Feeding Your Cat
One of your most important responsibilities as a cat owner
is to provide your cat with the necessary nutrients required for
its growth and maintenance. Cats need a diet that contains protein,
fat, minerals, vitamins, and water. Those nutrients are the building
blocks of various structural body tissues; are essential for chemical
reactions (metabolism, catabolism); transport substances into,
around, and out of the body; supply energy for growth and maintenance;
and provide palatability. Basic minimum nutritional requirements
for cats have been established by the Feline Nutrition Expert
(FNE) subcommittee of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Pet-food manufacturers use those standards
when producing cat foods.
Types of Cat Foods
Commercial cat foods are formulated as dry, semimoist, and
canned. The products differ in water content, protein level,
caloric density, palatability and digestibility. The differences
are primarily attributed to the processing methods used by pet-food
manufacturers. A quality cat food provides the necessary nutrients
in a properly balanced proprotion.
Dry foods contain 6 percent to 10 percent moisture. Cereals,
grain by-products, bone meal, fish meal, milk products, and vitamin
and mineral supplements are combined, extruded and dried into
bite-sized pieces. The pieces are then covered with flavor enhancers,
such as digest or animal fat, giving the product increased palatability.
It takes less dry food on an as-is basis than other types of
food to satisfy a cat, because dry food has more dry matter and
a higher energy content per gram fed. The primary advantages
of dry cat food are lower cost and convenience in allowing "free
choice" feeding. Generally, dry foods may be less palatable
to a cat and have a lower digestibility than the moister types.
However, premium dry cat foods are comparable in digestibility
to grocery store brands of canned cat foods, and can exceed lower
quality canned cat foods.
Semimoist cat food may be more appealing to some cats than
dry cat food. Moisture content is approximately 35 percent. However,
after the package is opened, palatability decreases and spoilage
increases because of dehydration. These foods can also be fed
free choice. The cost is mid-range, between that of dry and
canned food. Semimoist food resembles ground- or whole-meat tidbits.
Meat and meat byproducts are the primary ingredients. They are
combined with soybean meal, cereals, grain byproducts, and preservatives.
Manufacturers add organic acids (phosphoric, hydrochloric and
malic acids) and sorbitol and dextrose to prevent spoilage and
retain moisture in semimoist cat foods.
Canned cat food is quite popular with owners, despite its
higher cost. Canned varieties are highly palatable to cats, which
can be helpful if your cat is a finicky eater. Canned cat food
has a water content of a least 75 percent, so it is a good dietary
source of water. When unopened it has the longest shelf life.
Canned food is available in ration sizes (12 to 22 ounce cans)
or gourmet sizes (3 to 6 ounce cans). Gourmet canned cat foods
generally feature organ meats (e.g., kidney, liver) as their
primary food ingredient. Because some brands may be nutritionally
incomplete, it is particularly important to read the nutrition
labels carefully on such specialty cat-food items. Gourmet canned
foods may induce food consumption in anorexic cats or meet increased
protein requirements that occur during wound healing or with
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Selecting Cat Food
Reading the nutrition label on the packages is the best way
to compare cat foods. Pet-food manufacturers are required to supply
certain nutrition information on the package. Labeling regulations
are established by the AAFCO and the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) to ensure compliance with federal and state
feed regulations. The section labeled "guaranteed analysis"
lists the percentages of protein, water, fat, fiber, and ash.
The minimum amounts of crude protein and fat and the maximum amounts
of crude fiber and sometimes ash, and water must be listed on
the label. Although this information is required, it is of little
value since it does not represent the actual amounts of those
nutrients present in the product, only minimum and maximum amounts.
In 1993, the AAFCO approved the discretionary listing of a cat food's caloric
content on the label. Pet food manufacturers determine the caloric
content of their product by using a standard nutrition formula
based on metabolized energy per gram from protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
A food's caloric content will help cat owners in determining how
much to feed their cats. Basically, the average adult cat needs
about 30 kilocalories per pound of body weight per day. Individual
needs may differ from that average according to age, environment,
and activity level. The ingredients list includes all items used
in the product, including flavor enhancers, artificial colors
and preservatives. The items are listed in decreasing order by
weight. Meat, meat by-products, or seafood should be listed among
the first few items; that indicates that the product probably
contains enough animal-source ingredients to supply taurine and
essential fatty acids. Also, be sure that niacin and vitamin A
have been added, since those vitamins are sensitive to food-processing
methods. The nutritional claim states the stage of a cat's life
cycle for which the food is a complete and balanced product (e.g.,
growth, maintenance, pregnancy). It should also state that it
meets the requirements of the AAFCO, preferably by animal-feeding
trials. Feeding a cat a product that does not have a nutritional
claim on the label cannot guarantee a complete and balanced diet
for the animal. Feeding directions are usually provided on the
label. This provides a guideline for owners on quantity and timing
of feedings. However, owners need to adjust feeding portions to
keep their cat at the ideal body weight.
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Formulating your own cat food is a difficult and time consuming
process. Also, the nutrients in the formula may not be available
in the right quantities and proportions to be beneficial to your
cat. Therefore, it is usually recommended that the cat owner use
a commercial, nutritionally balanced product, unless a veterinarian
recommends a recipe for a home-formulated ration.
Basic Guidelines on Feeding Cats
Environmental conditions can affect a cat's eating habits.
