How to Choose the Right Food for Your Cat
Let’s face it, cats are notorious for being picky eaters. You finally figure out what type of food they like, buy a case of it, and all of a sudden they don’t want it anymore. Some cats only eat poultry, others refuse anything other than fish. Some refuse kibble, others shy away from canned food. It can be tricky to navigate what a cat should eat, so let’s start at the beginning!
Cats are what we call “strict carnivores”, which means that they need to eat meat to survive. Unlike dogs and people, who are omnivores, a cat’s diet should be primarily made up of meat proteins and fats, with only a small percentage of carbohydrates. Meat proteins are essential to provide cats with the amino acids arginine, taurine, methionine, and cysteine, as well as vitamins B and D. Without consuming meat, a cat will eventually resort to breaking down its own body muscle to try to obtain these.
Cats need to eat a well-balanced, high protein, low carbohydrate diet. Feeding diets that meet the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) standards through scientific testing and clinical trials are recommended. Unsure if your cat’s food meets these standards? Look for the AAFCO stamp of approval on the label!
As an example, commercial fish-flavored diets that meet the AAFCO standards are balanced to include the necessary amino acids that cats need. However, this is not the same thing as feeding your cat a can of tuna (for human consumption). Canned tuna, on its own, is not an adequate source of nutrition for a cat.
Whenever switching types or flavors of food, it’s always advised to do so slowly. Introduce the new food over the course of several meals/several days to prevent gastrointestinal upset (vomiting and/or diarrhea).
Choose a Diet Based on Your Cat’s Age
Make sure to feed a diet that’s appropriate for the life stage of your cat. Nutritional needs change over time depending on age:
- Kittens under 6 weeks of age should still be nursing or should be properly bottle-fed with an appropriate feline milk replacer
- Kittens – feed kitten food from about 6-8 weeks of age until 1 year of age. It’s often easier for kittens to start with wet/canned food than dry kibble, as they don’t have their permanent teeth yet and may not know how to chew their kibbles properly.
- Adults – Feed a diet labeled for adult cats, starting at 1 year to approximately 7 years of age.
- Seniors – Feed a diet labeled for senior cats, starting at 7+ years of age.
How much food should my cat eat?
Cats are programmed to hunt multiple times a day, even when they aren’t actually hungry. This is why cats often ask for food multiple times a day, even if they don’t need to eat. And this is how many indoor domestic cats become overweight...
Some cats are great at self-regulating and do well with dry kibble being left out for them. Others will scarf down everything in sight (and even throw up from eating too much too fast!) Fortunately, there are slow-feeders, timed-feeders, and slow-dispending toys to help with your cat’s specific needs. If you feed wet/canned food, it's advised to feed at planned meal times, and get rid of whatever they don’t eat (old, dried canned food isn’t appetizing to anybody!)
You can calculate your cat’s caloric needs here: Pet Nutrition Alliance
Does my cat drink enough water?
Since the domestic cat descended from desert cats, they don’t always have the drive to drink water as much as they should. As a result, some cats are notoriously bad at drinking and need extra water added to their food. You can help ensure your cat drinks water or obtains moisture from its food source by offering canned/wet food. There are also numerous water dispensers on the market that bubble and flow to keep cats interested in drinking water. This is important in preventing dehydration and overly-concentrated urine, which can lead to urinary issues.
Is it OK to give my cat treats?
It is always advised to introduce a new treat slowly and to introduce new treats one at a time. Cats can be very sensitive and develop gastrointestinal upset easily if given too many types of foods and treats. Try to stick to a limited number of types of foods and treats, and do not change them abruptly.
Cats and Food Allergies
If your cat has any gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting, diarrhea and/or inappetence (poor appetite), it’s possible that they may need a different food. Some cats have food allergies or intolerances just like people and dogs, and may benefit from food (and environmental) allergy testing to determine this. Please consult a vet if you suspect this may be the case. Your vet can discuss with you whether or not your cat needs to be on a specific prescription diet based on the results.
When should you contact a vet?
If your cat has any of the following signs, you should contact a vet as soon as possible:
- Trouble eating
- Dropping pieces of food
- Chewing on only one side of the mouth
- Incompletely chewing their food
- Not eating at all
- Bad odor from the mouth
- Blood or purulent discharge (pus) from the mouth
- Drinking excessively
- Straining to urinate
- Urinating blood
- Urinating dark and/or strong-smelling urine
- Poor/dull haircoat
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Need to speak with a veterinarian regarding your cat’s food or another condition?
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