A healthy outside starts from inside – insights into cat diet

Health requires healthy food. Cats need a balanced diet which includes protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids and fatty acids, and little amount of carbohydrates.

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Inclusion of supplements or treats in cat’s daily diet is usually not necessary if you are feeding a balanced diet. Occasionally, they can be given treats, but should not exceed 10 to 15 percent of the daily caloric intake.

Eat the meat

Cats are carnivores in nature and evolved as hunters that consume prey (rodents, birds, lizards, etc.). Their diet should have high amounts of protein, high-moisture, moderate quantity of fat, and less than two percent of calories from carbohydrates. Cats lack specific metabolic (enzymatic) pathways which can utilise plant proteins efficiently. Cats lack a salivary enzyme called ‘amylase’ which helps in digestion of starch.

Hence, cats relish food originating from animals rather than plants.

Say ‘yes’ to commercial food – but ask your vet

The best option to ensure that cats are receiving a balanced diet is commercial food. Commercial cat food items are available in dry, semi-moist, and canned forms. These products differ in water content, protein level, caloric density, palatability, and digestibility.

You should read the label on the food to know about nutritional composition. Labeling regulations are established by the AAFCO (The Association of American Feed Control Officials) and the United States Food and Drug Administration. All pet food that carries an AAFCO statement are considered to be nutritionally complete and balanced.

In choosing a cat food, ensure that the meat, meat byproducts, or seafood are listed in the top, which indicates that the food probably contains enough animalsource ingredients to supply essential amino acids and fatty acids to your pet.

  • Dry cat food: Dry food contains less than 10 percent water. The ingredients include meat, meat byproducts, poultry, poultry byproducts, grain, grain byproducts, fish meal, fiber sources, milk products, vitamins, minerals, and fat as flavor enhancers. However, dry food may be less palatable to your pet than semi-moist and canned food, but it is comparatively lesser in prize. The shelf life is more in dry food, but it can be contaminated by bacteria, cockroaches, etc., so you need to be really careful. And also, fat can easily become rancid in dry food, and bacteria will proliferate.
  • Semi-moist cat food: Meat and meat byproducts are the primary ingredients of semi-moist food, which contains approximately 35 percent moisture. Other materials, including soybean meal, cereals, grain byproducts, and preservatives, are added to make the final product. The cost of semi-moist food is generally cheaper than the canned food. After opening the pack, semimoist food can dry out and becomes less palatable and may get rancid.
  • Canned cat food: Canned cat food has at least 75 percent of moisture content, making it a good dietary source of water. It is generally the most expensive type of cat food, but is also highly palatable for most cats. Many different varieties are available, which can be helpful if your pet is a picky eater.

Canned food has the longest shelf life when unopened. Any unused portion of opened canned cat food should be refrigerated to maintain quality and to prevent spoilage. A high-quality canned food contains approximately 3-5 percent carbohydrate with high percentage of protein. So, compared to food with 35-50 percent carbohydrates, canned food items are the best option for cats. In the wild, cats would never consume high level of carbohydrates (grains/potatoes/ peas, etc.). Dry foods with high dietary carbohydrates may alter the insulin level in cats. High carbohydrate diets could very well be a significant factor in causing diabetes in some cats.

Commercial diet vs homemade
diet – the debate continues

Dr HS Madhusudhan
Dr HS
Madhusudhan

Preparing a complete cat food at home is very laborious and difficult, as the recipe may not contain the balanced quantities of nutrients for the cat. While preparing diet at home, grains having carbohydrates should be added in small quantity, as a source of energy in a cat’s diet. Too many grains in a cat’s diet can lead to malnutrition, obesity and gastrointestinal tract issues. Before feeding your pet, make sure you’re thoroughly cleaning her bowl between every wet home food feeding, since it can be a harbouring ground for bacteria. And finally, avoid feeding home cooked food to your pet without consulting a certified animal nutritionist.

Managing obesity in cats

Maintaining a healthy weight is another important consideration. Cats vary greatly in the amount of food they need to consume to ensure they don’t become over or underweight. Obesity is the most common nutrition-related problem which makes cats susceptible to various health problems like arthritis and diabetes. In addition to the issue of diabetes in some cats, dry food is very calorie dense, is very palatable, and is usually freefed. This often leads to obesity. On the other side, a cat who refuses to eat can develop serious medical problems. This is also true for cats with an illness that have reduces appetite. Make sure you consult your vet to know the right kind of food and diet for your feline friend.

Water – the elixir of life

Cats do not have strong thirst drive compared to other species. It means, voluntarily intake of water is less in cats. So, you have to provide a diet that’s rich in water. Canned cat food contains higher water compared to other food varieties. This makes flushing of urinary system of cats several times in a day. This is a very important strategy to prevent cats from developing urinary tract problems such as urethral blockages, infection, inflammation, and chronic kidney disease which can be life threatening.

Nutritional needs change with age

A cat’s nutritional requirements vary with different physiological stages of life. These stages are kitten-hood, adulthood, pregnancy, lactation, and senior cats. The nutritional claim on the cat food label should state the stage of a cat’s life cycle for which the food is complete and balanced. The nutrients requirement is almost double in late gestation and nursing stage than that of an adult cat.

The size of kibble should be smaller for kittens than adult cats. Kittens are generally very active than their senior counterparts, hence they need additional quantity of nutrients to help them in their quick growing process.

Kitten food should be easy to digest, while food for senior cats should contain high moisture and added vitamins and amino acids to keep their immune system healthy and strong. Senior cats also need food high in protein and moisture to support their renal systems while being lower in fat and calories to prevent weight gain, which can have adverse health consequences.

(Dr HS Madhusudhan, MVSc and PhD with a specialisation in canine nutrition, is currently working as Assistant Professor at Department of Animal Nutrition, Veterinary College, Bengaluru)