For example, heavily trafficked areas, noise, the presence of
other animals, dirty food containers, or nearby litter boxes
can deter a cat from eating. Therefore, try to be sensitive to
your cat's eating behavior and make necessary adjustments for
optimum feeding conditions.
The amount fed is based on caloric content, quality of nutrients,
and the cat's special dietary needs. Meat scraps from the table
and specialty cat treats can be fed from time to time but should
not be a steady diet for your cat. Those treats often lack the
proper proportion of basic nutrients a cat requires to maintain
its health. A rule of thumb is not to let treats exceed 10 to
15 percent of the cat's daily diet. Although raw meat is an excellent
source of many nutrients, it is not recommended as food for cats,
because it is a potential vehicle for toxoplasmosis. Also, salmonellosis
can occur from contaminated meat and spoiled meat harbors various
bacteria that can upset the digestive system.
Feeding your cat two or three different cat foods provides
flavor variety. It also prevents the cat from developing a preference
for a food that may not be 100 percent nutritionally balanced.
However, if your cat is already a finicky eater that craves an
unbalanced diet, you can break the habit. A good method is to
convert it to a new taste slowly by mixing the new food with
the old. Increase the amount of new to old food by one-quarter
increments (i.e., 1:4, 2:4, 3:4) until your cat accepts the new
food. However, if your cat is content with a single nutritionally
complete and balanced cat food, there really is no reason to
change its preference.
VITAMIN AND MINERAL SUPPLEMENTS
A cat food that meets or exceeds the FNE subcommittee's nutrition
standards assures an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals
in the diet. Therefore, the use of vitamin and mineral supplements,
including brewer's yeast, is unnecessary. The addition of a supplement
without a veterinarian's approval may actually harm your cat.
Refrigerate any unused portion of canned cat food, to maintain
quality and prevent spoilage until the next feeding. To prevent
possible digestion problems related to temperature differences,
refrigerated food should be brought to room temperature before
it is offered to your cat. Canned rations can be divided into
two servings per day. Store unused portions of dry cat food in
a cool, dry location, and use all the food within six months
of purchase. Lengthy storage decreases the activity and potency
of many vitamins. Storing dry cat food in an airtight container
will prevent further nutrient deterioration and help maintain
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Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD)
Various studies have provided new dietary considerations when
feeding a cat that has had FLUTD. The pH of the urine influences
the formation of certain specific crystals. Struvite crystals
rarely form in urine with a pH of less than 6.4, whereas they
often appear when the urine pH rises to above 7.0. Diet influences
urinary pH. For example, when dry food is available to a cat
"free choice," the cat's urine pH decreases.
Current feeding recommendations for FLUTD cats are as follows:
Feed diets that ensure adequate acidification. However,
do not add urine acidifiers to diets that are already acidic.
Overacidification can cause metabolic acidosis, resulting in
impaired kidney function and mineral imbalance that includes
potassium depletion. Also, urine that is too acidic provides
a good environment for another mineral deposit (oxalate crystals)
to form which can also cause urinary obstruction.
Provide fresh water at all times. The more that a cat drinks,
the less chance crystals and uroliths (small mineral stonelike
deposits) will form.
Restrict dietary magnesium intake to 40 milligrams per
100 kilocalories and phosphorus to 200 milligrams per 100 kilocalories
if adequate urine pH (6.4 or less) is maintained.
Feed small meals on a frequent basis or feed free-choice
Special Nutritional Needs
Throughout a cat's life,
there are stages in which the cat requires different nutrients.
Those include kittenhood, pregnancy, lactation, and finally,
old age. There are also special dietary needs associated with
certain nutrition-sensitive diseases (food allergies) and chronic
organ system diseases (kidney disease, liver disease, congestive
heart failure and diabetes)
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Common Feeding Problems
Avoid these common feeding
Overfeeding can lead to the number-one nutritional disease, OBESITY. Excessive
body weight can increase the risk of liver disease, heart disease,
respiratory problems, and constipation. Furthermore, fat cats
are at a greater risk of developing diabetes and arthritis. Pet
food manufacturers have formulated diets that have fewer calories
per gram that may be helpful in treating obese cats.
Feeding dog food to cats is a common error, especially if
dogs and cats are in the same household. Dog foods are developed
for the nutritional needs of dogs, not cats. There can be serious
consequences if a cat's diet is deficient in protein, taurine,
niacin, vitamin A, and fatty acids.
Overdosing with vitamin and mineral supplements has been known
to cause severe medical problems in cats. Physiological imbalances
caused by excess vitamins and minerals can lead to the binding
of other nutrients. Overdoses of vitamins A and D are more common
than deficiencies of those vitamins, because of unnecessary supplementation
of an already balanced diet.
Exclusively feeding meat or fish results in an unbalanced
diet and causes related nutritional diseases. Diets containing
large quantities of fish can cause yellow-fat disease (steatitis),
a result of vitamin E deficiency. Nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism
is usually caused by all-meat homemade diets that are deficient
in calcium, thus creating a mineral imbalance in the calcium-phosphorus
ratio. The disease most commonly occurs in kittens that are rapidly
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Prepared by the Cornell Feline Health Center,
Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, New
York 14853-6401. The ultimate purpose of the Feline Health Center is to improve
the health of cats by developing methods to prevent or cure feline
diseases and by providing continuing education to veterinarians
and cat owners. Much of that work is made possible by the financial
support of friends. ©1988, 1994 by Cornell University. All
rights reserved. Cornell University is an equal opportunity,
affirmative action educator and employer.