When it comes to our kids, we want the VERY best for them in terms of nutrition to promote a healthy development and set the stage for them to live long and healthy lives. The same is true for our pets, but, unlike our children, there isn’t always a clear answer for what sets the stage for healthy development in our furry friends. Yes, we know that like children we should take them for routine checkups and shots, but what about their dietary needs?
Let’s face it—when it comes to cat food, there is a veritable plethora of choices (similar to choices of dog food). You have to choose between wet or dry, kitten or adult, shiny coat or hairball control, indoor or outdoor and more. Then there are the different ingredients, each with the supposed ability make your cat live longer and happier.
To help you skip the headache, below is a list of some cat food do’s and don’ts and some identified key ingredients proven to help your feline friend go from kitten to senior in the healthiest way possible.
Understanding the Label
If you are unsure of how to identify high-quality pet-food, remember that ingredients should be listed in the following order of importance:
- Meat and protein listed by name (beef, chicken, lamb, salmon, turkey)
- Meat source + meal (lamb meal, turkey meal, etc.)
- Vegetable or fruit
- Vegetable or fruit
Corn and soy products should be avoided due to their “filler” qualities and allergy inducing properties. Also avoid artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and known carcinogens.
Food For Kittens
Kittens, they’re cute, cuddly and they have extra nutritional needs. All kittens should be fed high quality kitten food. How do you know it’s high quality? Check out the label, pet foods are required to have a nutritional label and higher quality pet foods will be marked one of two ways:
- Meets the nutritional requirements of kittens established by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)
- Complete and balanced nutrition for kittens based on AAFCO feeding trials
The AAFCO is a group of state and federal officials charged with regulating animal feeds and pet food products; similar to the USDA, the AAFCO is in charge of quality regulation. Complete and balanced nutrition is just a fancy way of saying that your kitten won’t require any additional mineral or vitamins if he/she is on a diet containing the marked food.
Kittens will (and should) eat more often than adult cats but you might be wondering when you should switch your kitten from wet to dry food. The truth is, kittens should have some canned food to eat as a part of their diets—especially young ones. Tiny kittens have tiny teeth and very small teeth have trouble chewing dry food well. Very young kittens only eating dry food run the risk of stomach irritation and nutritional deficits.
Here’s a handy reminder for how to feed your new kitten and when to switch it up.
- 12-24 hours – Kittens should be exposed to their mother’s milk if possible; in this timeframe, the mother produces colostrum containing antibodies that the kitten should absorb to get off on the right foot. Remember, some milk is better than no milk.
- 4–5 weeks – Mix wet or moistened dry food and formula into a slush. Supplement with the mother’s milk or with formula
- 5–6 weeks – Mix kibble with a small amount of water
- 6–7 weeks – You should be able to give your kitten completely solid food by week 7
While weaning your kitten to solid food, you should choose a food made specifically for kittens. Kitten formulas have more calories, protein and calcium. Foods with high quality key ingredients are easier for your kitten to digest and absorb. Some key proteins and ingredients to look for are fish (salmon, trout, sardines, catfish, or whitefish), poultry, eggs and taurine. Taurine may not show up on the label but can be found naturally in the meats most likely listed as primary ingredients.
Also, if you are caring for a mother and her litter, it’s perfectly okay for the mother to eat the same food as the kittens while she’s nursing.
Adult Cat Dietary Health
Cats are carnivorous creatures with a very high protein need. This high protein, minimal carbohydrate requirement is important to remember when choosing a food for your adult cat—it’s definitely a bad practice to take a one-size-fits-all approach.
- Look for high-quality ingredients – All cats need an amino acid called taurine in their diet and it can only be found in fish, poultry, and other meats. This essential amino acid is important in both reproduction and vision. Arginine, another important nutrient that your cats get from protein helps to support liver function.
- The proper fat to protein ratio – Adult cat food should contain approximately 12% fat and 30% protein for dry foods; and 4% fat and 8% protein for wet varieties. Meat should be the first and largest ingredient in your cat’s food. Cats thrive on a meat-based diet and, unlike dogs, have little to no need for carbohydrates. Meat sources should be identified by name (beef, turkey, chicken, lamb, salmon).
- Follow a feeding schedule – A good rule is to follow a twice daily schedule and remember to use the feeding guidelines found on the packaging or ask your veterinarian.
- Limit treats – Treats should never make up more than 5% of your cat’s daily intake of food. They lack the nutritional completeness to keep your cat healthy and balanced and over-treating can lead to obesity.
A healthy senior cat can, for the most part, follow the same healthy eating schedule as a normal adult cat with no medical issues. Aging cats continue to have the same nutritional requirements unless there is an underlying issue. Elderly cats might begin to display signs of weight loss, which is pretty common but also something to keep an eye on. If the cat seems to be eating less, or displays lack of interest in the food, then it might be time to prepare your cat’s meals with a bit differently. Some tips include switching to wet food altogether, heating wet or moist food in the microwave before serving, mixing in a little bit of water from canned tuna with the food, and staying mindful that the cat’s eating environment is free of stresses.
However, just because your senior cat is healthy, doesn’t mean you can just feed and leave. It is even more important to pay attention to your senior cat’s food intake and note any irregularities in an effort to manage their oral health and avoid obesity—both of which are common in older felines.
Sometimes health conditions can play a role in the type of food best for your cat. Special dietary needs may need to be taken into account for conditions such as: obesity, hairball control, urinary tract health, or dental conditions. Below are a list of factors to consider when shopping for special diets. Keep in mind, you should always consult your veterinarian if you think your pet requires a special diet—they can help you determine the proper fat to protein ratios for your pet.
- Obesity – Obesity is a pretty common problem found in adult cats and can lead to additional health issues such as diabetes, arthritis, or heart disease, if left unchecked. Reduced calorie foods and portion control are a good choice for your overweight cat.
- Urinary tract condition – Certain foods can benefit your cat by reducing urinary pH, providing a low dose of magnesium, and minimizing bladder stones. In addition to giving your pet needed nutrients, some wet foods can help keep your adult cat hydrated and minimize urinary tract infections.
- Hairball control – Hairballs are a big deal for some owners, aside from being gross to clean up, they’re often uncomfortable for your kitty. Fiber-rich nutrition can help your cat exit existing hairballs and can keep new ones from forming by helping to move hair through the intestinal tract.
- Dental health – A healthy mouth is just as important for your pet as it is for you or your child. Dental problems can lead to problems elsewhere in the body like the liver and kidneys. Special ‘oral care’ cat food can help to reduce tartar buildup and keep your cat’s teeth strong and healthy.
Universal Cat Don’ts
- Do not feed dog food to your cat—cat food is specially formulated to a feline’s nutritional needs.
- Avoid feeding your cat bones from chicken, pork or fish. Bones can splinter and become lodged in the throat or pierce stomach walls and intestines.
- Avoid giving milk to your cat—it can create an upset stomach. Other foods to avoid include chocolate or other candies, garlic, chives, onions, alcohol, grapes and liver.