Good nutrition equals good health, but cats do not need special feeding considerations to thrive. There seems to be a misperception that animals are nutritionally delicate with very precise needs that must be met in order for them to do well, says Tony Buffington, DVM, professor of veterinary clinical sciences at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Evolution argues the opposite, he continues. Cats are extremely adaptive. Although they do have some special dietary requirements, its not rocket science. Its nutrition science. Its easy to find a high-quality commercial cat food in America, says Buffington.
The healthy cats nutritional needs
The cats nutritional needs were well met when feeding in the wild, eating the whole of small mammals. To assure our kitties receive a complete and balanced diet, we need to give some forethought to what we feed: Protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals (plus water which should be available at all times). Carbohydrates, not required by cats, are necessary in the manufacture of dry cat foods, add bulk to the diet, and provide a quick energy source.
The protein requirement for cats is higher than for omnivores due to metabolic peculiarities that are seen in other strict carnivores as well. Necessary vitamins include A, B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, D, E, pantothenic acid, choline, and folic acid. Vitamins C, K, and biotin are manufactured by the cats body and are not critical in the diet. However, unlike other animals, cats do not synthesize some nutrients. They rely on dietary intake for vitamin A as well as the fatty acid, arachidonic acid, and taurine. Cats synthesize B3 (niacin) but in insufficient amounts. Needed minerals include calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, magnesium, iron, copper, zinc, and iodine, to name a few.
The nutrient requirements of cats, established by the National Research Councils Committee on Animal Nutrition, and AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) standards are used for formulating commercial pet foods. Individual pet food manufacturers may establish nutritional adequacy by analysis or by actual feeding trials. When selecting a cat food, look for AAFCOs nutritional statements, complete and balanced and feeding trials, on pet-food packaging. A food lacking the AAFCO statements may not meet the nutritional needs of your cat.
The guaranteed analysis and ingredient statement on a package is too crude to be informative, says Buffington. Nothing is stated about quality, digestibility, or nutrient content. The most useful information on the label is the name and contact information of the manufacturer, according to Buffington, who advises consumers to call the company and ask questions about their quality-assurance procedures, laboratory analysis data, and ingredient sources.
Be aware that a pet-foods quality is not determined by the price or where you buy it. High price can be used as a marketing tool. Other clever marketing techniques include allocation of more shelf space at eye level so youre more likely to pick that brand and the use of terms without official definitions, such as human grade, premium, or high or low levels of certain nutrients.
Special rations for a sick kitty
Loss of appetite can be the first sign of feline illness. To get your kitty to eat his regular food, Buffington suggests you prime the appetite pump by offering tuna, clam juice over kibble, turkey baby food, or tinned cat food – and the smellier the better. If he doesnt seem right, is lethargic, and does not start eating his regular food (within 24 hours for an older cat, 48 hours for a younger cat), contact your veterinarian.
Two groups of nutrition-related diseases are diet-induced and nutrient-sensitive. The former indicates something is wrong with the diet. Thats rare in my experience, says Buffington. The way to treat it is by replacing the old diet with a complete and balanced diet. In nutrient-sensitive diseases, not just any diet will do. It has to be a particular diet modified to accommodate the disease-induced nutritional limitations of the cat, Buffington says. Diet didnt cause the disease, but diet may be part of the therapy and the cat may respond to it.
The number one nutritionally related problem seen in cats is obesity. Its the most common. Its number 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 as well! says Buffington. There are many reasons; look at 10 obese cats and you may find 10 different reasons, from over feeding to inactivity to hypothalamic abnormality. Offering modified nutrient foods, increasing activity, and decreasing boredom by enriching the environment for indoor-only cats are ways to successfully treat obesity. Other diseases that may respond to nutritionally modified diets include chronic renal failure (CatWatch, July 2002), pancreatitis, liver failure, and inflammatory bowel disease, to name a few.
Modified nutrient diets are available only by veterinary prescription and must be used under veterinary supervision. Its important for the guardian to know that a veterinary food is intended only for the animal it is prescribed for, Buffington emphasizes.
A mistake people make is in
thinking that since a cat has kidney disease and the veterinarian said to lower protein intake, then protein must cause renal failure and they decide to feed the veterinary food to all their cats to prevent kidney disease. The logic is not there, Buffington says; protein does not cause kidney disease but may be limited to treat it. Similarly, feeding carbohydrates does not cause diabetes, but if a cat has diabetes, part of the therapy might include dietary modification to lower carbohydrate intake.
Guiding principles for the healthy cat
If your kitty is doing well, is active, happy and healthy, and has no problems, then continue to feed what youre feeding, says Buffington, adding you should not allow your cat to be too thin or too heavy. (You should be able to feel the ribs but not see them.) Do a body-condition evaluation of the cat with your veterinarian to determine good condition, he says, and as long as kitty stays in that body condition, you can feed her whatever you want and however its convenient for you.
For some cats, that may be free feeding – having a good commercial dry food available at all times; for others, restricted amounts must be offered at specific times. I dont think theres anything magical about any particular feeding system, adds Buffington. Its best to find the system that makes the guardians the happiest so they are glad this animal is sharing her life with them, he adds.