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Pet Health


Feeding Your Cat

Back when I had a cat, my only nutritional goal was just to find something she would eat. We brought…

Back when I had a cat, my only nutritional goal was just to find something she would eat. We brought home several canned foods and packages of kibble from the store until Sugar, aka Kitty, finally chose one that would satisfy her “refined” palate. Fortunately, the cat food industry was watching out for owners like me – ones who hadn’t a clue how to feed my cat to assure good health and longevity. We must have been doing something right… Sugar lived a long, healthy, 18 years.

We have discussed many times the importance of good nutrition for our pets. It is the fundamental basis for overall health, and the best prevention against disease, and illnesses. Why wouldn’t we want the best for our furbabies? Feeding our pets well is one of the most important (and most loving) things we can do for them.

As dog owners, we are fortunate that canine health is a hot topic these days. We have learned so much in the last few years about the dog food industry, our dog’s nutritional requirements, making smart food choices, managing health conditions through diet, and so much more. Unfortunately, there has not been enough information on what to feed cats. What do our cats need to grow and thrive? What should we look for when buying cat food?

Oh, the inconsistencies!

I must admit, I nearly gave up on this blog during research. There is so much difference of opinion on what to feed cats. Very reputable sources of information conflict with one another. For example, one source said, “…Cats cannot digest grains.” Another said, “even though cats are historically carnivores, their digestive tracts are pretty efficient at processing carbohydrates from grain.” See what I mean? Finally, I decided to push through the confusion for the sake of all the precious cats whose owners need help in making nutritional decisions for their best furry friend.

What do cats eat?

Whenever I think about what cats eat, in my mind’s eye I see a cat with a mouse hanging out of its mouth! And honestly, that is not so far off. A domestic cat’s diet should be similar to what they would eat if they were hunting prey as cats in the wild do. Whereas dogs have evolved to eat a more varied diet than their ancestors, domestication has not changed the cat’s basic digestive physiology nor their nutritional needs. This means that a cat’s diet must consist of animal protein first and foremost. Meat or “prey” is very low in carbohydrates and grains… So should your cat’s food be too.

I found this interesting by the Animal Medical Center of Chicago: An ideal diet for a cat would be five-to-six mice per day — mice are high in protein (48 percent), low in carbohydrates (5 percent) and approximately 48 kcal per mouse. I know it is gross to think about, but the nutritional analysis of a mouse should serve as a blueprint for our cat’s diet.

The AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) has developed models and regulations regarding the minimum nutritional requirements of pet food. They set the standards to determine if a specific pet food meets all the basic nutritional needs. It is their formulas that pet food manufacturers use to assure their food is “complete and balanced” for our pets. If I compare the AAFCO cat food requirement to the comparison by the AMCC of six mice a day, it’s pretty close!

Cat nutrition relies on animal protein

Protein is the number one ingredient in mice, as it is in all animal meat that we consume. Unlike humans whose main source of energy is carbohydrates, cats get their energy from protein. A lack of protein will cause a cat’s body to begin “feeding” on the protein found in their muscles, thus breaking down the muscle to unhealthy levels. Without sufficient protein, other health issues will occur as well, including developmental disorders, recurrent illnesses and disease, and poor coat and skin.

Amino acids are compounds that bind together to form proteins, commonly referred to as the “building blocks” of protein. There are actually three types of amino acids, but for our purposes, we will cover two types: Essential and Nonessential. We must have 20 complete amino acids for our body to build the protein it needs. Unlike nonessential amino acids, essential amino acids cannot be produced by the body, so we must get them from the food we eat. PetMD states that a cat’s body needs 22 amino acids. 11 are nonessential, and 11 are essential. Although they are all important, a few amino acids are critical to their health, namely, taurine and arginine. Taurine is particularly important for heart and eye health, while an arginine deficiency can result in severe neurological problems.

Tragically, in 1987 it was reported that tens of thousands of cats were dying every year because of heart disease. The cause for the disease was traced back to a nutritional deficiency in some cat foods at the time. The issue was a lack of the amino acid, taurine. It had been discovered years earlier that kittens born to cats with taurine deficiencies are often blind, among other things. Despite these findings, the taurine found in these very popular cat foods was not adequate for good health. A lack of sufficient taurine in a cat’s diet can cause cardiomyopathy, impaired vision or blindness, impaired gait plus other developmental abnormalities, gastrointestinal problems, and immune system issues. Since the 1987 report, all diets formulated for cats are supplemented with enough taurine to meet a cat’s basic needs.

