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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 protein-losing diseases.


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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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Homemade Diets
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.


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 palatability.


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Dietary Considerations

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:

  1. 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.

  2. Provide fresh water at all times. The more that a cat drinks, the less chance crystals and uroliths (small mineral stonelike deposits) will form.

  3. 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.

  4. Feed small meals on a frequent basis or feed free-choice dry foods.

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 growing.


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