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Commonly Asked Questions About Cat Nutrition

Good nutrition is no accident and it is important to have some understanding about feeding your cat and cat foods.

It takes time and patience to learn what your cat needs to stay healthy, happy and active. It also takes dedication and perseverance to make sure your cat eats what she should, rather than what she wants.

To make your job a little easier, here are some tips to ensure your cat gets all of her nutritional needs met.

1. Why is good nutrition important?

It’s vital that your cat eats a complete and balanced diet consisting of good quality meat products. Unlike dogs (and people), cats are strict carnivores. They require essential nutrients such as taurine, arginine, vitamin A and essential fatty acids that plant food lack. She also needs plenty of fresh water as well. Your cat should be fed amounts sufficient to meet energy and caloric requirements. Inadequate or excess intake of nutrients can be equally harmful. Learn why your cat has specialized nutritional needs by reading the related article “Feeding the Adult Cat.”

2. How often should I feed my cat?

Follow your veterinarian’s recommendations. In general, very young kittens should be allowed to eat as much as they want (which usually amounts to three or four feedings a day). As they get older, decrease the number of feedings. When your cat is 6 months old, she should receive two meals a day. After 1 year, she can be fed once or twice a day. However, many people leave a little dry food out for their cat to nibble on throughout the day. If your cat is a nibbler, don’t keep adding to the dish if the day’s amount is consumed. (For instance, if your cat should eat a cup of food a day, don’t add more if that cup is eaten).

3. How much should I feed my cat?

The amount your cat needs to eat depends on many factors, including: life stage (kitten, adult, pregnant or lactating), lifestyle (active versus the “coach potato”), size and general condition. Select a high quality food, weigh your cat (don’t try to guess) and then read the feeding guidelines provided on the package. Remember, though, that every cat is unique, so you might have to adjust her feeding accordingly.

As mentioned above, many cats like to nibble throughout the day. That’s okay as long as they are simply eating their day’s meal. If you are constantly refilling their bowls, however, your cat may be at risk for obesity.

4. When should I change from kitten to adult food?

In her first year, your kitten will grow and change very quickly, so she needs a special diet for kittenhood and adult. Feed high quality kitten food until she is about 7-9 months old. At this point, you can change to an adult diet. When she is around 8 or 9 years old, switch to a senior diet. Learn more about how to adjust to your cat’s nutritional requirements by reading the related article “Kitten Food or Adult – When Do You Make the Change.”

5. How do I change my pet’s diet?

Don’t change your cat’s diet all at once, otherwise she may refuse the new food. Do it gradually over three days. Begin changing her diet by feeding 1/4 new food and 3/4 her old food for a few days. Then add 1/2 new food and 1/2 old food. After a few more days, feed 3/4 new food and 1/4 old food. Then, you can feed the new food entirely.

6. Can my cat be a vegetarian?

No. Cats are strict carnivores – they cannot process plant material and they need the nutrients that only meat can provide. Although there are vegetarian diets that claim to supply all of your cat’s nutritional requirements, it is best for your cat to stick to a meat-based diet.

7. Why is my cat a finicky eater?

Cats can become finicky eaters for many reasons. If her bowl is too small or light, for instance, she may have trouble eating her food. The placement of the bowl may be a factor, or she may feel intimidated by other pets in the household. Medical conditions may be affecting her appetite, or her teeth and gums may be hurting her. There are a number of strategies to help overcome a finicky eater.

8. Can my cat eat dog food?

No. Cats and dogs are two different species, and each has his own nutritional requirements. Cats are true carnivores; they need lots of protein that meat provides. Dogs, on the other hand, get some nutrients from eating plant matter, which cats cannot digest. Dogs also don’t require taurine in their diet, so it is not added. In cats, a lack of taurine can lead to blindness and heart disease.

9. What is in cat food?

Cat food contains a variety of agricultural ingredients, such as meat, poultry and seafood. (Byproducts are parts of an animal or plant not used for human consumption. They still must meet federal standards for safety and nutrition.) Vitamins and minerals are added to complete nutritional needs. Preservatives are added to keep cat food fresh during shipping and while on the shelf, and color is added to make the food look more attractive. The coloring and preservatives are the same used in food for people and have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In addition, the Association of American Feed Control Officials publishes regulations for nutritional adequacy of “complete and balanced” pet food. Your pet’s food should conform to minimal AAFCO standards. Read the label.

