Essential Guide: Understanding Your Cat’s Food Diet

The Essential Guide to Cat Food diets: What you need to know

When admiring our serenely sleeping cats curled up cosily at the end of the bed it’s hard to rationalise that these beautiful elegant creatures who have become affectionate companions and confidants over the years are in reality lean, mean killing machines when it comes to their eating habits.

For most cat owners, the fact that we are actually harbouring a skilled assassin is something we would rather turn a blind eye to. However, the impressive features of a natural born predator are hard to deny; strong agile bodies with lightning reflexes, stealthy silent gait, razor sharp claws, long canine teeth, excellent night vision, highly attuned hearing and a superior sense of smell.

Acknowledging the glaringly obvious truth about these unique creatures we share our lives with is fundamental to understanding all aspects of their healthcare. So why does this often get forgotten when it comes to the most essential of topics – cat food nutrition!

What are you feeding your cat?

Vet’s Klinic Clinical Director and veterinary practitioner, Jenny Philip BVMS MRCVS, knows the importance of giving your cat a science based natural balanced diet, which gives them the nutrients they need to thrive knows first-hand how deficient some commercially prepared cat food brands can be from a nutritional point of view.

Currently 70% of UK cat owners feed a commercially prepared diet to their cat, of which half feed a mix of wet and dry cat food; the other 30% of owners feed table scraps, raw meat based diets or allow their cats to eat live prey.

Raw and live prey animal cat food diets are potentially very biologically appropriate. However, at home prepared diets are notoriously difficult to balance correctly and can be time consuming and inconvenient for most. Worryingly, a recent study in the US found 84% of these home prepared diets are deficient in multiple nutrients.

Even so, some commercially prepared cat food diet recipes are just as inappropriate; they may well balance better on paper but it only takes a glance at the back of a packet of some of these commercial cat foods to highlight their inadequacies.

For example, take the two best market leading dry cat food brands; the analytical constituents (this is the ingredients in the cat food) read 30-32% protein, 10% fat and 7.5-8.5% ash. What the manufacturer doesn’t need to declare is the carbohydrate content. Most of these dry diets are over 40% carbohydrate and rely on the carbohydrate to create the kibble structure. So why is a high carbohydrate content in a cats diet a concern?

Are Cats Carnivore or Omnivore?

Cats do not need a high carbohydrate diet, in fact it goes against their biological makeup

Cats are biologically different to us; they are classified as obligate carnivores. If you are a ‘Carnivore’ you derive your energy and nutrients from a diet exclusively or mainly from animal tissue. If you are an ‘Obligate Carnivore’ you depend solely on animal tissue as opposed to a facultative carnivore that, in the absence of meat, can choose to use non-animal sources for their nutritional requirements. In contrast, humans are classed as omnivores, deriving their energy from a variety of food sources, and dogs are a topic of controversy and can be classified as either omnivore or facultative carnivores.

The domestic cat’s natural diet consists of small rodents and mammals. On average a prey item is 62% animal derived protein, 10% fat with 14% ash, which is mainly mineral content from bone (see the table below).

Prey Species – Crude Protein% – Fat% – Ash%

  • Mouse – 62 – 11 – 13
  • Rat – 63 – 9 – 14
  • Small Bird – 62 – 9 – 15

This protein rich diet has caused obligate carnivores to evolve with completely different biochemical pathways for processing food and metabolising nutrients when compared to other species we are familiar with such as dogs or ourselves.

Cats Need Protein for Energy, Not Carbohydrates!

The universal source of energy to all cells in any creature is glucose. For humans and dogs glucose is readily available from breaking down the carbohydrate in our diets. However, for carnivores their diet of fat and protein requires them to obtain glucose in a different way. Hence cats have well developed pathways to convert the building blocks of protein, amino acids, into a source of glucose. These pathways exist in humans and dogs but they are part of a collection of pathways to create energy that can be altered dependent on the type of food ingested. For cats, even when a cat has not consumed any protein, their body cells still demand a source of amino acids for energy and, in the absence of dietary protein, they have to start utilising existing body protein, i.e. muscle mass, to maintain normal cell function.

Cats naturally in the wild would consume a high amount of protein in their diet, 62% if they consume a mouse. Comparing this with the commercial diet at 30% it doesn’t take an expert nutritionist to identify a massive discrepancy within their diet!

Don’t All Commercial Cat Foods Contain Protein?

