Written by Dr. Gloria Ku
Over the years, feline dietary recommendations have certainly evolved, and we can expect that to continue. Although that makes recommendations more difficult to follow, it is the result of continued experience and research. We now have more data to understand how cats metabolize foods, and what medical conditions can be more readily affected by diet.
We have always known that cats are more strictly carnivorous as a species, compared to dogs or humans. There are some essential amino acids that they require from their diet (such as taurine, carnitine and arginine), that they cannot synthesize on their own. They also differ in their metabolism and utilization of glucose such that they need about twice as much protein than do dogs or humans to meet their energy needs. Since these metabolic pathways are already in play, extra carbohydrates or sugars are not necessarily utilized in lieu of protein for energy as in other species. Excess carbohydrates generally will lead to obesity, and sometimes liver or gall bladder disease, pancreatitis and diabetes.
A few other differences in their metabolism make our human feeding patterns create a slight mismatch in their metabolism. Domestic cats, while no longer wild, have been domesticated from ancestors who fed on about 8 small prey meals/day. It takes about 10-15 attempts to catch each prey, so a large part of food consumption centered around the catch as well. Wild cats are also not as socially interactive around mealtime, whereas people are more likely to want to interact during meals. Our schedules also lead us to prefer to feed our cats twice a day. In an effort to meet the demands of a cat looking for 8 small meals, we leave them food all day, which allows them to eat more than they need, without the effort required to capture prey. And if they want to interact and play (or “hunt”) we mistakenly interpret that as “feed me” and do that instead.
It is not hard to see why so many domestic cats are overweight. Commercial foods are relatively easy to feed, but many of our dry diets are not as high in protein as cats need. In order to create a “dry” food, more carbohydrate needs to be added to keep it “dry” and crunchy. While this may make feeding more convenient and sometimes help with lowering plaque and tartar accumulation, it deviates from what nature has provided in the past.
The answer is as variable as when a person asks their doctor “what is the best diet for me?” The truth is there is no perfect answer. In general, veterinarians think we have been feeding cats below the optimum protein level for their species, and many diet companies are starting to respond to that. Many veterinarians are suggesting canned food to compensate for this problem as canned food in general has a higher percentage of protein vs. carbohydrate than dry. With the exception of kidney disease (which is certainly a concern for many cats as they age), most cats will benefit from a relatively high protein diet. I would suggest looking for dry food with at least 30-40% protein for most healthy cats, and/or feeding primarily canned food as canned formulations in general will meet this goal. (The protein percentage listed is somewhat confusing in canned vs. dry food because of the amount of weight associated with water in canned food).
This amounts to about 8 small rodent sized meals, or approximately 10 kibble/meal or about 1/6th of a can/meal, on average. For individual animals, their activity level can cause that amount to vary. For example, if your cat sleeps all day, they may actually need less food to maintain their ideal weight.
While commercial diets may have limitations, the advantages may still outweigh the disadvantages. Nutritionists are still trying to work out the best balances. Ingredients can vary based on source and processing. But the minimum standards are assessed in most commercial diets, and met if they are “AAFCO” approved. This is important because without meeting even the minimum standards, health issues are more likely to occur. Home cooked diets or diets formulated by companies that do not get their products evaluated for minimum standards can be deficient and lead to health concerns sooner.
There are many diets available to choose from and looking at labels can be helpful. If your pet has a specific health condition, I suggest you consult with your veterinarian. Hopefully these guidelines will help you in deciding what and how much to feed your new cat!
Meanwhile, here are a few links to examples of feeding/activity toys that may be fun and healthy for your new cat:
For some of you who want more information, the following is a lengthy detailed chart of protein and carbohydrate nutritional composition of a large variety of canned cat foods, put together by a very dedicated feline practitioner, Dr. Lisa Pierson. While her opinions on feeding may not fit exactly with your own, or your veterinarian’s, philosophy, I include it here for informational purposes as the nutritional content information can be very helpful for individuals who are watching these factors closely.
If you are interested in more information about specific nutritional questions or home cooked recipe formulations, I would suggest the UC Davis VMTH Nutrition Department as a good resource for you through your veterinarian. They can tailor a diet to your pet’s specific health needs and modify it as time and conditions change through their life.
This can be both a blessing and a hardship for us all! Feel free to consult with your veterinarian further as often opening this door leads to more questions, not less. But that’s what leads to better information and more appropriate new questions. Thanks for continuing the journey to happier and healthier kitties!