Would You Like to Super Size That Mouse? Tips for Feeding Cats Properly.

November 12, 2009 | By FelinePine | Category: Food & Treats

By Dr. Michele Gaspar DVM, DABVP (feline)
Walk the cat food aisle of any grocery or pet superstore and there are literally hundreds of options for feeding cats.

Do we feed a dry kibble that is shaped like fish? Canned foods in a variety of flavors? What about new "holistic" diets that contain medicinal herbs and other nutraceuticals? Can you cook a balanced diet for your cat? What about raw diets?

With all the choices and few answers, it's easy to see how the concerned guardian can be confused regarding proper nutritional choices for their cats.

Before we discuss which diets might be considered best for our domestic cats, let's go back in time to meet some of our cats' ancestors. These distant relatives developed in the deserts of what is now the Middle East and northern Africa. These cats developed as obligate carnivores, meaning that they were "designed" to eat meat. Rodents, rabbits, birds and lizards were the prey species that were abundant in these areas of the world and those small animals became the staples of the basic cat diet.
Another important part of the desert environment was that carbohydrates (corn, soy and wheat) were not found on the hot, dry and sandy landscape. Certainly the small prey species contained seeds, nuts and a few grains in their stomachs, but protein and fat—not carbohydrates—were the essential parts of the first cat's diet.

Over thousands of years, the domestic cat's reliance on protein hasn't changed. However, our feeding practices have. Fast forward to the 21st century where the majority of cats are fed out of bags and boxes with diets that favor carbohydrates. We've certainly turned the tables on our carnivorous cats and it's no wonder that today many of our domestic cats are carbo-loading, larger-than-life (dare we say "fat"?) cats, many of whom are diabetic and/or are plagued with intestinal upsets.

Most veterinarians who follow current nutritional recommendations now advise that cats be fed a canned food predominant or exclusive diet that is low-carbohydrate, high-protein and (higher)fat with protein sources that are closer to the ones eaten by those first cats. Avoiding beef, lamb and seafood—foods that desert dwellers were never exposed to—also may be helpful when choosing diets appropriate for cats. Poultry (chicken, turkey or duck) and rabbit-based diets more closely mimic the foods that cats literally were "designed" to eat.

A diet with less than 7% carbohydrates most mimics the original cat diet. However, all canned diets aren't created equal in carbohydrate, protein or fat content.
Canned foods, which are often 70 % moisture, also provide much-needed water to our cats. As desert dwellers, cats had minimal access to drinking water but got life-sustaining moisture from their prey. This is yet another reason to add canned foods to your kitty's regular diet. Canned foods also may be helpful in preventing crystal formation, which can lead to life-threatening urethral obstruction (blockage) in male cats.

What about the cat who is dry-food addicted? Over time, many cats with patience and persistence can be trained to eat a canned food diet. However, it's critical to remember that cats need to eat well every day and they must enjoy their food. Some cats (particularly older ones) don't make the transition from dry to canned food, but they can still enjoy some cooked, skinless, boneless chicken meat from time to time. There are very few low-carb dry foods on the market, but these dry, low-carb diets typically contain very large amounts of calories per cup, so they must be fed in smaller portions. As with all nutritional advice, your kitty's veterinarian is your best resource for feeding recommendations for your particular favorite feline.

Many clients ask about home cooking for their cats. Although some clients can take the time to work with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist (these individuals are often found on the faculty of veterinary schools) and develop a home-cooked, balanced diet for their cats, it's often difficult to balance the cat's unique nutritional needs in this manner. For example, cats must get taurine, an amino acid, from their diet. Taurine deficiency can lead to blindness (central retinal degeneration), as well as heart disease (dilated cardiomyopathy). Since the 1970s, taurine supplementation has been added to most prepared cat diets.
Balanced calcium and phosphorous ratios are also important for our cats. Feeding an all-meat diet or an unbalanced meat and vegetable diet, etc. can cause bone loss and adversely affect the kidneys.

When evaluating a diet, it's often helpful to see if it has passed AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) feeding trials. Diets that feature the AAFCO seal generally provide sufficient nutrition for pregnancy, lactation, growth and maintenance.

Especially in the wake of the recent pet food recall, many cat guardians have expressed interest in feeding raw diets to their cats. Concerns regarding raw diets include: possible parasitism (including toxoplasmosis), bacterial infection (salmonella) and the likelihood of feeding an unbalanced diet. My personal concern with raw diets is that for many cats—especially those with intestinal diseases—they are difficult to digest. With a plethora of excellent canned foods on the market, I haven't found the need to recommend raw diets for my patients.

I'm often asked by clients for specific recommendations regarding diets for their cats. Since one diet doesn't fit all cats, I have some broad suggestions on how to feed cats properly:

(1.) Feed a canned- food-predominant or exclusive diet that contains poultry or rabbit. Avoid beef, lamb, seafood, corn, soy or milk products. A small amount of dry food provides the "crunch" that cats crave. Read labels. A diet that is called "Chicken Entree" may only contain a small amount of poultry. Ingredients are listed on labels with those in the largest amount listed first.

(2.) Avoid marketing hype and realize that those funny colors are put in foods for humans—our kitties could care less.

(3.) Think critically about ingredients. Especially with dry diets, ingredients like herbs, probiotics, mushrooms, etc. are unlikely to survive the heating process.
(4.) Within reason, it's okay to treat your cats periodically to some cooked poultry. Other cats enjoy cantaloupe, tomatoes, etc. Remember that treats are exactly that—treats—and not the basis of a complete diet.
(5.) Pay attention to your cat's appetite on a daily basis. A healthy cat eats well every day and really looks forward to mealtime. If your cat or kitten misses a day of eating, call your veterinarian. Often times, lack of appetite is one of the first signs of serious disease in cats.
(6.) Never "starve" your cat to eat a new food. Although it seems like a dog will eat almost anything that is wrapped up in cheese or peanut butter, our cats are more discriminating. Make food changes slowly and patiently. Cats can and will starve themselves if confronted with a new food not to their liking.

(7.) Think about rotating a few foods during the week. Rotating two or three foods may provide some health advantages and avoid the boredom some cats seem to have with eating the same foods day-in and day-out.

(8.) Always provide a source of fresh, clean water daily to your cats. Some cats will drink out of a wide, shallow bowl, but others prefer their water from a circulating water fountain or even a glass. Low-sodium chicken broth, as well as limited amounts of tuna or clam juice also can be offered, in addition to fresh water. Increasing water consumption in a desert species that was never designed to drink water is a challenge for most of us who live with cats.

(9.) Evaluate diets by how your cat or kitten looks and feels. Cats that are eating an excellent diet are lean, have a shiny coat, don't have dandruff and aren't constipated or plagued with vomiting and diarrhea. If you can easily feel your cat's ribs (but not see them) and if your kitty has a tuck after the ribcage (when you look down upon him or her), most likely the weight is excellent. Sick cats lose the normal fat pad over the spine. You should never be able to easily feel the bones of your cat's spine.

(10.) Talk with your veterinarian about nutritional concerns. Our understanding of feline nutrition is constantly evolving. As always, your veterinarian is your cat's most knowledgeable resource for nutritional advice.
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