Cat Nutrition Basics

Cat Nutrition Basics

by ScritchSpot

One of the most important ways you can love your cat is to monitor what and how much he is eating. Whether you let him decide for himself when he eats, or you have scheduled feeding times, the decisions you make have an impact on his overall health. Therefore, to give him a long and healthy life, it pays to know how cat nutrition uniquely works, and it all starts with how nature hard wires a cat to eat and live.

Cats: Born Predators with a Predator's Digestive System

Your cat or kitten may be fluffy, white, and wear a rhinestone collar around his neck, but deep down, he is still a hunter and predator. He is evolved for a domestic life, but his digestive system is still similar to that of his ancestors and cats in the wild. Wild cats hunt throughout the day for small animals like rodents, birds, and amphibians.

The way a cat eats in the wild consists of:

  • Protein-based diet. Wild cats hunt throughout the day for small animals like rodents, birds, and amphibians. The breakdown of nutrients would mean that the cat would eat a primarily protein-based diet with moderate fat and minimal carbohydrates that naturally occur in the prey.
  • Frequent eating and an active lifestyle. Cats have small stomachs that do not expand, so when one in the wild eats a small animal, they will hunt for another small meal a few hours later, meaning they are constantly active and seeking food throughout the day.
  • Moisture-rich cat food. Normally, cats do not drink much water because they get the majority of their hydration from the moisture they find in prey.

When you look into nutrition options for your cat, keep these notes in mind. An ideal diet for your cat should follow these principles, but do modern diets for domestic cats or kittens support these needs? A feeding regimen using fresh pet food offers exactly this, but what about common cat diets consisting of dry food or canned wet food?

Why Common House Cats Are Overweight

Did you know that 1 in 3 cats in America is overweight? That is a big problem, and there are a few reasons why our cats are not maintaining an optimal weight, namely:

  • Keeping food in the bowl. If you are the sort to keep a little pet food in your cat's bowl all day, thinking they should regulate themselves, then you are only partly right. Cats maintain that same instinct to hunt and feed all day, but the problem is they are not nearly as active as their wild cousins and ancestors.
  • Dry food can be like human fast food. Some are better than others, but in general, it is dense and concentrated in calories, often three to four times more than wet food. It is also not very species-appropriate for obligate carnivores, as it tends to be heavy in carbohydrates.
  • Portion control. We tend to think in oversized human portions and do not realize what an appropriate amount is for a cat.

A balanced diet for your cat is essential, and the effectiveness of this diet can differ depending on what kind of cat food you choose.

Types of Cat Foods

For a long and healthy life, you want to provide a careful balance of nutrients from protein, vegetables, and water. Different pet food types provide different balances, and as mentioned before, have differing levels of effectiveness.

  1. Dry. The most popular and convenient is dry food because it tends to be cheaper and easier to store. Unfortunately, it does not tick off all the boxes for an essential cat diet. Cats prefer to get most of their hydration from the liquid found in their food. Dry food can cause your cat to become dehydrated, which exacerbate health problems like kidney failure or urinary tract infections. Very often, these also contain grains and other additives, and skimp on protein.
  2. Wet/Refrigerated. Check that ingredients list. Logic would have you think that canned/refrigerated food is fresh. While refrigerated food may seem fresher, it is still highly processed so that it can last in the store for weeks. Additionally, and unlike fresh cat food, different studies have shown it has fewer antioxidants, is higher in fat, and is harder to digest.
  3. Raw. Your cat is biologically equipped with the skills and instincts to hunt, so doesn't it make sense to feed him raw meat? Perhaps, but raw foods we find on the shelves of pet stores are not the equivalent of fresh prey. Store bought meat is estimated to be around six weeks old from the time of slaughter so that microbes and enzymes can tenderize it, meaning greater potential for bacteria to be present. Healthy cats usually tolerate that bacteria just fine, but if the cat is ill, it can cause infections in the gut or (in severe cases) a blood-borne infection. With modern superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics, do you really want to risk your pet's health?
  4. Fresh. Fresh cat food has the natural moisture that cats crave. It is high in protein and low in fat, and finally, it does not have the same risk of contaminants that raw food does.