Can cats eat vegetables?

We used to get a kick out of Sugar’s bowl after she ate. She would routinely leave 5 – 6 perfectly clean peas in the bottom of her bowl. She licked all the gravy off but would not eat the peas themselves. Many cats do not like vegetables. Although some cats will eat vegetables, most dislike them. The truth is, cats do not need vegetables for a balanced diet.

This issue is often debated by veterinary nutritionists. Some believe that small amounts of vegetables in a cat’s food provide additional nutritional benefits. Others feel it is pointless. While it is true that vegetables provide many wonderful, highly beneficial nutrients, the fact is, a cat’s digestive system does not have the enzymes needed to digest a large amount of vegetables. If your cat enjoys them, small amounts of vegetables are fine. Be aware that certain vegetables can actually be hazardous to your cat. Here is a good article to help you know which vegetables can and cannot be eaten by your cat. So, rule number 1 is: If you want to feed your cat vegetables, limit them to treats, or at least a very small serving. Rule number 2 is: make sure what you are feeding is safe for them.

What about grains?

Grains are not – or should I say, grains should not be – an essential ingredient in cat food. It’s not that cats will not eat grains, it’s just that they don’t really need grains. While some pet nutritionists consider grains a cheap filler in cat food, many believe that grains are an efficient source of diverse vitamins and energy. In other words, grains won’t hurt them, so unless your cat is allergic or sensitive to grains, they will suffer no ill effects of having consumed them.

While doing the research for this blog, I looked at the ingredients in several cat foods. I was surprised and confused to find a lot of grains in so many popular cat foods. Rice specifically, but also barley, and corn. I have to say, if the first ingredient in your cat’s food is corn or another type of grain, it’s probably a good idea to look for another food. The best cat food will have animal protein listed as the first ingredient.

How much water should a cat drink?

Cats have a low thirst drive. While you might see them drink from a toilet or from a running faucet, they are basically finicky about their water. Some cats won’t even drink from a water bowl. Because of this, a cat’s food must contain appropriate moisture to make up for their lack of water intake. Regardless, even if your cat rarely drinks from its water bowl, it’s important to always have fresh water available to them.

By the way, the water composition for a mouse is 80%. Again, using the mouse for a blueprint of what to feed our cats appears to be the most accurate guide for good nutrition.

Many cat parents feed dry kibble to their little furry felines. While it’s okay to leave dry kibble out for them to nibble on when hungry, it is advisable to provide some wet food in their diets too, just to assure they consume adequate moisture.

Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics

There has been a big push recently for cat parents to add enzymes to their cat’s food. Is it necessary? Again, this is another controversial subject among pet food professionals. Digestive enzymes are made by the body and released by the pancreas into the intestine after a cat eats. Unless your cat has pancreatic issues (either by damage or disease), it is generally advised that your cat does not need them. If the pancreas is functioning normally, assuming you have no reason to believe that your cat is not digesting food properly, then I would forego the enzyme supplements.

Probiotics are live bacteria that naturally live in the body. They’re the good guys. They help your body fight off the bad guys – the bad bacteria in your body. Probiotics help to maintain a healthy “balance” in your body. Bacteria in the body – the “microbiome” – is a very complex system. While “fixing” the balance of bacteria in the body has the potential of making us feel better and keep the bad guys from making us sick, we still don’t know enough about which bacteria is needed and what amount is needed to correct an issue…. especially as it pertains to our pets.

I say all that to say, unless your veterinarian advises you to add probiotics or digestive enzymes to your cat’s diet, I don’t think it’s a very good idea. If you feel strongly that your pet may need supplementation in their diet for whatever reason, work with your veterinarian so the proper supplement and dosage.

Final word

We really don’t want you to feed your cat mice. Mice and other rodents provided the perfect nutrition hundreds of years ago, but today’s mice can carry poison, parasites, viruses, roundworm and all kinds of bad stuff that your cat shouldn’t eat. But again, the nutritional needs of our cat’s ancestors are the same needs of today’s cats. Eating mice provided the perfect nutritional balance.

As always, we want to remind you that we at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts are not Veterinarians nor are we Veterinary Nutritionists. We want to share with you what we have learned based on our experience with pets to help you when making decisions about your own pet’s health and happiness. Always abide by your Veterinarian’s Advice when it comes to your pet’s health.

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