Healthy Eating for Your Cat
Healthy eating has become a top priority for many American families…including the pets! While whole grains and vegetables are the superstars of a holistic diet for you and your dog, your cat has very different requirements. As an obligate carnivore, your cat requires a meat-based diet with minimal grains and vegetables to achieve their optimal health. Although many cat food companies offer "gourmet" or "premium" cuisine—it is important to learn how to read labels and select cat foods with the best natural wholesome ingredients for your cat.
Basic Cat Nutrition
Cats are obligate carnivores—their bodies are designed to consume foods which are high in protein, moderate in fat and very low in carbohydrates. The following composition is ideal for the best long term health of an obligate carnivore:
- 50% (or greater) of calories from protein
- 20-45% of calories from fat
- 1-2% (and no more than 10%) of calories from carbohydrates
- Rich in water (approximately 70% by weight)
When referring to commercial cat food, this ideal composition will only be found in some canned cat food formulas. Most dry cat foods are much higher in carbohydrates and contain plant-based protein (as opposed to meat-based proteins which are better for the needs of cats). In addition, many dry foods are too low in overall protein to satisfy the high protein requirements of cats.
Cats also have requirements for vitamins, minerals and water that must be met every day to create a well-balanced diet and allow them to develop strong bones, healthy digestion and a beautiful, full coat.
- Protein—cats require twice as much protein as dogs because protein (not carbohydrates) fuels their cells with energy. Cats have specific protein requirements (taurine, etc) that come only from meat and are essential for heart, eye and muscle health. Deficiency in these proteins can cause severe illness and even death.
- Carbohydrates—as carnivores, cats have no actual requirement for carbohydrates. In fact, feeding high carbohydrate cat food has been linked to digestive problems and the development of obesity and feline diabetes.
- Fat—fat from meat sources provides cats with certain essential fatty acids that cannot be obtained from vegetables. Fat is also crucial for proper vitamin absorption. Deficiencies can result in dry lusterless coats and scaly skin.
- Vitamins—cats are unable to make certain vitamins and they must be added in proper quantities to provide a complete and well-balanced diet.
- Minerals—cats require minerals such as potassium, magnesium, zinc, calcium, iron and many others. Although minerals are a small part of the diet, they are critical to bring balance to a food and excesses or deficiencies must be avoided. Historically there has been concern about "ash" levels in food and its relationship to urinary tract problems in cats. Ash is a crude measure of the mineral (especially magnesium) content of food and has been proven to be unrelated to the formation of crystals in the urinary tract of cats.
- Water—clean, fresh water is critical to the proper functioning of all cat body systems. Especially if your cat is eating dry food, it is important to encourage water drinking to prevent dehydration. Try running water or water fountains to entice your cat to the water bowl!
Most cat owners want to show their abundant love with treats, however, "over-treating" is common and is the cause of many fat cats. Although they may look cuddly with a little extra chub, health risks of obesity are real. Obesity contributes to a wide range of health problems, from arthritis to diabetes, and it has been well documented that obese cats live shorter lives.
The ideal cat treat is low in calories and carbohydrates, high in protein and has added health benefits. The following tips will help you select great treats to optimize your cat's health!
- Read the label for ingredients. Most commercially available treats are poorly nutritious and filled with carbohydrates, sugars (e.g. corn syrup, molasses, fructose, etc), artificial colorings or flavorings and do nothing to satisfy hunger. Although these "empty" ingredients make them desirable to your cat, they will contribute to ever-expanding waistlines.
- Go Natural! Choose natural treats that are meat-based and contain no artificial ingredients or sugars. Cats often love small pieces of fresh or freeze-dried meats and fish.
- Count calories! Treats are usually not complete and balanced like cat food and should make up no more than 10% of your cat's daily calories. An average 10 pound adult cat requires approximately 250 calories each day—therefore, no more than 25 calories should be provided as treats. Some commercial treats contain over 100 calories each and some table scraps are loaded with calories (steak, pizza, cheese, etc)! It is easy to see how giving just a few treats (in addition to regular meals) can be the cause of excess calorie intake and contribute to cat obesity.
- Avoid certain table scraps—especially directly off the table! Leftover table scraps usually include hunks of fat or sweet morsels you know your cat will love. These scraps are usually high in calories and low in other nutrients. In addition, these rich tidbits will often cause digestive problems such as bad breath, gas, loose stools and occasional vomiting. If your cat develops a taste for these scraps, they may become finicky and even stop eating their own food. If you want to use human food as a treat, select lean meats to really show your love. To avoid creating a disruptive diner, never give your cat treats from the table or around dinner time.
- Do not give treats around your cat's meal time. Like your mother used to say, "if you eat that now, you will spoil your dinner!" If cats fill up on treats before their scheduled mealtime, they are likely to skip their meal. Cat food is the source of proper balanced nutrition they need, so it is important to plan your treating accordingly. Missing meals can lead to dietary deficiencies and imbalances that can lead to degeneration and disease.
- Do not give treats for begging. It is common for cat owners to create a vicious cycle of begging and bad behaviors by the inappropriate use of treats. Treats should only be given to positively reinforce good behavior or to motivate a cat during training. Certain cat behaviors can be mistaken for hunger. For example, when your cat is weaving between your legs meowing, many cat owners think they are starving and asking for food. This is actually a common cat social behavior that has nothing to do with hunger. However, if you give a treat for this behavior, you will be rewarded with a persistently crying and begging cat!
- Using treats as rewards. A great time to offer treats is during or after activity or play sessions. This reinforces the positive aspects of exercise and helps your cat look forward to his daily activity. Exercise boosts the metabolism and this is a great time to give a nutritious protein snack!
- Choose snacks with health benefits. There are several treats available that may improve your cat's health. These "functional" treats may have very specific recommendations about maximum daily consumption. Examples of functional treats are those that target or support:
- dental health by their texture and abrasiveness.
- gastrointestinal health (especially the prevention of hairballs in cats).
- immune system health by providing additional antioxidants and vitamins.
- arthritis or other inflammatory conditions.
Giving treats should be fun and help build a strong bond between you and your cat. When healthy treats are given correctly, you will have a happy cat receiving excellent nutrition—which is the basis of excellent health.
Donna Spector, DVM, DACVIM,is a renowned, board-certified Veterinary Internal Medicine Specialist who has practiced at the Animal Medical Center in New York City and other leading institutions. She is an active member of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. Dr. Donna has written and lectured extensively on topics including nutrition, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, kidney failure and respiratory disease. She is widely recognized for her role as consulting veterinarian to HALO, Purely for Pets, her TV appearances with Ellen DeGeneres and her widely-quoted pet health advice in print and on radio. Dr. Donna performs medical, nutrition and weight loss consultations for dogs and cats through her web-based veterinary consulting service, www.SpectorDVM.com.