Why is nutrition important?
Proper nutrition and care for your cat can help maximize its health, longevity and quality of life so the students of the College of Veterinary Medicine of Michigan State University have developed the following guidelines for proper feline nutrition. Cats reach adulthood between 10 and 12 months of age. Around this time their nutritional needs change and their diet should be adjusted to reflect their activity level, environment and reproductive status. For example, neutered and spayed cats tend to have lower energy requirements than intact cats. Excesses or deficiencies of some nutrients can have a negative impact on your cat’s overall health.
Of all the key nutrients in your cat’s diet, water is the most important. Unlimited access to fresh water should be provided at all times. Cats often drink small amounts of water frequently (12 to 16 times) throughout the day. Water bowls should be cleaned and refilled daily. Cats are sensitive to odors and often prefer to have their water (and food) bowls separated from each other and from the litter box.
Wet or canned food has more water content than dry food and can affect a cat’s daily water intake. What this means is that cats eating only dry food would be expected to drink more water than cats eating only canned food. Many cats enjoy fountains that aerate running water. This is an idea to consider for cats that don’t readily drink from a water bowl.
Why can’t cats and dogs eat the same food?
Cats require some nutrients in their diet that are not available in adequate amounts in dog food. For some nutrients, like Vitamin A, dogs have the ability to make them, whereas cats require an external source every day. In order to avoid serious health issues, cats and dogs should never eat the same food.
Protein: Cats are obligate carnivores (meat eaters), which means they require amino acids in animal tissue and they need more protein and fewer carbohydrates than their omnivorous friend, the dog.
Arginine and Taurine: These two amino acids are found in many of the animal proteins that cats eat naturally. Unlike dog foods, complete and balanced commercial cat foods are formulated to have adequate amounts of arginine and taurine.
Arachidonic Acid: Cats are unable to make this essential fatty acid and so it must be provided in their diet. Arachidonic acid is only found in animal tissues.
Other nutrients that may be in lower quantities in dog food include niacin, vitamin B6, methionine, choline and preformed vitamin A.
How to select the best food?
When choosing a commercial cat food, look on the pet food label for what’s called an AAFCO claim. This ensures that the food you have chosen is complete and balanced and that it meets the minimum nutrient requirements for adult cats.
There are many cat foods to choose from and there is no one perfect food for all cats. Some cats are less active than others and require fewer calories to meet their daily energy needs. As mentioned earlier, neutering reduces the daily energy requirement of cats by about 25% compared to intact cats. Food intake should be adjusted according to your cat’s activity level to maintain a lean body condition. At a minimum, cats should be fed between 10 and 20 calories per pound of body weight per day. So, a cat weighing 9 lbs might be offered 300 calories but only eat 250 calories. Ask your veterinarian for guidance to avoid overfeeding your pet.
Body Condition Scoring
Caloric requirements can vary greatly from cat to cat. Feeding guidelines on the container or package are just a starting point. It is important to monitor your cat’s body weight and body condition score (BCS) regularly and adjust his/her diet accordingly. Your veterinarian can help you determine if your cat has an appropriate body condition. Animals that are too thin may have unmet nutritional needs or may be ill. Animals that are too heavy may be at risk for diseases such as diabetes. Body condition scoring is done by feeling you cat’s ribs and spine and observing his or her “waist” from the side and top. Pets are scored between 1 (too thin) and 5 (too heavy), with a score of 3 considered “ideal”. The Indoor Cat Initiative has a simple body condition scoring chart at www.indoorcat.org.
What is the best way to feed my cat?
Food can be offered as individual meals or free choice (left out all the time). Free choice feeding resembles a cat’s natural behavior; studies have shown that cats eat 12 to 20 small meals over a 24-hour period. Many experts recommend this method of feeding for healthy cats. However, meal feeding is better when calories need to be controlled. A measured amount of food can be offered 2 to 4 times each day depending on your schedule. Cats can also be fed a combination of fresh moist food, offered at specific times, and dry food that’s available free choice. The regimen that you choose should be based on your lifestyle and the health of your cat, but a regular feeding and eating pattern should be established.
For multi-cat households, each cat should have their own food bowl. Bowls should be located in areas of the house that a cat feels most comfortable and should be separated from other food bowls. Alternatively, you could create food puzzles. These can be purchased (Multivet Slim Cat or SmartCat Tiger Diner), or made from materials in your home, (such as a tennis ball, cardboard box or plastic beverage bottle with holes cut in it). Load the puzzle with kibble and hide it for your cat to find. This approach changes meal time into play time and your cat gets some mental exercise too.
What about cat treats?
Treats provide social interaction between cats and their owners, but treats also increase the amount of calories consumed each day. Treats should be given in moderation; that means no more than 10% of the total daily caloric intake should come from treats. For example, milk is a favorite of many cats and can be tolerated in small amounts. However, large volumes of milk can overwhelm the digestive tract and result in gas, loose stool, or diarrhea.
What about exercise?
Exercise is a great way to maintain your cat at an ideal body condition, as well as an opportunity for bonding and interaction with you. There are many ways to exercise your cat, and keep in mind not all cats like the same toys and games. It is important that you interact with your cat during “play time” so that he/she does not lose interest. Some cats enjoy chasing a laser pointer or feather on a string, while others like to play in boxes. Use of a climbing tree is another great way to get your cat moving up and down. Placing pieces of kibble on the top level can encourage your cat to move to different levels. You can also try to teach you cat tricks. Regular activity of 20 to 60 minutes each day is recommended.
- Indoor Cat Initiative at www.indoorcat.org
- Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, Mark Morris Institute, 5th edition, 2010.
- Encyclopedia of Feline Clinical Nutrition, Royal Canin, 2008.
- Manual of Veterinary Dietetics, 2004.
- AAFCO is the Association of American Feed Control Officials
Veterinary Medical Center
College of Veterinary Medicine
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1314
Pamphlet prepared for VTH by Rachel Packard, CVM Class of 2010