Feline Diet and Nutrition

Good nutrition is essential to your cat’s overall health. The best diet for your cat is one that replicates what she would eat in the wild—a moisture-rich, meat-filled diet. Cats are obligate (true) carnivores, and therefore require more quality-source protein in their diets than most other animals. We suggest feeding your cat a diet consisting mostly of quality wet foods.

Why wet food?

Cats usually rely on their diet for moisture and don’t drink as much water as they might need. Canned foods or fresh/frozen raw foods have significantly more moisture than dry or “semi-moist” foods. Canned foods are also lower in carbohydrates and can be especially beneficial for cats with urinary issues, diabetes, and other illnesses, as well as in the prevention and treatment of feline obesity. Wet canned food is not extruded, but rather poured into cans which are then vacuum sealed and sterilized in a heat and steam chamber prior to labeling. The primary difference between dry and wet pet food is the moisture content. Wet food contains between 70 and 80 percent moisture.

How often and how much should I feed?

We recommend meal feeding rather than free feeding. Meal feeding means that you feed a specified amount of food, as opposed to leaving out a large quantity of dry food for your kitten or cat to graze on throughout the day. For young kittens until they are a year old, you can start by feeding three times a day. Some days your kitten may go through a growth spurt and will eat more. You can’t overfeed a kitten while they are growing quickly and burning off a lot of energy playing. If your kitten eats all of her regular meal within minutes, you may need to give another spoonful.

Once your kitten has matured to their adult cat size, you can start feeding main meals twice daily, using the food label as a guideline. Then review that amount with your veterinarian during your cat’s annual or semiannual examination. The amount to feed may vary depending on your cat’s ideal weight and activity level. Meal feeding also gives you an opportunity to monitor your cat’s appetite and helps you notice any change in your cat’s overall food intake, which is often one of the first signs of stress or illness.

What flavors should I choose?

Of course, every cat will have her own preferences, so you may need to test several flavors and brands to discover what food your cat prefers. It is important, however, to avoid feeding too many fish flavors as fish is high in magnesium, thiaminase, and heavy metals, all of which may be detrimental to your cat’s health, if fed in excess.

This food is cheaper. Is it the same?

If you are unsure about the quality of your cat food, check the first ingredient. If the first ingredient is a meat or fish, it’s most likely a good brand. If the first ingredient is not meat or fish, but is meal, corn, rice, soy, or grain derivatives such as gluten or meal, we would not recommend it. Check for the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) certification for some assurance that the food has met minimal nutrient criteria. You should let your veterinarian know what type and brand of food you are feeding your cat. It may be best to feed foods that contain muscle meat (such as chicken or turkey) in addition to, or instead of, organ meats (such as liver) and byproducts (items not suitable for human consumption).

What about “semi-moist” cat food?

Semi-moist pet food is extruded at a lower temperature and pressure, and ultimately cooled instead of dried, to maintain a higher level of moisture. Semi-moist food contains 15 to 30 percent moisture. These processed foods may be high in magnesium (which may cause urinary tract problems) and carbohydrates, and they have little nutritional value. Also, their dyes, preservatives, and other additives can cause allergic reactions in some cats.

What about dry cat food?

Many cats enjoy dry food, and certainly it is an easy and convenient option for guardians; however, feeding exclusively dry food is not always the best choice for your cat. Because dry foods are high in carbohydrates, they can cause cats to develop diabetes, obesity, urinary or kidney problems, diarrhea, or vomiting. If your cat is on a dry food only diet and suffers from any of these ailments, you may want to consider reducing the amount of dry food you feed, and replacing it with quality wet food. If you’re committed to a dry food only diet, there are healthier options: try quality “fixed formula” dry foods, grain-free dry food, or prescription foods for cats with health problems and/or special dietary needs. Dry food typically has a 10 to 12 percent moisture content, while wet pet food contains 70 to 80 percent moisture.

Are table scraps okay?

We don’t recommend feeding them in excess. Nutritionists suggest keeping table snacks to less than 10 percent of cats’ daily intake. Occasional treats of meat, fruit, or certain vegetables won’t hurt, as long as you feed them in small doses. Don’t feed dairy (most cats are lactose intolerant), fried foods, or sweets as they can contribute to problems such as obesity, diabetes and stomach upset. Never feed cooked bones as they are sharp and brittle and can cause severe injury. Also, never feed onions, garlic, raisins or chocolate to cats—they are toxic.

What about dishes?

Plastic feeding dishes can cause skin irritation in some cats. A shallow, stainless steel or ceramic bowl is your best bet as cats prefer to keep their whiskers and faces out of
their food. Don’t use chemical disinfectants or strong detergents to clean your cat’s food dishes. Not only can they be poisonous but cats are easily put off by harsh odors.

My cat is overweight. Should I be concerned?

Yes. An overweight cat is more vulnerable to many chronic and lifespan-shortening health problems, such as diabetes and arthritis. In addition, cats who cannot groom themselves may become clinically depressed. Also, fat cats often are unable to groom themselves, so their coats become dull and oily and they develop dandruff and mats. They cannot reach their own hindquarters, which means that fecal matter and urine can build up and cause discomfort and infection, even if you clean your cat on a regular basis.

Although fat cats may be perceived as cute, you are doing your cat a disservice by allowing her to gain too much weight. You can control your cat’s weight by going to your veterinarian and working out a diet plan that will ensure very gradual weight loss (be sure to consider an all wet-food diet). Never put your cat on a crash diet; it is very dangerous for a cat to lose weight too fast and doing so could lead to life-threatening liver issues. A safe way of promoting weight loss is to encourage your cat to become more active through play. Once your fat cat has become a slimmer, more active cat, you can be sure her overall health and, therefore, quality and length of life, has improved.

What should my cat drink?

Water! Keep plenty of fresh water available at all times. Also, using a pet water fountain encourages cats to drink more and keeps them away from toilets and faucets. We don’t recommend giving your cat milk on a regular basis. Many cats can’t tolerate it and can experience digestive troubles, including diarrhea.

A note on coats:

Feeding your cat a proper diet will help keep her coat healthy, but grooming is also essential. Keeping your cat’s coat healthy and mat-free is your responsibility. Cats keep themselves clean by licking, so baths are generally unnecessary, but regular grooming with a long-tooth, stainless steel cat comb for longhairs, or a short-tooth, stainless steel cat comb or slicker brush for shorthairs, helps control shedding and prevents your cat from swallowing too much hair. “Hairballs” form in the stomach and are usually passed or coughed up without trouble. But in extreme cases, large hairballs can be life threatening and require surgery. Regular grooming—especially of longhaired cats and particularly in hot weather—is the best prevention.

One of the most important rules when it comes to grooming your cat’s coat is to never use scissors to remove a mat, regardless of how careful you may be. Cats have thin skin that can easily be nicked or cut without you realizing it, and the resulting wound could become infected and form an abscess. If your cat has a mat that cannot be removed by combing or brushing, try a mat splitter or a seam ripper. You can work out the mat by tearing it through the middle and up toward the end of the mat, away from the cat’s body. If your cat has too many mats and is not amenable to being groomed at home, consider having her professionally groomed by a veterinarian or reputable groomer. Regular grooming sessions are a great way for guardians to bond with their cats. Many cats enjoy the grooming process and look forward to time spent with their guardian. So, in addition to helping keep your cat clean and mat-free, grooming also can be an enjoyable way for you and your cat to spend time together.

Other resources:

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