues, consult your vet as there may be an underlying disease stopping your cat eating. A full check-up is advised as there are many reasons why a cat’s appetite may decline.
It can be tricky to tell if your cat is overweight. To check for yourself simply run your hands around their sides and abdomen. At ideal weight you should be able to feel, but not see, their ribs quite easily, without a heavy covering of fat. Their waistline behind the ribs should be clearly visible when looking down from above, with no sign of swaying folds at the sides when they walk.
- Your cat is moderately overweight – if their waistline is not clear or hard to see, you can feel some fat under their tummy, but you can still just feel their ribs under a layer of overlying fat.
- Your cat is obese – if there is no waistline, you can’t feel their ribs and their tummy looks rounded with a heavy, hanging covering of fat (fat pad) that sways when they walk.
Adult cats can have a tendency to put on weight, particularly those living indoors or getting a little older. Obesity is the most common nutritional disorder in cats, affecting around one in three in the UK. So it is important to manage your cat’s weight carefully, given the associated health risks that obesity implies.
Why staying slim is so important
If your pet is overweight, the implications can be very serious. The actual effect of excess weight impacts on longevity and also means your cat is less able to enjoy themselves through pain-free exercise and play. Some specific concerns that can develop from and be exacerbated by weight problems include:
- Arthritis, joint damage and joint pain
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- Reduced exercise endurance and stamina
- Increased anaesthetic and surgical risks
- Reduced liver function due to fatty liver, especially in cats
Returning your cat to ideal weight
- First consult your vet. It is important your cat is weighed and checked for any underlying disease problems before any dietary change or restriction.
- To help your cat lose weight, start by cutting out all treats and titbits for a period of two weeks, including milk. Make sure everyone else in the family knows the rules so there’s no affectionate cheating! If you have several cats, feed them separately to avoid stealing.
- Dividing the cat’s food into smaller, more frequent meals may help with hunger but keep track of what and how much you are feeding. Your vet may suggest reducing the amount or switching to a special, lower-calorie diet. Never ‘starve’ your cat or restrict food without veterinary advice as this can lead to serious medical problems.
- Some specialist cat food brands also offer special formulations created specifically with the needs of neutered or indoor cats in mind. Typically these are adapted to the reduced energy needs of young and adult neutered cats, helping to promote a lean body mass, maintain good regulation of glucose metabolism and a healthy urinary tract.
Lifestyle can be important too. Lack of exercise can often be the cause of weight gain, so encourage your cat to stay active and burn up more calories. A dedicated playtime can help and many cats enjoy time spent chasing a ball or using a ‘fishing’ toy.
Light diets You should also consider the benefits of moving him/her onto a specially formulated ‘light’ food. Light diets are less concentrated and have lower calorie content, so you may not need to cut down on the actual amount you feed. These diets are enriched in all the essential nutrients except calories, so even if you do need to reduce feeding quantities you can be sure your cat is continuing to get all the right minerals and vitamins in the correct proportions. If you currently feed your cat a diet recommended by your vet, you should consult them before making any changes. After a fortnight, check the body condition again and continue the diet until an ideal body condition and weight is reached. Rapid weight loss is dangerous and can indicate a serious underlying problem. Successful weight loss should be slow and gradual and can take months, so be patient. You may be able to join a weight-loss programme run by your vet to allow close monitoring of your cat’s weight loss along with help and advice. Once you’ve succeeded, you may want to slightly adjust feeding quantities to stabilise his/her weight.
Some foods which are edible for humans, and even dogs, can be hazardous for cats because of their different metabolism. Some may cause only mild digestive upsets, whereas, others can cause severe illness, and even death. The following common food items should not be fed (intentionally or unintentionally) to cats.
This list is incomplete because it is not possible to list everything your cat should not eat.
Things To Avoid & Reasons Why
- Alcohol – Can cause intoxication, coma, and death.
- Baby food – Can contain onion powder, which can be toxic to cats fed baby food for an extended period of time. (Also see onion below.) Can also result in nutritional deficiencies – if fed in large amounts.
- Bones from fish, poultry, or other meat sources can cause obstruction or laceration of the digestive system.
- Canned tuna (for human consumption) – Large amounts can cause malnutrition, since it lacks proper levels of vitamins and minerals.
- It can also lead to thiamine deficiency (Also see ‘Fish’ below).
- Chocolate, coffee and tea – can cause vomiting and diarrhoea and be toxic to the heart and nervous system.
- Citrus oil extracts – Can cause vomiting.
- Dog food – If accidentally eaten, will not cause a problem; but if fed repeatedly, may result in malnutrition and diseases affecting the heart.
- Fat trimmings – Can cause pancreatitis.
- Fish (raw, canned or cooked) -If fed exclusively or in high amounts can result in a thiamine (a B vitamin) deficiency leading to loss of appetite, seizures, and in severe cases, death.
- Human vitamin supplements containing iron – Can damage the lining of the digestive system and are toxic to the other organs including the liver and kidneys.
- Milk and other dairy products – Some adult cats and dogs may develop diarrhoea if given large amounts of dairy products.
- Onions and garlic (raw, cooked, or powder) – Can damage red blood cells and cause anaemia. Cats are more susceptible than dogs. Garlic is less toxic than onions.
- Raw eggs – Contain an enzyme called avidin – This can lead to skin and hair coat problems. Raw eggs may also contain Salmonella.
- Raw meat – May contain bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli, which can cause vomiting and diarrhoea.
- Salt – If eaten in large quantities it may lead to electrolyte imbalances.
- Sugary foods – Can lead to obesity, dental problems, and possibly diabetes.
- Table scraps (in large amounts) – Table scraps are not nutritionally balanced. They should never be more than 10% of the diet. Fat should be trimmed from meat; bones should not be fed.