The Pros and Cons of Different Types of Cat Food
Feline nutrition is very important for general health. However, the plethora of dietary options, brands, and formulas available to consumers can be confusing when deciding which kind of cat food is best for your feline friend’s health and wellness.
Unlike humans and various other creatures (dogs included), cats’ evolutionary process has resulted in unique dietary needs specific for strict carnivores (all meat eaters). Just like their undomesticated and much larger relatives, domesticated cats’ bodies have adapted to a protein- and fat-rich, low carbohydrate diet. In the wild, cats use plants, primarily tall and short grass, for digestive regulation and dental support. However, wild cats do not consume vegetable or plant matter for the purpose of energy or nutrition. The ideal diet for your feline friend is one that is high in animal-based proteins. Taurine is an essential nutrient for your cat's heart and brain health, and it comes from eating animal-based proteins. Cats in their natural setting would not consume the high levels of carbohydrates that are found in many of the commercially available dry and canned foods. Cats do not have the enzyme pathways to digest and utilize dietary carbohydrates like other mammals do. Therefore, diets high in carbohydrates lead to diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and others. A strict carnivore such as the cat needs a moderate amount of fat in their diet. Fat will typically provide most of the fuel for energy in a carnivore. To the cat, fats are also important in the taste of their food. Meat-based diets provide animal fat and supply many essential nutrients specific to the nutritional and health needs of our feline friends. A diet made to fit the unique nutritional needs of the cat is one higher in animal-based proteins, low in carbohydrates, and moderate in fat. It is also important to provide water in the diet of the cat. They are a desert species and have a less sensitive response to thirst. Most of their water requirements are fulfilled in their natural environment in the form of prey consumption. Feeding canned food increases water intake promoting overall health, especially urinary tract health.
Cats are unique in their attachment to specific textures of their food and it is difficult to get them to accept or change to other forms of food. For this reason, we recommend that you try to feed kittens a mix of canned and dry food during the first year of their life with the hope that they will always accept both.
At Cat Care Center of Baton Rouge, we take pride in providing cat owners with all the information necessary to help you make educated decisions about all facets of feline nutrition, cat foods included.
For the first month of a cat’s life, kitten food comes in the form of mother’s milk and/or commercial milk replacement formula given every 2-4 hours if the kitten has been separated from its mother. Once this initial period passes, kitten food can become a dietary staple in the following stages, amounts, and frequency:
From 3-5 weeks of age, feeding orphaned kittens involves offering the milk replacement formula in a shallow dish to encourage weaning from a bottle. You can also add a moist, easily chewable diet consisting of a mixture of warm formula and high quality canned or dried kitten food 4-6 times a day.
By 5-8 weeks of age, your kitten should be able to chew its own kitten food, and you should provide a protein-rich and energy-filled diet, with feedings taking place 3-4 times daily. There are many different types of kitten food available, and we would like to discuss these dietary options with you at your next veterinary appointment. Typically, we recommend canned kitten food because it will mimic the natural diet both in consistency and formulation. However, a good diet may also consist of a combination of canned and dry kitten foods.
Kitten food is usually very high in protein, calories, and fats, which are all necessary to support healthy growth and body function. Feeding the right kitten food, in the right amounts, and at the right times throughout the day is essential for happy, growing cats. Our veterinary staff would be happy to discuss the best kitten food options for your feline friend, as well as a proper feeding schedule at your next veterinary appointment.
Although dry cat foods are very popular among cat owners, they should be considered the second choice for cat food. This is because dry foods have a higher carbohydrate count than we consider optimal. In addition, the protein choice in dry food tends to be higher in plant and not animal-based protein.
The high levels of carbohydrates and plant protein can lead to weight gain and digestive issues, especially in older and more sedentary cats. However, dry food is convenient and the best choice for many busy households. Some premium food brands have developed specialty, prescription formula dry cat foods which can be sound choices for cats with allergies, certain health conditions, and as part of a diet also containing canned food.
Wet cat foods can have a nutrient profile that mimics the kind of diet cats would choose in the wild. The protein in canned cat food is usually animal-based, which means that canned cat food has a nutritional profile that compliments a cat’s evolutionary profile and physiological needs. Canned cat food also usually has a low carbohydrate count and a high water content.
Senior Cat Food
Beginning around 7 years of age, cats begin transitioning from adulthood to the mature/senior stages of life. This transition causes health and lifestyle changes with a cat’s weight, skin, joints, teeth, and internal organs.
If your cat is doing well on his current diet, then there may be no need to change to a different formula. Some brands make a senior cat food which is specially formulated to deliver ingredients which are more easily digested than standard adult cat foods. Senior cats are more likely to develop health issues related to intestinal and kidney disease. There are diets specifically formulated to benefit cats with these issues which may help slow the progression of these diseases.
Your veterinarian can help you choose the best cat food for your senior cat by taking pre-existing medical conditions, current health status, and overall lifestyle (indoor, outdoor, sedentary, active, etc.) into account.