Technically, commercially prepared cat food products do contain protein, but not all protein is created equal. The other important question that needs to be considered is where the protein originates from. Protein in a diet can come from animal tissue but is also found in many vegetables and grains. The only way of determining the source of protein is by analysing the composition (ingredient) list on the back of the packet. The list is ordered by weight in descending order, so to satisfy a cat’s biological requirements, a source of meat-based protein should be first on the list. For the two diets in our example the first three ingredients read: cereals, animal and meat derivatives (10%), vegetable protein extracts. Therefore, the protein declared in these diets is largely derived from non-animal sources. Other than the obvious fact that we have never witnessed a cat with a desire to stalk vegetables, why does this matter?

Cats Need Animal Protein for Health Reasons.

It matters because, cats require specific amino acids and vitamins in their diet, which are essential for normal cell function; some of these can only be obtained naturally from animal tissue. Arginine, Taurine, Cysteine and Methionine are amino acids used in lots of important processes in mammals but cats have to rely on a dietary source making them essential; this is not the case in dogs and humans as they can synthesis these molecules from others. For cats this process is not efficient and their daily requirements are much higher, consequently they utilise them faster than they can be created. Deficiencies can cause serious disease, for example taurine deficiency can cause heart disease and blindness. Commercial diets have to follow strict guidelines to ensure that these molecules are present in adequate amounts and in cases where levels are inadequate, the cat will need to take an artificial supplement to ensure they receive the right level of thee important vitamins and minerals. Surely the more logical and natural approach is simply to feed what the cat naturally requires- meat based protein!

How many of us have seen a black cat that has a reddish brown tinge to their coat?

This is something that many of us may have observed in passing without realising but is a classic example of the effects that a diet deficient in meat can have. Tyrosine is an amino acid only found in animal tissue that cats can’t synthesise themselves. However, it is not a necessity for body function and therefore is not a regulated requirement to be supplemented in commercial diets. Tyrosine is a key component of the pathway that creates melanin, the black pigments responsible for their coat colour; so in a deficient state a black cat turns brown.

Where is your cat’s protein coming from?

Even when animal protein is included in a diet the majority comes from rendered sources. Rendered meat or more commonly named ‘meal’ comes from animal tissue that has been heated for a prolonged time at extreme temperatures and pressures to remove the fat. Rendered meat is on average only 75% digestible. This means that for every 10g of rendered meat consumed only 7.5g can be utilised by the body. When you compare this to some of the new technologies using fresh meat as an ingredient, with 96% digestibility, this protein source certainly looks to be a more favourable ingredient. Furthermore, the carbohydrate content in commercially prepared cat food diets affects digestibility; the higher the carbohydrate content the less digestible the protein. There are several factors contributing to this but predominately carbohydrates accelerate gut transit hence reducing the time available to digest protein in the diet.

More importantly on this topic, as illustrated by the figures above, a cats natural diet does not contain large amounts of carbohydrate, therefore cats have evolved with a reduced ability to process and utilise carbohydrates.

Too many carbohydrates in commercial cat food can cause obesity in cats.

Specific molecules called enzymes carry out the process of breaking down food. Different enzymes are responsible for breaking down different types of food. Amylase is an enzyme responsible for carbohydrate breakdown; this is present in saliva and is then also secreted by the pancreas gland in both dogs and humans. Cats possess no salivary amylase and have very limited levels of pancreatic amylase so have reduced capacity to deal with this type of food.

Cats can process carbohydrate to some extent and once broken down they can use simple sugars very efficiently, however, they have limited ability to store them for future use. In a dog or human excess sugar is stored in the liver as a large chain of sugars in a molecule called glycogen; this can be readily broken down if the animal suddenly needs a source of energy. A cat’s biochemical pathways are not efficient at storing sugars in this way, instead any excess sugars are stored by converting them directly to fat which in turn predisposes cats to weight gain. This process is slower and can lead to prolonged periods of hyperglycaemia after eating. Both obesity and prolonged hyperglycaemia are key factors thought to contribute to the development of cat diabetes. Obesity itself is one of the greatest and growing health issues we face with our domestic felines; it is now estimated to affect 30% of the cat population. We all have a responsibility to reduce this growing health concern and this starts with diet awareness.

Although feeding high carbohydrate and vegetable based diets is not going to cause cats any direct short term harm, it is hardly promoting better health and may well be predisposing them to problems long term. Nonetheless, commercially prepared dry cat food diets do provide a convenient way of feeding our cats and beneficially reduce tartar formation and the subsequent development of periodontal disease. Dental disease in cats is another key health problem in the feline population and one of the greatest risk factors of developing problems is feeding commercial wet food. Therefore dry diets should continue to play a role in feeding our feline companions.

Choosing the best diet for your cat.