With all possible options on the table, your cat will achieve optimum dietary health from foods meant for a cat's digestive system.

Feeding Your Cat a Fresh Diet

By their very design, fresh cat food recipes can mimic the nutritional profile of what a cat would eat in the wild, and with that comes a number of benefits:

  • Achieving an ideal weight. Portioned and balanced meals can keep your cat at his ideal weight. An obese cat is at risk for many health complications, including diabetes, urinary tract disease, osteoarthritis, and more.
  • Eliminates byproducts and artificial preservatives. Common cat foods contain by-products and preservatives. These are not always bad or good. For example, chicken hearts and livers have a lot of protein and vitamins. However, “byproduct” is a blanket term that lacks specificity and does not tell the true nutritional value. Preservatives also are not necessarily bad, with safe and natural preservatives like vinegar, citric acid, and vitamin E. However, some artificial preservatives are potentially harmful.
  • Do not dread the litter box. What goes in must come out; that is the natural way. Many popular cat foods contain difficult-to-digest fiber, causing the stool to become loose and smelly. In a natural diet with digestible fiber, your cat absorbs the nutrients in the food more easily, so their leavings are firmer and smaller.

Pet parents that have made the switch reported changes within a week of transition. These can include an increased level of activity, improvement in skin and coat, and for cats with a thick coat, reduced shedding. If your cat has a problem with hairballs, a better diet with more moisture and fat could help this issue, too (if there are no other health problems exacerbating this, like a skin disease or pre-existing digestive problem). All of this improvement can come of shaping your cat's diet around a cat's natural feeding behaviors.

Common Concerns and Questions

Changing your cat's diet is a process, so of course, you might have a few questions or considerations.

Chicken or fish?

Both are good for your cat. Different ingredients have different vitamins and health benefits, so varying between the fish and chicken recipes on a weekly or monthly basis can give your cat a wider variety of necessary nutrients.

What about treats?

It may be fun to reward our cats with small treats, and it is still fine to do this in moderation. To avoid overfeeding, it is important to ensure treats do not make up more than 10% of a cat’s daily calories. (Catnip is good, too, in case you were wondering.)

How do I navigate cat food allergies?

It can be scary to introduce your pet to a new food. Will they eat it? Will it cause digestive issues? Luckily, food allergies in cats are rare. When a cat vomits, this does not mean that the food is always to blame. However, if there is chronic vomiting or diarrhea, itching, or hair loss, then your cat may have a food allergy. Try feeding your cat a protein he has not eaten before. If he still has symptoms, then it is not a food allergy. Make an appointment with a vet to find out what the underlying issue is so you can help your furry friend feel better.

How do I transition my cat to a fresh diet?

Cats are neophobic, meaning they are skeptical of changes to their environment. If your cat always had crunchy kibble, then it can be hard to switch to a soft, fresh meal. If your cat only had fish-flavored cat food, then chicken can be scary. Try the recipe that has the most familiar flavor to them. Feed them a small spoonful first, and if they like it, start offering it as a treat. Gradually reduce the amount of your previous food, and move toward one meal of new food and one meal of old food. Slowly increase new cat food and decrease old food until the transition is complete. You might also want to try placing small amounts of the fresh food next to the regular diet, or mix it into current food (though some cats hate the latter). This allows your cat to associate the smell of new food with their mealtime.

A healthy cat diet with essential amino acids, soluble fiber, vitamin A, and high moisture content equips your cat to live a healthy, active life well into their senior years. This means the greater potential to avoid painful, common, and costly conditions like urinary tract infections, arthritis, digestive issues, kidney disease, and more.

While your cat may seem healthy right now, the benefits of a fresh diet are worth the consideration. Cats' bodies were made for a moisture-rich, high protein diet; one that directly caters to these specific dietary needs can make such an enormous impact on feline quality of life.

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