Nutrition is one of the most important keys to our pets’ health and longevity. 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. To do this, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of what cats need in their diet.
Cats are obligate carnivores and, when it comes to nutritional needs, have very different requirements from dogs. What actually is an obligate carnivore? Our domesticated cats are strict carnivores. Cats rely on nutrients in animal tissue to meet their specific nutritional requirements. In nature, i.e. the wild life, cats are hunters consuming prey high in protein with moderate amounts of fat and minimal amounts of carbohydrates. Cats also require more than a dozen nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids. These nutrients are the building blocks of a number of structural body tissues. They are essential for chemical reactions such as metabolism and catabolism, they transport substances into, around, and out of the body, they supply growth and maintenance energy and they provide palatability.
Important to remember about nutrients, particularly vitamins and minerals, is that your cat needs the correct amount, but no more and no less. It is easy to have either too much or not enough when it comes to vitamins and minerals. The use of supplements not only is unnecessary but also can be potentially dangerous to your cat's health. A key point to remember is that cats are neither dogs nor people. Because of their unique metabolism, what might be good for you or your dog might be detrimental to your cat. A high quality cat food normally assures an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals in your cat's diet. Such a diet does not require supplements and they never should be added without consulting your vet.
Another important nutrient is water. Water helps to regulate body temperature, to digest food, to eliminate waste, to lubricate tissue, and to allow salt and other electrolytes to pass through the body. Make sure your cat always has access to clean, fresh water.
Commercial cat foods are available as dry, semi moist and canned formulas. These products differ in water content, protein level, caloric density, palatability, and digestibility. Dry food typically contains 6 to 10 percent moisture. Depending on the specific formulation, meats, poultry, grain or their respective by-products, fish meal, fiber sources, milk products, vitamin and mineral supplements are combined, extruded, and dried into bite sized pieces. The pieces are then covered with flavor enhancers, such as animal fat, which give them increased palatability. The primary advantages of dry cat food are lower cost and convenience in allowing "free choice" feeding. However, dry food may be less palatable to a cat, and, depending on the types and quality of the ingredients, may also be less digestible than moist food. When feeding dry food, it is important to store unused portions in a cool, dry location, and not to use the food after its expiration date. To save money, cat owners normally buy large amounts of dry food that can sometimes last for 3 to 6 months. Checking the expiration date before feeding it to your cat is very important. Lengthy storage decreases the activity and potency of many vitamins and increases the likelihood that fats have become rancid. Store dry cat food in an airtight container, which helps to prevent nutrient deterioration and maintain palatability.
Semi-moist food contains approximately 35 percent moisture and often resembles ground or whole meat tidbits. Meat and meat byproducts are primary ingredients. They are combined with soybean meal, cereals, grain byproducts, and preservatives. The cost is generally mid range. These foods may be more appealing than dry cat food to some cats. Semi moist food can also be fed free choice. However, after the package is opened, palatability decreases and spoilage increases because of dehydration.
Canned cat food has a moisture content of at least 75 percent, making it a good dietary source of water. It is generally the most expensive type of cat food, but it also is highly palatable to most cats. Different varieties are available in great numbers, which can be helpful if your cat is a finicky eater. Canned food has the longest shelf life when unopened, but any unused portion of opened canned cat food should be refrigerated to maintain quality and prevent spoilage. Gourmet canned cat foods generally feature meats, such as kidney or liver, and whole meat by-products as primary food ingredients. Some brands, however, may be nutritionally incomplete, and it is important to read the nutrition labels carefully on such specialty cat food items to ensure that they have a nutritional guarantee.
This is your basic list of options. It is incomplete though. I have yet to address other options such as raw food, food mixes and home prepared diets. Stay tuned as I will do so in a subsequent article. For now, after giving you the most popular what should be your choice? High quality (!), not mass produced, commercially prepared cat foods have been scientifically developed to give your cat the correct balance of nutrients and calories. At least that is what their manufacturers claim. Always remember that critical judgment is in order here. 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 these standards in producing cat foods.
When shopping for a healthy food for your cat, reading the label on the bags is the best way to compare the different products. Understanding the labels and knowing how to read them gives you a good initial idea. Pet food manufacturers are required to supply certain nutrition information on the package. Labeling regulations are established by AAFCO and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). All pet foods that carry an AAFCO approved nutritional guarantee, referred to as the "AAFCO statement," are considered to be complete and balanced. These standards were formulated in the early 1990s by panels of experts on canine and feline nutrition. A food may be certified in two ways: By meeting AAFCO's published standards for content, or by passing feeding tests or trials. Most researchers agree that feeding tests are superior in assessing the nutritional adequacy of a food.
Throughout a cat's life, there are stages during which a cat requires different nutrients. These stages include growth, adult stage, pregnancy and lactation and senior stage. The nutritional claim on the label should state the stage of a cat's life cycle for which the food is considered to be a complete and balanced product. It should also state that it meets the requirements of the AAFCO. Feeding a cat a product that does not have a nutritional claim on the label is not a guarantee for a complete and balanced diet. Many products state that they have been formulated for "all life stages," which simplifies things for owners with multiple cats of different ages or circumstances.
Read the ingredient list when choosing your cat food. It names all ingredients used in the product, including flavor enhancers, artificial colors, and preservatives. These ingredients are listed in order of decreasing proportional weight. Meat, meat by-products, or seafood should be listed among the first few ingredients. This is an indication that the food probably contains enough animal source ingredients to supply protein or essential amino acids and essential fatty acids. Nonetheless, addition of some nutrients (e.g., the amino acid taurine, and B vitamins, including thiamine and niacin) may be necessary to offset the fiber content of the diet or degradation of nutrients that occurs during the manufacturing process.
Once you have determined that a food is complete and balanced, choosing between the types of food may be a matter of what your cat prefers. Some cats like canned food, some like dry food, and some like a combination of the two. Today's high quality cat food market offers an almost overwhelming abundance of well formulated foods for cats of all life stages, so you can choose the ones that work best for your cat.
Is there anything else you should consider? Environmental conditions can affect a cat's eating habits. For example, heavy traffic areas, noise, the presence of other animals, dirty food containers, or nearby litter boxes can deter a cat from eating. You don’t eat in your bath room. Try to be sensitive to your cat's eating behavior. Make necessary adjustments to provide optimum feeding conditions.
Remember that cats vary greatly in characteristics such as the amount of food they need to consume to ensure optimal weight and health maintenance. Be careful not to over feed your cat. Over feeding may lead to obesity, unfortunately the most common nutrition related problem in cats. Additionally, an overweight cat is prone to other health problems such as diabetes and arthritis. Commercial pet foods formulated to help cats lose weight are available.
Although many cats are content to eat a single product, some may develop finicky eating habits and become very selective about what foods they will accept. Cats more so than dogs have a reputation for such a behavior. Remember and live by the concept of varied feeding. Feeding your cat different cat foods provides flavor variety, and may prevent your cat from developing an exclusive preference for a single food, so that if a medical condition dictates a change in diet, your cat may have an easier time adjusting.
Also remember that not eating can lead to serious medical problems in cats. This is true for sick cats that lack an appetite, for cats on a diet, and for the finicky cat that refuses to eat. If your cat totally refuses to eat, see your vet.