Armed with the knowledge of a cat’s unique biochemistry we can select diets that are more aligned to their physiological needs by being savvy. Assessing food for its ingredients and nutritional break-down, rather than selecting one based on the most appealing cat on the pack, will help your cat’s long-term health and wellbeing. So when you’re next in the supermarket or pet store aisle considering what to buy, take the packet off the shelf and compare the backs of packs. Look for diets which have the first ingredient listed as a good animal based protein, ideally from a natural cat food that provides a fresh meat source, and compare the amount of protein, fat and ash.

We have focused here on dry diets as an example as they are easier to compare. Wet diets have large amounts of moisture in them, which varies between brands and makes comparison more challenging. The take home messages though are still the same; consider the quality of the ingredients and the sources of protein.

There are some great wheatfree cat food products available in the market and on online that provide a great source of protein and also ensure your cat has the essential nutrients they need to be healthy in the long-term.

We are in the process of launching our new natural cat food products. To mark this occasion we’re offering a free sample of this new range to the first 50 people that sign up to our pre-launch list. To sign up to be part of the new natural cat food revolution.

Why Is Your Cat Overweight?

Food

Dry food has been a recommended staple diet for cats by many experts for a number of years. It is an easy option to leave a bowl of dry food out constantly; something that cannot be done with tinned food. Unfortunately though, it’s not a natural food source and has been developed by humans using many additives and un-natural products. Cats, like humans, will eat until they fill themselves up. However, dry food has many more calories and carbohydrates than a natural food source, which leads to the cat taking in far more than necessary just to feel full-up. Many owners assume that their cat is just greedy, but in many cases it is not the quantity of food being eaten, it is the quality.

Naturally, cats are obligate carnivores; meaning they only feed on other animals. The cats prey however, are generally herbivorous and have various vegetable and plant matter in their guts. All of which, will be consumed by the cat. Domestic cats have been shown to have longer intestines than wild cats; proving they have evolved over hundreds of years to cope with more plant and vegetable matter (carbohydrates). Still, this is no excuse to turn a carnivore into an omnivore. Rather, supplementing the diet with small amounts of carbohydrates is acceptable.

Many consumers believe that dried food is actually better for cats. The manufacturers have implemented the belief that all these additives such as corn and grains are an important part of a cat’s diet, implying ‘the more the better’ approach. Although very small quantities of these may benefit the cat, too much will be detrimental to their health.

Kidney disease is one of, if not the biggest killer in cats. Kidney disease is usually a result of lack of water and unfortunately, cats have a very low thirst drive. Although they may drink when eating dry food, they will generally only take in half of the liquid necessary for their health. A cat’s prey item consists of around 75% water, canned and raw foods have a similar amount. Dry foods on the other hand usually have a maximum of 10% water content. It is obvious therefore, that canned or raw foods are an absolute must to maintain a healthy cat.

Cats need a high level of protein in their diet which must come from animals. Plant protein differs from meat protein, and should not be substituted. When protein is calculated in canned food, the moisture content must be subtracted from 100 and the protein percentage worked out from the result. For instance, a canned food with 8% protein and 75% water means that the true protein value should be worked out like so:

Non-Moisture Content = 25% so: 8 รท 25 x 100 = 32

Therefore: True Protein Value = 32% which is ideal.

The amino acid ‘taurine’ is also an essential part of a cat’s diet, and can only be found in meat products. It is recommended that a quantity of 2000mg/kg or 0.2% should be available in canned food. Other vitamins and minerals should also be included. Preservatives, colouring and added flavours are used more for the customers benefit rather than the cats. If it looks and smells nice to a human, there is a higher chance of them buying it.

There are very few foods on the market which actually have an ideal amount of everything included. Many diets have concentrated on having high a protein and moisture diet with low carbohydrates, but lack in having enough taurine or vitamin B. If this is the case, offering other canned foods on occasion that are better in these areas should be considered. This will also help stop the cat becoming addicted to any 1 food type. Inter-changing the various meats such as beef, chicken and fish will also benefit by offering varying amounts of vitamins, minerals and oils.

Buy quality, not quantity. Most cheap cat foods are cheap for a reason. Avoid buying canned foods that say ‘meat’, ‘by-products’, ‘bone meal’ or ‘animal digest’. Chemical preservatives such as ‘BHA’, ‘BHT’, ‘ethoxyquin’ and ‘propyl gallate’ have been seriously questioned as being detrimental to the health of cats, and should also be avoided. Canned foods are a must for adding much needed calcium into the diet, which is essential for building healthy bones and teeth.

