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When it comes to feeding our felines, it’s easy to become confused about what to feed them, and what’s best to avoid.
When you add in the extra, personal considerations of allergies, age, and cat-related health issues such as hairballs, you might just want to throw your hands up and buy the first bag you see on the shelf. After all, it’s sold broadly and you may have even heard from others that the brand is fine, so what harm can it do?
Unfortunately, the answer is plenty. Pet food is one of the least regulated areas in the pet-care industry, and quality of the commercially available formulas can vary a great deal. Read on to find out everything you need to know about cat nutrition, feline needs and how to handle those special health considerations.
Ensuring that your cat receives the proper nutrition might not be easy, but it is worth it. Not only will your cat enjoy better health, vision, a shinier coat and better digestion, you’ll enjoy the benefits of less veterinarian bills, a more pleasant litter box and your pet’s gratitude.
Below, we’ll cover some of the basic and not-so-basic cat nutrition needs. Read over them carefully and check with your pet care professional in order to be sure that you are giving your cat the best chance at great health.
Your cat’s basic nutrition needs will change throughout their lives. The three main stages of a cat’s life are: Kitten to young adult, Adult to senior and senior cat. With each development timeframe, the needs of your cat might change. Be sure to check in with your vet during your regular check-ups to ensure that your cat is being fed an optimal diet to help meet the nutritional demands of their rapid growth and the needs of an older cat.
As always, if you notice anything unusual regarding your cat’s activity such as sudden accidents in the home after being litter trained, a dramatic change in personality or lethargic attitude, bring your cat to your vet. While a proper diet is an important part of your cat’s care, there are other concerns that can cause behavioral changes. Since cats can’t communicate directly to us what’s wrong, they tend to behave in ways they previously wouldn’t. It’s always a good idea to check with the vet over any sudden changes.
A cat’s basic nutritional needs can be broken down as follows: According to the ASPCA, cats require taurine, water, protein from both animal and vegetable sources, amino acids, and fats. The amount and frequency of your pet’s feedings should be as recommended by your veterinary professional based on your cat’s age and body weight.
Be sure to read the label and the fine print on the ingredients in your cat’s foods. If it’s missing any of these vital nutrients, pick another food. When selecting, always look for the ‘ASPCA” stamp of approval on the bag to ensure it follows the nutritional guidelines that are considered essential for cat health.
Feeding Through Life Stages
Kittens: Kittens are bundles of energy with tiny stomachs, and as such, should have a fairly regular source of food and water at their disposal. Your kitten won’t eat much at each sitting, but will be hungry again very quickly. Most pet owners keep a supply of dry food available for kittens and supplement with scheduled moist-food meals.
Adolescent: As your cat nears their adult size, it’s time to start regulating their feeding to a schedule. Most owners make sure to feed their teenaged pets two to three times a day, with a constant water source. Nutrition is vital during this stage, as bones, teeth and muscles are all being developed.
Adult: When your cat reaches adulthood, they likely slow down a lot. It’s at this stage that most people both maintain a twice a day feeding schedule, as well as supplementation to help prevent hairballs and other concerns.
Senior: Old age affects cats and people in much the same way. Their more likely to spend their days curled up in the sunshine than playing, and feeding should be given in proportion to their hunger and activity. With old age, cats can experience a variety of issues such as asthma, allergies, achy joints, diminished vision and hearing, dental problems and constipation from slower digestion. There are specialized cat foods and supplements designed to help your cat feel their best, no matter how old they are.
Allergies and Cats Cats can develop allergies over time, just like people. If your cat is suddenly refusing food they were excited to consume before, consider the fact that they might have an allergy to an ingredient in it. They could just be bored of the taste, so consider investing in several flavors of a specific brand and formula that they like to be able to change their meal choice with ease.
Treats We love to give our cats treats, but too much of a good thing can be bad. Obesity is a big concern when it comes to house cats, in part because they love to curl up and relax so much. When your cat isn’t active, all those treats are just excess food, which can increase their chances for obesity, heart disease and other health concerns.
You can help mitigate the risk by supplying a cat gym for your pet to climb and play on, toys that peak their interest or even taking your cat for walks on a leash.
If you do give treats, try to choose treats that are formulated to offer a benefit for your cat. Whether it’s coat supplementation, teeth cleaning properties or extra omegas, there are options on the store shelf to pick healthier treats for your cat.
A Note About Water Cats and water are a notoriously picky combinations. The cat that freely drinks from a bowl full of standing water is rare, and dehydration is a serious risk for your cat. If you notice strong smelling urine and that your cat isn’t drinking from their water bowl, the easiest solution may be investing in a fountain water bowl. These bowls are designed to keep water constantly moving, and are more attractive to the typical housecat than traditional bowls.
