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cat nutrition tips

Can't-Miss Tips For Optimal Cat Nutrition

Based on an article that first appeared at

When it comes to nutrition and pets, dogs seem to hog the spotlight. The truth is, though, cats are just as prone to obesity if not more so than dogs, so proper feline nutrition is a must for cat wellness. This is especially true because more and more cats are becoming indoor pets to keep them safe from outdoor predators, which is all well and good, but that's also why we, as veterinarians, are seeing more and more obese cats with health issues like diabetes and arthritis.

We won't cover cat activities in this article so if you haven't done so already, research ways to exercise your indoor kitty. It is possible with a bit of creativity! And there are a lot of tips we can provide to help with optimal cat nutrition, and we offer those below.

What does my cat need to eat?

We all want to keep our cats as healthy as possible for as long as possible and nutrition plays a big role in that. As veterinarians, we understand that making good decisions about your cat's diet can be overwhelming. There are so many food brands, protein choices, formulas, and treats out there that really complicates things.

Cats are carnivores. As carnivores, cats should not eat a lot of plant material, which is necessary to produce dry kibble. Cats should ideally eat a protein-based diet without too many carbohydrates, some brands have a lower protein base than others. If you have questions about your cat's food, you can bring the bag with the list of ingredients to your veterinarian.

Canned food has low carbohydrates and high protein and is ideal. The high moisture content in canned food is beneficial to cats with urinary tract problems, diabetes, and kidney disease. Not all cats have these problems, but many do, and these diseases can potentially be prevented with the right diet. Ideally, a cat should be fed a high-protein, quality canned food diet. It is highly palatable for most cats and many different varieties are available, which can be helpful if your cat is a finicky eater.

What are a cat's nutritional requirements?

All cats need protein, amino acids, fat, fatty acids, and water to function and thrive. The one thing that you might expect on the list is carbohydrates but cats do not need carbohydrates. Because cats are carnivores, not omnivores (like humans and dogs) they do not need carbs. If you are feeding a commercial diet, you will see that it will have all the minimum and maximum amounts of nutrients that are needed per serving. If you are cooking a meal for your cat, we recommend that you consult a veterinary nutritionist to make sure that you are meeting your cat's daily nutritional needs.

Proteins and Amino Acids:

Cats can use proteins as an energy source and proteins are a source of amino acids that are necessary to produce antibodies, enzymes, hormones, and tissues. These proteins must come from meat, poultry, fish, or eggs. Proteins from plants and grains do not have all of the amino acids that are essential to feline health.

Fat and Fatty Acids:

Fat provides a concentrated energy source and is the source of fatty acids. Fatty acids are a component of the fat cells that have many complex roles, like:

  • It aids fat-soluble vitamin absorption
  • It regulates inflammation
  • It promotes healthy growth and development
  • It affects skin and coat health

Vitamins and Minerals:

There are several vitamins and minerals that all cats need. As long as you are feeding a commercially prepared diet it should have all the vitamins and minerals that are essential to your cat's health. Do not give your pets any vitamin supplements unless prescribed by your vet. Some vitamins and minerals can be harmful to your cat in excess quantities. Read the label to make sure that your cat’s food is meeting the minimum standard of balanced feline nutrition look for the Nutritional Adequacy Statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Somewhere, in tiny letters, the label should say something like “formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profiles." It should also mention “animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures,” which means the food went through a feeding trial.

Water:

Water might be obvious and is necessary for all living things. Water plays many roles in life; some of the most vital are:

  • The distribution of nutrients and oxygen to cells body temperature regulation elimination of toxins by flushing out waste products in the liver and kidney
  • It moistens mucus membranes in the eyes, nose, and mouth
  • It protects organs and tissues

When should I switch my cat food from kitten to adult to senior?

Once kittens are weaned from mother’s milk (5-6 weeks) and eating kitten food they should stay on kitten food until they are approximately 80% of their ideal weight—about 9-12 months old. Kitten food is specifically formulated for rapid growth and development which means that it has more fat content and protein than adult formulas. Switching from adult cat food to a senior or modified diet depends on the individual cat. Cats that are maintaining the weight and muscle mass do not need to change their diet. Cats start to show signs of aging anywhere between 7-12 years. Some of these changes can not be avoided but others can be managed by a diet change. You should always discuss your pet’s diet and any diet changes with your veterinarian so that they can evaluate your cat’s needs and medical conditions.

A change in your cat's diet is needed if:

  • Your cat is not maintaining its weight and is losing muscle mass
  • Your cat is gaining weight and has no dietary changes or medical conditions
  • Your cat has medical issues like kidney disease or diabetes
  • To slow or prevent the progression of an illness
  • Reduce the symptoms of an illness

Always remember that when making a transition from one diet to another, slowly transition over 7-10 days to avoid upsetting the GI tract and causing diarrhea.

How many calories does a cat need?

The number of calories your cat needs depends on its ideal weight. Your cat’s ideal weight should be determined by your veterinarian so they can take into consideration your cat's body condition, body frame, medical history, and activity level.