High energy food has been designed for cats with high energy levels. This food will not benefit a cat which sits around all day, in fact in will make the situation worse. High energy foods will not make a less active cat become energetic.

There is a common misconception that canned food is bad for your cat’s teeth, and dry food is good. Unfortunately neither statement is completely true. Neither food types are actually good for the health of teeth. Dry food is hard and crunchy, completely the opposite of what a cat’s teeth are designed to do, which is tear away at meat. I recommend you brush and rinse your cat’s teeth on a regular occasion.

There are two methods to feeding a cat. The first is to leave a bowl of food out all the time. This is obviously done with dry food and not meat. Since we recommend feeding a diet of canned or raw meat, this method is not acceptable and you should opt for the second method. This is to have a feeding regime of 2 to 4 times per day. Feeding this way allows a more controlled amount of food being eaten. You need to decide how many times per day you will feed your cat. The more often the better, but if you are an owner which is out during the day several times a week, it may be better to opt for a twice a day routine. Alternatively, cat feeding dishes which are set on a timer can be purchased and are a good option if you only go out on occasions.

The total amount of canned food your cat should is listed below. It is important to divide this total amount of food up equally among all of its feeds. The chart below is appropriate to cats that are getting their appropriate amount of calorie intake per day, which is approximately 25 calories per pound in weight. This chart is for healthy adult cats weighing approximately 8-10lbs. Not overweight or obese cats.

Type / Age of Cat Weight of Canned Food

2 – 10 Years 200g

Geriatric (10 Years +) 160g

Neutered or Spayed 160g

Inactive or Indoor 160g

Treats

Treats are given to cats for different reasons depending on the owner. Surveys have shown that overweight humans are more likely to have overweight pets. They show that overweight people are unable to control their own weight properly due to lack of will power. They have the same lack of will power when their pets are ‘begging’ for treats.

Treats are often given because it is a way of making the pet feel more welcome. If the owner is out of the house all day, they often make up for it by giving treats. This is the easy way of doing things and totally unhealthy. Rather, making up for it by spending just 5 quality minutes with the pet is far more rewarding. You may decide to simply brush the cat, or you could play with it by throwing a small toy mouse or ball around. Either way, the cat will enjoy being with you more than it will eating a treat, and exercise will aid its health.

Some owners offer treats because they think the cat doesn’t eat enough dinner. The treats are designed and flavoured to be ‘irresistible’ to the cat, and they will eat it whether they are hungry or not. Treats should not be offered for this reason. Providing your cat looks healthy and is the appropriate weight, it will be feeding just fine. If your cat is a poor feeder, they should be tempted by other feeding methods, not with treats.

Higher Risk Cats

Neutered or Spayed

I would like to point out before anything, that the act of neutering or spaying your cat will not make it overweight. Rather, it is how you care for it afterwards that will affect its weight.

A neutered cat loses its desire to ‘roam’ like an ‘intact’ cat would do. They are not as inquisitive and generally get less exercise than intact cats. Because of this, their metabolism is slower than normal by around 20-25%. With a slower metabolism, comes a lower need for calories. A neutered or spayed cat should intake approximately 20% less calories.

Breed

Some breeds of cat are naturally slimmer than other breeds; such as the Siamese and Ornamental Short Hair. These breeds are far better at maintaining a good body condition than larger breeds. Pedigree cats are also generally fitter than non-pedigree individuals.

Age

Cats are most likely to become overweight from about 2 to 12 years of age. Younger cats have a much higher metabolism and are more energetic than older individuals. Older cats often eat far less, and it is more common for geriatric cats to become skinnier rather than heavier.

Indoor Cats

Indoor cats have many factors weighing them down. To start with, the most obvious factor is being indoors all the time. There is little stimulation inside, and they will not get the exercise that an outdoor cat will be able to. Many static toys that are offered to indoor cats become boring. They will soon lose interest in scratching posts and similar toys. Repetitive electronic toys can also become predictable and boring. The most enjoyable form of playing for the cat is to interact with the owner. Waving string around or rolling a small ball around will keep the cat amused for far longer.

Being inside all the time also means more contact with the owner is likely. This usually means more treats are given.

The temperature is an important factor too. An outdoor cat will use more energy and have a higher metabolism simply to maintain its body temperature. Cats living in centrally heated houses don’t have to use much energy to get their body temperature controlled.

Social Environment

This is an area where you just can’t win. There are advantages and disadvantages of having one cat or having multiple cats.

