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what should I feed my cat?

What Should I Feed My Cat?
by Robert Shearon

You are what you eat, and this is equally true for the cats that depend on us for "room and board." Indeed, cat food is one of the most important expenses of feline guardianship, next to veterinary care. It is important also to note that proper diet can eliminate or delay veterinary expense for a number of serious medical conditions.

The ultimate purpose of this series is to help you learn how to read cat food labels to make your decision process easier in choosing the best foods for your cat, but first we need to cover some of the basics.

Cats' Basic Nutritional Needs:

• Protein from a meat, fish, or poultry source
• Taurine, an essential amino acid
• Certain other vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and fatty acids
• Water

That's it, basically. Cats do not need carbohydrates, although corn, wheat, and/or rice are used as fillers for both canned and dry cat foods. Other ingredients, such as binders, flavoring, and coloring, are added by cat food manufacturers to satisfy the aesthetic wants of the consumer. Although preservatives are necessary, to keep foods fresh for our cats, canned food should not be allowed to remain out for any length of time, in any case.

Canned food or Kibble?

Many nutritionists agree that cats should get a variety of food, both dry and canned, for several reasons:

• While dry food is convenient, and can be left out for "free feeding,"
• Canned food contains water, and many cats do not drink water regularly
• To ensure that your cat gets the right amount of nutrients. That "near-perfect" food you've selected might be adding too little (or too much) of certain minerals and/or vitamins.
• Cats may actually become bored with the same food day in and day out, and simply quit eating. Face it, would you enjoy pizza morning, noon, and night, for years?
• To head off possible allergies to certain ingredients. Cats (like humans) develop allergies over a period of time. Although the incidence of food allergies in cats is rare, cat owners might want to err on the side of caution, particularly if their cats have shown evidence of allergies in the past.
• To prevent "food addictions." The Whole Cat Journal, in its October, 2001 issue, cites the case of a cat that was addicted to a particular flavor of a particular brand of cat food, right down to a specific factory and lot number! This kind of addiction can be difficult to deal with when that last can is gone, but can be easily avoided by feeding a variety of foods from the start.
This doesn't mean that Fred should get a different food every day, but a variety of high-quality canned foods, supplemented with dry food for cats left alone all day, will add spice to his diet and keep him from becoming "Finicky Fred."

Cheaper Brands are False Economy

Many first-time cat owners, in an attempt to hold down expenses, buy the cheapest foods they can find for their cats. This is false economy for a couple of reasons. First, studies have shown that cats eat as much as they need to get the nutrients they require. Therefore, they might eat twice as much of that generously-carbohydrate-filled store brand to get the nutrients they need in a normal feeding of premium food. Second, the continued feeding of substandard foods over a period of years will heavily contribute to, or even cause, serious medical conditions that will require expensive veterinary care.
For these reasons, the old maxim, "You get what you pay for," is particularly true where it comes to cat food.

What to look for on the label:

• Compliance with AAFCO's requirements for "Complete and Balanced," as evidenced by that wording on the label.
• Named protein source - look for "chicken, lamb, or beef," rather than "meat."
• On canned food particularly, the protein source should be the first listed ingredient
• Check the expiration date for freshness
What to avoid
• Words such as "By-products," "meat and/or bone meal," "animal digest," most other descriptions including "digest" or "meal," and added sugars.
• Chemical preservatives, including BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, and propyl gallate
• Corn meal as a filler
• Excess of carbohydrate "fillers" (Dry food can contain as much as 50 percent grain)
Cats are Obligate Carnivores, and cannot thrive on vegetarian diets, although most vegetables can be added to cats' diets, either by the manufacturer or the consumer.
Pet food manufacturers cannot print "complete and balanced" on their labels unless one of the following criteria is met:
• The food must pass feeding tests for the life stage recommended on the label
• The composition of the food must meet or exceed nutrient levels established by AAFCO
• Preservatives, at the level included in commercial pet foods, have never been scientifically demonstrated to cause any problems in pets (or people) at less than 100 times the levels found in such foods. On the other hand, the current trend for many cat food manufacturers is toward using natural preservatives, such as vitamins C and E.


Dietary protein supplies essential amino acids and is needed for the manufacture of antibodies, enzymes, hormones, tissues, and proper pH balance. Protein provides energy for cats and is essential for growth and development. Complete proteins contain ample amounts of essential amino acids and are found in foods such as meat, fish, eggs, and poultry. Incomplete proteins do not provide all essential amino acids and are found in many foods including legumes, grains, and vegetables. Plant proteins don't supply the essential amino acids that a cat needs, such as taurine which come from animal protein. Cats need protein from animal sources as the amino acids from vegetable sources are not well utilized. Overall, cats have a very high requirement for protein.