10. Why can’t I feed my cat table scraps?

Table scraps are too fatty for your cat’s digestive system. They can cause vomiting, diarrhea or, over a period of time, obesity and other health conditions. Furthermore, chicken bones, or bones from rabbit or fish can splinter and become lodged in her esophagus or digestive system.

11. Isn’t my pet bored eating the same food?

Probably not, if she isn’t refusing her food. You can liven up her diet by giving her high quality canned cat food as a treat, or mixed with dry food. However, don’t suddenly change her diet – that can stress your cat out. If you want to switch, do it gradually, over a period of days.

12. What tests are done to make sure the food is safe for my pet?

Pet food companies use standardized animal feeding trials designed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Animals are fed and monitored for 6 months to ensure that the food provides the right balance of nutrients. A product using this test will have language similar to the following on the label – “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Iams Food for Cats provides complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages.”

13. Which pet food company or brand is the best?

In general, there are a number of prominent manufacturers of high quality food. They include Iams® (Eukanuba®), Hill’s® (Science Diet®), Nature’s Recipe® products, Nutra Max®, Purina® and Waltham®. The key is to know the protein and fat levels, moisture content, fillers, added vitamins and types of ingredients your particular cat requires. Your cat’s age, medical condition and other factors (whether she is pregnant, for instance) also need to be taken into account. Work with your veterinarian to decide what pet food is best for your cat.

14. Should I buy expensive name-brand food over store-brand or generic?

In general, the pricier name brands are better, and they usually cannot be purchased in a supermarket. To buy them, you need to go to a pet store. Supermarkets stock what sells the most rather than the healthiest pet food. It’s up to the cat owner to know what brands are the best.

15. Canned or dry, does it matter?

Dry cat food has greater “caloric density” compared to canned food, which contains more water. Simply put, there is less water in a cup of dry food as compared to a canned diet, so your cat needs to eat less to get the same amount of nutrients. Overall, the choice of “dry” vs. “canned” and “semi-moist” is an individual one, but most cats enjoy eating a combination of a dry food along with supplemental canned food.

16. Does my cat need vitamins and supplements?

According to most feeding studies of healthy cats, cats that eat a balanced diet do not need supplements. If you feel your cat needs supplements, talk to your veterinarian first. Feeding too many supplements to your cat can be dangerous.

17. What are prescription diets, and why would my pet need them?

Prescription diets are specially formulated diets to help in the treatment and care of pets with certain ailments or diseases (such as allergies, heart disease or diabetes). Some of these diets are only intended as a temporary change in food and others are recommended for the duration of the pet’s life. These diets should only be given under the instructions of your veterinarian.

18. What is the best way to store cat food?

Cat food should be stored in a cool, dry place, preferably off the ground. It is helpful to pour dry cat food from the bag into a large, clean, plastic container with an airtight lid. Canned cat food can be kept in a cupboard with other canned foods.

19. I have a fat and skinny cat. How should I feed them?

The larger cat may be eating her own food and that of her skinny comrade. Feed them in separate rooms to allow the smaller cat time to eat her meal.

20. What healthy treats can I give my pet?

You may want to give your cat a little boiled chicken. You can also buy good quality, healthy treats from pet food stores. They should only be given sparingly, however. Talk to your veterinarian about the right type of treats to feed your cat.

21. Should I give milk to my kitten?

After weaning, your kitten does not need milk in her diet. She gets all the nutrients she needs from her food. Cats don’t need and can have trouble digesting cow milk in their diet, so it is better to avoid giving it to them. (The milk they drink from their mothers is different from cow’s milk.)

22. My cat will only eat tuna and liver. Is this bad, and can I feed her raw fish?

A diet of only tuna and liver does not provide adequate nutrition. It lacks sufficient taurine, which will eventually lead to blindness and heart problems. Raw fish is also bad because it contains an enzyme that breaks down iodine, which can lead to goiter. In addition, raw fish can contain parasites, which may affect your cat. High quality commercially available cat food is best.

23. Should my cat eat raw meat?

This is a controversial topic. Some people claim that cats need raw meat because they are natural hunters and have survived on mice, birds, etc. for thousands of years. Others worry about the bacteria and parasites present in raw meat. A little raw meat is probably all right, as long as it is not the primary part of the diet. It should be high quality beef, chicken or turkey. It might be best to avoid raw pork.