If your cat suffers from dehydration, they could experience symptoms that range from lack of energy, extreme shedding and kidney damage, so make sure that your cat has a constant source of water available.
Milk, Cheese and Yogurt Your cat might love them, but that doesn’t mean you should give them to your cat. Not only do cheese and yogurt sometimes carry additives ( artificial colors and sweeteners) that aren’t really good for your pet, most cats are actually lactose intolerant. Save your kitty’s stomach and avoid the dairy-based treats, even if giving the cat a bowl of milk is a tale we’ve heard our entire lives.
If you’re interested in probiotics to aid in your cat’s digestion, speak to your vet for a brand they recommend.
Dental Health While it’s important to ensure that your cat food has the proper balance of minerals, vitamins and nutrients, something a lot of people overlook is texture. Unless you train your cat to have their teeth brushed, they’re likely only going to have a cleaning at their annual check-up. Just like humans, this can lead to dental decay, which is very painful for your cat. Canned cat food is a great way to ensure that your cat has more water in their diet, but a diet that consists only of soft foods won’t help your cat keep their teeth clean.
Cruncy, dry foods can actually help keep your cat’s teeth in tip-top shape by supplying friction that works to clear debris from the tooth as they eat. So don’t go for a full canned-food diet, or your cat might end up with severe dental problems.
Be sure that your cat is provided enough calcium to support strong dental health.
Coat Issues: Shedding Cats will shed, but if you notice an increase in the amount of fur being lost, your cat could be suffering from a nutritional deficiency. Dehydration, lack of fat and certain mineral or vitamin deficiencies can lead to skin issues that include excessive shedding, skin sores and itchy rashes. Dry Coat A dry, itchy coat can lead to skin irritation in your cat. Your pet might exhibit these signs if they are suffering from a food allergy to additives in their food, or a deficiency in vitamins, minerals and fat content. While food allergies manifest themselves in different ways, more common signs are ‘hot spots’; areas of almost complete or complete hair loss that are raised, irritated or broken from continuous scratching, weepy eyes, wheezing and ears that smell bad. Lack of luster Just like humans, cats need fat and oils in their diet to ensure the proper metabolization of nutrients and a silky coat. Check to make sure your kitty is receiving enough of this essential nutrient to maintain their healthy coat. A good source of omega oils for your cat can help solve this issue fast.
Digestion Concerns If you’re doing everything right and your cat is still exhibiting upset stomach after a clear vet check, read the label to your chosen food. BHT, BHA, ethoxyquin, meat by-products, corn meal, fillers and other additives such as artificial colors and flavors could be upsetting your furry friend’s stomach. Try to search for a food labeled ‘human grade’ and avoid all additional fillers, additives and unnecessary ingredients.
My Cat Keeps Vomiting Cats vomit for several reasons, so if this is a common occurrence with your pet, consider when and where your cat vomits. If it’s early morning, liquid and bile vomit, your cat could be suffering from an upset stomach from lack of food and require an earlier feeding time.
If your cat vomits after a coughing fit, it’s likely that a hairball is to blame. Speak to your vet about treatments to help your cat pass the hairball and avoid another.
If your cat vomits almost immediately after eating, and the food is nearly intact, this is a behavior called regurgitation. This happens when cats eat too quickly. Consider spreading meal time out, choosing a baking sheet instead of a bowl to feed so that your cat has to work to find each piece of food, or ask if your cat has to compete for the food.
If you have multiple pets, your cat might feel that they have to rush to eat the food quickly before the other animals do. If this is the case, take your cat to another area for feeding and to remove the sense of pressure.
My Cat Is Always Hungry If you’re feeding your cat the recommended amount, but they keep crying for food, you shouldn’t feed on demand. Cats, like people, are capable of eating for pleasure. Your cat is likely to suffer from obesity if you get into the habit of feeding whenever they cry, and it can be a difficult habit to break. Try distracting your cat with toys or cuddles if they insist on eating more than they need.
My Cat Eats But Is Losing Weight A cat that eats regularly but continues to lose weight should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Your cat could be suffering from a number of medical conditions, including parasites, viral infections, HIF or cancer. These conditions are manageable with medical assistance if caught early.
Hairballs Your cat could be suffering from hairballs even if they’re not gagging and coughing. Little-known symptoms of hairballs are constipation, diarrhea, lethargy and weight loss. These can be signs that excess hair, consumed during daily grooming, has formed a mass in your cat’s digestive tract.