You can use this Cat Calorie Calculator from the Pet Nutrition Alliance or, if you like math, you can use the following formula to calculate your cat's calorie needs:

1. Convert your cats’ weight into kilograms: Ideal weight in pounds divided by 2.2 gives you weight in kilograms (kg)

2. Calculate how many calories are needed per day (kcal/day) [30 x (ideal or target body weight in kilograms)] + 70]. A typical cat should weigh between 8-12 pounds. Using this formula, a 10-pound cat with an ideal body condition would need to consume 206 calories per day to maintain its ideal weight. If your cat is overweight or underweight, your cat's daily calorie intake needs to be discussed with your veterinarian.

Do cats really drink milk or is that an old wives’ tale?

Cats like milk because it is high in fat and palatable. But many vets will discourage it because many cats are lactose intolerant and in some quantities, it will cause a reaction. A reaction will trigger all sorts of tummy issues- like diarrhea, constipation, and vomiting.

How much water should a cat drink?

Cats have a low thirst drive; they tend to drink less water than they need. Before commercially developed cat food, cats we more hunters than cuddlers, so they consumed most of their water from fresh raw meat that they caught. Most modern cats are accustomed to being fed whatever we provide for them but their instinct to drink when they need to can be deficient. Cats need between 3.5–4.5 ounces of water per 5 pounds of body weight per day. If you have a 10-pound cat, they should be consuming between 7–9 ounces of water. Canned food has a much higher moisture content, which makes it a good source of water.

According to the Cornell Feline Health Institute, canned food is at least 75% water, in comparison to dry food that is 6% to 10% moisture. One 5.5oz can of cat food fulfills 50% of your cat’s daily water needs. This is yet another reason why canned cat food is the best.

How can I encourage my cat to drink?

In a small study conducted for Royal Canin, the drinking habits of domestic cats were observed and evaluated.

Here are a few suggestions that might encourage your cat to drink more water:

  • Provide several drinking spots
  • Place water bowls away from the feeding area, as cats do not prefer drinking where they eat food
  • Cats like to drink from smaller bowls (less than 6 inches in diameter)
  • Good quality tap water is sufficient unless it is heavily chlorinated or has an odor
  • If it has an odor, use filtered water
  • Cat fountains can encourage drinking, but it really varies with each cat

How do I keep my cat from becoming obese?

Be sure that your cat is on a higher protein, lower carbohydrate diet, and count calories. You need to know how many calories your cat is consuming in a 24-hour period so that you can adjust if needed. This should include his/her regular diet, treats, people food, and supplements, such as fish oil. If your cat is maintaining his ideal weight, keep up the good work, and monitor your cat for changes. If your adult cat is “growing” or if your vet suggests some weight loss then you need to cut back on excess calories. You can start with reducing or eliminating treats and dedicate more play and exercise time with your cat. Most weight loss requires a 25 to 40 percent drop in daily calories. Prescription weight-loss diets can be a good choice for severely overweight cats. Always consult your veterinarian if you are concerned about your cat's weight and want to reduce their food or change their diet.

Can I give my cat treats?

Yes! We are sure your BFF (Best Feline Friend) deserves some good treats. Treats are generally not a source of balanced nutrition and should always be given in moderation. Treats should be kept at 10% -15% of your cat’s daily calorie intake. Low fat treats would be best and consider giving catnip as a reward; it is a calorie-free treat option. If the treats do not have nutritional information on the packaging contact the manufacturer for information or choose something that does. The Pet Nutrition Alliance cat calorie calculator tells you how many calories should come from your cat's food and how many calories can come from treats.

How do I know if my cat isn't getting enough to eat?

Your vet can help you evaluate your cat's Body Condition Score (BCI). A body condition score is based on a visual assessment of your cat. Scores range from 1 (underweight) to 9 (obese). 5 is an ideal body condition and if your cat’s score is less than 5 and your cat might need an increase in food or change diets. Always consult your veterinarian before changing diets and always slowly transition your cat when changing their diet.

Should I free feed my cat or pick up the bowl once finished?

Before domestication, cats ate small meals throughout the day. They worked for their food throughout the day. Ideally, a cat should be fed a high-protein—6 ounces can of cat food that is split several times throughout the day. It sounds complicated, but it really isn't. You can feed in the morning when you get up when you get home from work, and before bed. That makes three times. If you must feed dry food, try feeding a high protein diet, and feed small meals similarly to how you would feed canned food. Adult cats typically should eat about half a cup of food per day but this can really vary a lot, especially if you are feeding a super premium cat food that has high in protein. Always read the label and count the calories.

Feeding them several times a day will be more consistent with how their bodies were designed to eat. Free-feeding is when you leave food out all the time, and that can lead to problems, especially if you have a cat that does not know when to stop. This can lead to obesity and conditions associated with obesity. It is best to make food available for 20-30 minutes and then pick it up if your cat does not eat it. If they leave some behind, it could be an indication that you are feeding too much.

Always remember that are we partners in your pet's health care. so please do not hesitate to reach out to us if you have any questions or concerns! Nutrition is very important to your cat's health and we are always here to help!

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