One of the most frequent questions I get is “what should I feed my pet”. This is a very important question to ask, especially if you own a cat. Cats are so different from dogs in terms of their nutritional needs, and understanding their dietary requirements is essential to optimal feline health.
Let me start by giving you some information about a cat’s dietary intake in the wild. The domestic housecat is thought to have originated in the Middle East. Cats are well adapted to an arid environment and their kidneys have excellent concentrating ability. They get most of their liquid from eating prey (a mouse, for example, is about 70% liquid), so they don’t tend to drink as much water. Cats are solitary hunters and therefore take on prey much smaller than themselves, necessitating several small kills per day. They are also obligate carnivores which means that they require animal protein in order to achieve good health. Unlike dogs who are able to manufacturer specific amino acids if not present in their diet, cats lack certain key metabolic enzymes which means that if they are not eating animal protein, they will be nutrient deficient.
A sad example of this became evident in the late 1980’s. Cats started to develop a fatal heart condition known as Dilated Cardiomyopathy. It was eventually discovered that the cause of this heart condition was that manufactured diets were missing a key amino acid called taurine. Cats cannot make taurine, and it is a necessary amino acid for the heart muscle. Since then, pet food manufacturers have been supplementing cat foods with taurine and this problem has virtually disappeared.
We can also learn a lot from studying the feeding habits of domestic cats. Waltham is a pet food manufacturer that has done a lot of research on cat nutrition and feeding. In their paper, “Cat Feeding Behavior and Preference”*, they note that when food availability is not restricted, cats will choose to eat small, frequent meals. On average, about 13 meals per day. They also noticed that some cats will demonstrate neophobia and others neophilia.
Neophobia is when a cat is very reluctant to try new foods. This can pose a challenge if your cat develops a medical condition in which a dietary change is necessary. Cats that are fed a variety of diets throughout their life tend to show less neophobia. For cats that are adverse to their new diet, you can generally transition them to a new food by offering a small amount of the new food side by side to their old food in a different dish. After having the opportunity to see and smell the new food after several weeks most cats will eventually try the food. It is important to not take away the old diet until your cat is consistently eating the new diet.
Some cats will exhibit a different feeding habit called neophilia. In this condition, a cat seeks out new food, often times people food. This is most commonly seen in cats that are fed the same diet on a daily basis. These condition can be of concern because cats will sometimes greatly reduce the intake of their cat food, and instead fill up on other foods that are not nutritionally balanced. For these cats, offering a variety of cat foods can help reduce food seeking behavior.
This same Waltham paper showed that cats selectively eat to achieve an average nutrient intake of 26 grams of protein, 9 grams of fat and 8 grams of carbohydrate per day. In this study, cats were offered a variety of canned and dry diets with varying nutrient profiles. The cats would selectively consume different quantities and type of food to achieve this nutrient profile. When provided with food choices that did not allow them to achieve their target nutritional needs, the cats got as close as they could by adjusting their intake of the food provided.
It was also determined that cats have a limit on the amount of carbohydrate they are willing to eat in a day. (This maximum was about 20 grams per day). Cats that reached this “carbohydrate ceiling” would then limit their food intake which lead to deficits in protein.
So what does this all mean for the best way to feed your cat? What we know is that cats can adapt to many feeding strategies. However, if you want to feed your cat in the most “natural” way possible, then below are some tips for achieving that.
Since cats are solitary hunters, in a multi-cat household, feed the cats in separate rooms.
Feed smaller meals throughout the day instead of one or two large feedings.
You could try having your cat “hunt” for its food by feeding your cat out of feeding balls, food puzzles, and hiding it in little dishes around your house.
Canned food is better the dry because it has more moisture in it. (For owners trying to achieve multiple feedings per day, you could try freezing small portions of canned food and leave it out to thaw throughout the day. Cats prefer to eat body temperature food over cold food, so will typically leave the food until it warms).
Choose a high protein food. What is high protein? As a guideline, a high protein food will have more than 45% protein on a DRY MATTER basis. The pet food label usually lists the crude protein, so you will need to convert it. The formula for converting is as follows; first, we need to determine how much of the food is “dry matter”. To do this, look at the moisture content of the food. If the food is 10% moisture, then it is 90% dry matter. Then look at the crude protein and divide the % of protein by the % of dry matter to get the % of protein on a dry matter basis. Below are 2 examples:
Purina One Healthy Metabolism Cat Food (Dry Food): 42% Crude Protein and 12% Moisture. The amount of dry matter is (100%-12%)=88%. The % protein on a dry matter basis is (42%/88%)=47.7%.
Iams Adult Premium Pate with Lamb and Rice Cat Food (Canned Food): 10% Crude Protein and 78% Moisture. The amount of dry matter is (100%-78%)=22%. The % protein on a dry matter basis is (10%/22%)=45.5%.
It’s OK to introduce new flavors and textures everyday. If your pet develops vomiting or diarrhea during food transitions, then you will need to be purposeful about only feeding one food every several weeks to tease out which food could potentially be causing the problem. (Please note, vomiting, diarrhea and a poor appetite can also be a sign of other serious diseases. Seek veterinary care and don’t just attribute these symptoms to food if your pet is not doing well.).