Your vet can recommend several treatment options for your cat in order to help them pass the hairball, but there are things you can do as a pet owner to prevent them from occurring. Be sure to brush your cat with regularity to remove excess shed, and make sure they have ample water available for consuming. If your cat refuses to drink standing water, invest in a pet watering fountain in order to make liquids more attractive.
If the problem doesn’t resolve itself, it might be time to consider switching to a specially-formulated food in order to help your cat avoid the painful condition.
Home Remedies You may have heard that it’s fine to place a teaspoon of olive oil, or fish oil, on your cat’s dry food in order to help them expel a hairball. Always check with your vet prior to doing this. Some foods are toxic to cats, and commercially available fish oil supplements are developed to meet adult human nutritional needs. Too much of any vitamin can pose a kidney damage risk to your pet.
Do I need to give my cat supplements? The ASPCA recommends cats be given a supplement of vitamins and minerals to help insure their health, whether the source is through fortified, packaged food or a seperate delivery. Your vet can help you choose the right supplement for your cat’s individual nutritional needs profile.
The litterbox inspection No one likes to clean the litter box, but when you have a cat, it comes with the territory. Be sure to make note of any changes in your cat’s waste. Diarrhea, constipation, or changes in the amount of urine or smell of urine can all indicate underlying health problems. If you begin to notice worrying signs with regularity, it’s time to call the vet.
The cause of odd litter box findings could be dehydration, food allergies or poor nutrition. How Bad Is Human Food For My Cat, Really? Some human foods are very toxic to cats. These include green tomatoes, chocolate, garlic, onions, grapes and raisins, avocado, milk and xylitol. Some plants are also toxic, such as poinsettias. Be sure to protect your cat from these items.
While not toxic, processed lunch or canned meats can have a lot of sodium. It’s best to avoid giving your cat these foods as it places strain on their kidneys during digestion.
Even if the food is fine for your cat to consume, you run the serious risk that your cat will begin to refuse their cat food and only want to eat human food. Not only is our food not formatted to fit a cat’s nutritional need profile, cats are very smart and can be stubborn. Avoid feeding human food to your cat to avoid a battle each mealtime.
What About Feeding Raw? You may have heard about the trend of feeding your pet a raw diet, and done well, it can be a very healthy choice for your pet. Most owners have difficulty keeping up with the process of supplying their pet with raw food. Just like food intended for human consumption, cat food has to be properly stored and thrown out with a short expiration date, and the combination of foods must be given in the proper amount to maintain nutritional focus.
Raw food can also be a lot more expensive to provide than dry or canned food, although the sources are often a higher quality. Some owners include small bones in their raw foods to help clean the teeth and massage the gums of their pets, but if you choose to do this, be sure that the bones are not from fish or of a size where your cat can be choked on bone splinters. Remember that your cat can not survive well-nourished with meat alone, and needs vegetables in order to thrive.
The final concern with feeding raw is that many pet owners choose the organs and ‘butcher trimmings’ in order to save on expense. This can leave your cat with a diet too high in fat, not enough protein and potentially contaminated due to the particular processes of the kidneys and other standardly sold organ meats. It’s fine for humans to eat these meats because they are cooked prior to consumption. If you’re feeding raw, that step is skipped and toxins may remain.
About Hunting Some owners like to let their cat roam their yard and hunt. They view it as a natural cat behavior and healthy for their animal. While its true that hundreds of years ago cats hunted, today, house cats are fully domesticated animals and this practice should be discouraged. Not only are you risking exposure to environmental hazards such as cars and stray animals, your cat could easily contract a parasite from any small mammal it hunts. Therefore, it’s best to only feed your cat food that’s sourced from a reputable location, particularly if you’re feeding raw foods.
My Cat Ate What? Cats are curious creatures, and tend to sample things that intrigue them. Everything from tinsel, toys, insects and more could find its way into your pet’s mouth and stomach. Try to keep questionable items out of reach, and cat-proof your home by removing all liquid cleansers from access.
My Cat Is Eating Grass The jury is out on a single cause for this behavior, which is pretty common. Some vets believe that cats eat grass to incorporate more fiber and vitamins into their diets, while others believe that it’s just a taste that they enjoy. Either way, if you’re worried about pesticides on the grass, you can find wheatgrass and other cat grass for sale at most pet supply stores. Snag some and grow your very own organic garden for your pet.
Finding the proper nutritional balance for your pet might seem difficult, but once you know exactly what your cat needs, it’s simple. Take the time to recognize how your cat’s needs change as they grow, and you’ll be happy knowing that you’re doing all you can to take care of the health of your pet.
With proper nutrition and regular medical care, the average housecat can expect to live for up to 16 years. Maintaining a balanced diet can help make each one of those years happy and healthy.