Understanding Feline Nutritional Requirements
Cats, like all living creatures, require six classes of nutrients:
Water: The single most important nutrient for sustaining healthy cell and overall body function. Cats lose water through their:
Cats also have evolved to receive the majority of the water in their diets through the consumption of food. This is why sound feline nutrition includes a diet that is rich in unprocessed proteins and water. Canned cat foods are usually formulated with water content in mind and can contain up to 80% of this feline nutrition requirement per serving.
Protein: Protein is a fundamental component of feline nutrition that is necessary for the maintenance and support of a cat’s:
Additionally, many of a cat’s functional body components are made of proteins, including:
- Plasma proteins
Proteins all have their own digestibility profile because some proteins, like fish and chicken, are more available for use in the body than other proteins, like plant and dairy. Digestibility refers to the net amount of protein that is left after the cat food’s chemical breakdown in the body.
Proteins are made up of essential amino acids. Amino acids are synthesized in the liver with the help of carbon and nitrogen. The cat has unique taste buds and receptors that are believed to actually taste the amino acids in their food contributing to the rejection of foods lower in good quality proteins. There are 30 total amino acids, 20 dispensable (or non-essential) and 10 non-dispensable (or essential). Dispensable refers to the ability to be safely absent from a diet. This means the 10 non-dispensable, or essential amino acids, must come from a cat’s diet. A high-quality cat food that follows a sound feline nutrition requirement protocol will only use unprocessed or minimally processed fish, poultry, and meat that contain this feline nutrition requirement.
Essential Fatty Acids: Essential fatty acids, also known simply as fats, provide the most concentrated source of energy of any feline nutrition requirement. In cats, fats provide energy, making carbohydrates unnecessary. Fats carry fat-soluble vitamins D, E, A, and K.
Fats also supply linoleic and arachidonic acids, which are essential for overall health. Cats that have fat deficiencies will display the following symptoms:
- Stunted growth
- Dry hair/dandruff
- Infection Susceptibility
A high-quality cat food will contain between 20-40% fat (essential fatty acids) of total daily calorie intake.
Vitamins: Vitamins are organic substances (made by plants or animals) that are very important feline nutrition components because they help regulate various body processes, including:
- Boosting immunity
- Supporting growth and development
- Helping cells and organs properly function
There are two types of vitamins, fat-soluble and water-soluble. We mentioned fat-soluble vitamins above, but the difference between them is that at soluble vitamins are processed and can be stored in fat cells. They are generally more sustained release than water-soluble vitamins and also have acute toxicity levels. Water-soluble vitamins must dissolve in water before the body can use them. They cannot be stored and therefore must be replenished with greater frequency than fat-soluble vitamins.
The water-soluble vitamins are:
- The B Vitamins: Thiamine, Riboflavin, Pyridoxine, Pantothenic Acid, Niacin, B-12
- Vitamin C
A minimally processed cat food diet usually fulfills vitamin requirements naturally through the use of whole foods like chicken, meat, and fish. Dry foods usually add synthetic vitamins to make up for the removal of natural ones during processing. Although there is no universally accepted vitamin intake requirement for cats, exhaustive documentation exists to support vitamin intake as part of overall feline nutritional health and wellness.
Minerals: Minerals are inorganic substances that are produced in soil or water and that are consumed by plants or animals to regulate:
- Acid-base balance
- Tissue structure
Just like vitamins, there is no universally accepted mineral intake requirement for cats, but volumes of data exist indicating the need of the following minerals to help facilitate healthy body functioning:
The overall balance of a cat’s diet is affected not only by the levels of each individual minerals, but also by the interactions between them. For this reason, we recommend consulting a veterinarian with any questions regarding choosing cat food or cat food supplementation.
Cat Weight Loss and Prevention Plan
Obesity in cats is a real problem that can lead to many disease states. In studies, increasing body weight above an ideal weight was found to be associated with a decreased lifespan. In short, obesity in cats is as much of a disease as kidney disease or even cancer.
In addition to obesity being and leading to disease, an overweight cat will struggle to perform the species-specific behaviors that make cats a “Happy Cat.” Some of these behaviors are climbing, hunting, exploring and playing.
So how do our cats become overweight and even obese? We believe this all goes back to the way they would feed naturally. Like their wild ancestor, the North African/Arabian wildcat, the domestic cat is a predator and an obligate carnivore. This means the cat must have meat to survive.
Their unique digestive systems have truly become adapted to a meat-based diet. Cats rely on protein as their main energy source. They have an absolute requirement for the nutrients, and amino acids only found in animal protein sources. Since they are obligate carnivores, they have a reduced ability to digest and utilize carbohydrates. A true carnivore’s diet is low in carbohydrates. Research has looked to un-owned free ranging cats who rely solely on hunting and scavenging for food, and their diets to help support these ideals. When data was collected from the studies it revealed the natural diet of free ranging cats was 52% protein, 46% fat, and only 2% from carbohydrates. This data makes us really stop and think about our own little house predators and why overweight cats are sort of the norm these days.
So how does a cat meet these special dietary needs in the wild?