Dietary fat is a concentrated source of energy for the cat. It also provides essential fatty acids and aids in nutrient utilization and transportation. Fat is involved in cell integrity and metabolic regulation. Saturated fat is found primarily in animal sources while polyunsaturated fat is found mostly in plant sources.
Linoleic and arachidonic acids have long been considered to be essential fatty acids (EFAs) for cats. More recently, DHA has been added due to its important contribution to feline vision, reproductive health, and the immune system. EPA may also be of benefit. Unlike some animals, cats do not efficiently convert plant sources of EFAs to the needed derivatives. For example, cats must eat meat to obtain arachidonic acid. Also, cats do not convert LA to GLA (as some animals do), but studies show that GLA can benefit feline skin and coat health. The cat would also consume Omega 3s and CLA when eating its natural herbivorous prey.

Minerals are essential to the cat and are involved in almost all physiological reactions. They contribute to enzyme formation, pH balance, nutrient utilization, oxygen transportation, and are stored in bone and muscle tissue. Biological availability may vary widely depending on the source of the mineral. Elemental minerals are generally taken from the earth or water. Chelated minerals are those that are bound with other organic substances often making them easier for the body to absorb. Minerals include calcium, chloride, chromium, cobalt, copper, fluorine, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, silicon, sodium, sulfur, and zinc. There are other mineral elements required by cats at trace concentrations. Minerals, like vitamins, work synergistically. They have a cooperative action between them.

Vitamins are essential for metabolism regulation, normal growth and function. Vitamins are found in food and some are synthesized within the animal's body. They're classified as either water- or fat-soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins include A, D, E, and K. Water-soluble vitamins include C and the B-complex. Generally, fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body, while water-soluble vitamins pass through more quickly. Once again, the carnivorous cat utilizes animal sources of nutrients more readily than plant sources. For example, cats cannot convert beta-carotene from plants to vitamin A (as some animals do), so they need preformed vitamin A from an animal source. Preformed vitamin A needs no conversion.

Because cats are designed to fulfill most of their water requirements by eating fresh raw food, they naturally have a low thirst drive. This can lead to health issues for cats that eat dry cat food products and treats. One of the problems is that even though they become dehydrated eating the kibble, their natural "programming" may not encourage them to drink more water. And their urine can become too concentrated. Even though a healthy cat doesn't drink much, you should always have clean good quality drinking water available to them. And please make sure it's good quality water, which means tap water may be out, especially if your community puts fluoride and chlorine in the water supply. If you have well water, have it tested annually for contaminants.


Question: Is it ok to give my cat table scraps?

Answer: It depends on what it is. Some foods are ok in small quantities as a treat, such as cooked fish, poultry and meats that have no added fats or spices. Be aware though that some human foods can cause stomach upsets or are downright toxic to cats. Keep in mind that cats are absolute carnivores and not omnivores like humans, meaning they should eat a diet comprised primarily of meat. Their entire body structure is geared for the hunt, kill and consumption of animal prey.

A cat that is routinely fed foods from his owner's table will not only come to snub his own food but will probably not get the proper nutrition he requires to stay healthy. It is also not desirable to have your cat begging for scraps every time you are in the kitchen preparing a meal or having him stare at you as you sit at the table trying to enjoy your dinner. Imagine having your family and friends over for a holiday meal and your cat jumps on someone's lap or even on the table to try and get at the food. If you would like to give your cat a small treat now and then, I would suggest reserving some bits of raw meat or poultry for him as you prepare the food. Then feed it to him in his own feeding area.

Question: I am a vegetarian, can I give my cat vegetarian foods?

Answer: As stated above, cats are carnivores, they need meat to survive and be healthy. A cat's digestive system is different than that of humans and other omnivores. Forcing a cat to eat a diet not based on meat proteins will inevitably lead to health problems and eventually even death.

Question: Can I feed my cat tuna?

Answer: Canned tuna intended for human consumption is lacking some of the nutrients found in canned cat food. Commercial tuna flavor cat food uses more parts of the tuna than the selective tuna meant for humans. Feeding a cat primarily on tuna made for human consumption will deprive your cat of essential nutrients such as Vitamin E and could lead to deficiency diseases.

Question: So, what should my cat eat?

Answer: Cats require a high level of protein and fat. An adult cat should consume at least 26 percent of his food in dry protein and 10 percent in fat. Unlike humans, cats can handle large amounts of fat without harm, it is actually healthy for them (unless they are obese). If you decide to feed your cat mostly dry food you will need to provide plenty of fresh water. Even if you feed your cat exclusively canned cat food, you will still need to give him lots of water; the moisture content in the food is not enough for the cat to stay hydrated. Milk is considered food, not a drink. While it is ok to give cows milk to a kitten, adult cats don't need milk, it may actually cause digestive problems for them. The lactose in milk may give your adult cat gas cramps, diarrhea or cause vomiting.

Question: How do I choose the best food for my cat?

Answer: There are many commercial foods on the market, both moist and dry. What you want to look for is a well-balanced, high-quality food made by a reputable manufacturer. It should be appropriate for your cat's age, activity level and condition. A good way to judge is by reading the label. If meat is the first ingredient listed it is usually a good indication that the food is high in the required protein. The more other ingredients are listed the less protein the food contains. Special diet foods for cats with urinary problems or diabetes and foods specially formulated for less active, overweight or geriatric cats are readily available at many stores or from veterinarians. If you are unsure, you may want to ask your vet for advise.

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