Cats are solitary hunters, just like their wild ancestor. Since they hunt alone, their prey is small in size and they can therefore manage to capture their prey on their own. The average mouse contains 30 kilocalories, cats must hunt, kill and eat around 10 mice a day to meet their daily energy requirement. Not all of the hunting attempts will be successful, and they will burn a substantial amount of energy in the active process. So they may consume around 250-300 kilocalories a day while they are burning a good part of these calories in the hunt. Most dry cat’s food has on average 400 kilocalories in a cup of food and our housecats are not expending that much energy to eat this! Wild cats will spend a large part of their 24-hour day hunting and looking for food. Imagine this lifestyle as we think about the lives of our house cats and the calories they consume.
Cats have also undergone very little in the way of selective breeding compared to dogs, and apart from pedigreed cats we don’t have much control over their breeding. This means their instinctive drive to hunt is still very strong and part of their natural behavior. Cat’s will continue to display this hunting behavior even when they are provided food and are not hungry.
As our understanding of the unique dietary needs of the cat have evolved so have the pet food manufacturers. These companies now understand the special nutritional requirements of the cat and have developed foods to meet these nutritional needs. Now the full nutritional needs of the cat can be met through good pet foods, rather than needing to hunt prey to get these dietary requirements. However, the hunting instinct among our tiny little predators remains.
Cats are now reliant on food fed by their owners and no longer follow their natural rhythms of hunting and eating several small meals throughout day and night. They are restricted to a feeding schedule convenient for their owners that often involves 2 larger meals a day. This is both behaviorally and physiologically unnatural for cats. Even if ad libitum feeding occurs, meaning the cat has unrestricted access to food at all times and therefore can choose to eat small meals throughout the day, their lifestyle can prevent them from regulating their calorie intake for many of the following reasons.
- Pet food tastes really good and many cats keep eating when they are full.
- Pet food is easy to eat, it is small and bite sized, and cats can eat it very quickly which can result in overeating.
- Indoor only cats may become bored and therefore seek food. This coupled with decreased exercise is the perfect formula for obesity.
- Spaying or neutering has been found to increase food intake in cats. However, these are very necessary for other undesirable behaviors.
- Multi-cat households often have undetected food competition and thus overeating.
Bottom line is the way we typically feed our cats does not match the lifestyle they were designed for. Whether your cat shows signs of boredom or frustration will vary, but there is absolutely no doubt that all cats could benefit from mental and physical stimulation.
Feline experts in veterinary medicine, behavior and health at International Cat Care (icatcare) have put together a feeding plan to do just this!
It’s called Five-a-Day Felix
- Five or more portions a day fed throughout a 24-hour period. These portions should be calculated according to your cats’ weight and body condition by your veterinarian or veterinary nurse trained in feline nutrition. The overnight feeding portions can be accomplished with puzzle feeders and timed feeders.
- Puzzle feeders. Puzzle feeders can be bought in the store or made at home with various household items such as egg cartons, empty toilet paper rolls and plastic bottles. They can be made for all life stages of cats, and you may just need a little time to train your cat to use them. If your cat has never used a puzzle feeder before, please make them as easy as possible to obtain food from them. You can increase the difficulty as your cat becomes accustomed to the feeder.
- Change of location. Consider placing a portion of your cats’ daily intake in a slightly different location than the last meal. Make use of vertical space when possible. This will be an enriching exercise in hunting that will engage all of their hunting senses. This may not be achievable to the same degree with all cats. Senior cats, or cats with diseases inhibiting their senses may have trouble with this one. If you aren’t sure please ask the veterinarian first.
- Day and night feeding. This is a great aspect of puzzle feeding and timed feeders. This is the time of day most of their natural prey is active (rodents) and cats have excellent night vision. This may reduce attention seeking behaviors in the morning and begging for food in the early morning hours!
- Keep track of your cat’s weight and body condition. Weight is very important as a measurement of health but more importantly is their body condition score. This gives an overall measure of their percent body fat. Your veterinarian or nurse will measure this each time they visit the office.
- Multi-cat households. All cats in the household should have at least one puzzle feeder of their own and each fed in separate locations.
- Type of food is important. Make sure the diet you choose is well balanced and not a supplementary food such as treats. It is generally recommended cats eat a variety of both wet and dry food as a way to prevent obesity. Dry foods can be high in carbohydrates. Please ask the guidance of the veterinarian when choosing a diet to feed your cat.
- Water. Provide your cat with fresh water every day. Cats prefer to drink away from their food. This is a natural behavior in the wild to avoid drinking water potentially contaminated with the dead prey. Place several water sources in different locations within the home. Consider glass bowls as they do not retain a smell like plastic and cats do like to see the water level in their bowls. Shallow, wide bowls are preferred to respect their sensitive whiskers. Some cats like to drink from a moving source so a water fountain may be beneficial.
There is much new research on the horizon as we work to understand the true nature of our house cats. With good environmental enrichment, nutritional and medical care you are on your way to providing for the unique needs of the CAT!
Download our Cat Weight Loss and Prevention Plan here
Make an appointment today and let our veterinarian help you make the right nutritional choices for your cat.