Only cats do not have the same competition for food that a multi-cat household may have. Therefore they may not be as eager to eat as much food and as quickly as a cat in competition with other cats will do. However, only cats are more likely to become bored and have less stimulation around them compared to a cat living with others. Cats have been known to take on habits like humans, such as eating when bored like an only cat may do. They may also eat more when they are stressed, like a cat living in a multi-cat household may do.

A household with more humans is far more likely to inflict extra weight onto a cat. It means more people offering treats, and more people to feed the cat dinner. It is common for many households to become confused as to whether or not the cat has been fed, and if in doubt they will feed it again.

Disabilities

This applies to humans and pets alike. Humans with physical disabilities are less likely to play and exercise their pets. The situation becomes worse if the cat is an indoor cat.

Disabled cats are often ‘over-protected’ by their owners. Most are automatically turned into indoor cats if they get a disability, and become an excuse for more treats to be offered. Most cats can still exercise and have their mind stimulated with various disabilities. In fact many cats with disabilities will deteriorate quicker if they are not exercised and the mind stimulated properly.

Neighbours

Do you have cat friendly neighbours? Do you know if your cat has gone into other people’s houses before? It is common for other cat lovers to feed a cat that has wondered into their house.

If you think this happens, place a tag onto the cat which is clearly visible and ask politely not to feed the cat. Some people will ignore this, thinking it will not do any harm. To get around this, state that you cat has ‘Special Dietary Needs’. They are more likely to pay attention when they think feeding them the wrong food could potentially harm them.

Cat Food: Many Choices

As I began researching articles about cat food, I found many with authoritative documentation and some with personal opinions. I personally wanted to know what would be the best to feed our mature cat. He has been on dry food since birth with expensive treats and occasionally a few pieces of meat – table scraps – of cooked chicken, beef, tuna, salmon or pork. This may not have been the most correct choice.

Our cat Simba, is strictly an indoor cat. He has always had good health and has a beautiful, glossy, smooth, orange tabby coat. He has starting vomiting a little bit, which appears to be unprocessed dry food or treats, and occasionally hair balls. I will leave the hairballs for another article. In this article I will look at cat food options. I decided to find out what kind of cat food we should get for him or if a dietary change is needed.

In my opinion, it often the ‘cost’ that drives the consumer’s decision on what cat food to purchase, even though our cats are very precious to us. I am sure we want the best food we can afford to give our pet, and what is best for him. In evaluating the issue, I believe that ‘costs’ can be evaluated in two ways.

First, we can get the best from the grocery store. Much of our decision is probably based on the advertising we hear or see through the media, and occasionally from a friend. It is often that we are at the store, cat food is on our list, our selection is on sale, it says it’s ‘natural’ or some other persuasive word on the label, and we place it in our cart with little thought to read the ingredient list. At home, our cat likes it when we feed him the selected food, so we think we have made a good choice.

Second, we can do a lot of research, decide to go to a pet store or make a purchase online for a good quality, high protein cat food, and know from what we have read that it is a good choice, and ‘cost’ didn’t really become the deciding factor. Our cat’s health became the more important issue.

Some cat owners are probably a little on both sides when selecting the cat food; I know I am. Cost is important, but the quality of health our cat enjoys is also very important. We enjoy spoiling our cats, and our cats love to be pampered, so sometimes we supplement our cat’s food with cat treats. Spoiling our cats with treats may not be a good decision either. He may want more because he is not nutritionally satisfied with the cat food we give him. How do we make the right decision?

As with ourselves, we feel better when we eat better, and so will our cats. Let me briefly share with you some information I found it articles that I researched.

1. Whole meats such as chicken, beef, lamb, salmon, etc. vs. cat food with ‘meal’, ‘by-products’, ‘animal digest’, and added sugars. Analysis: Whole meat is best, as you may know. If you really want to know what goes into some inexpensive pet food, and your stomach can stand the information, take the time to read about it on the web. Many of the products put into pet foods should not be ingested by any living thing, and these are products are put into pet food by many large pet food companies.

2. Grain based vs. grain free cat food: Analysis: Cats do not need grains. Most grains are used a fillers in canned cat food and as binding agents in dry cat food. Some manufactures believe that grains will add protein content, which it does, but cats need meat protein, not grain proteins. Some cats may also develop allergies to wheat or corn when added to their food.

3. Cat food with vegetables and fruits: Analysis: Often you can observe that vegetables, such as peas or corn, go right through a cat’s digestive tract without being processed in the intestines. Cats process meat proteins, but not vegetables or fruits.

4. Dry cat food vs. Canned/moist cat food: Analysis: Dry cat food is not natural. It has carbohydrates for fillers, such as grains, to hold it together. The label may indicate that it has high protein content but most of the protein is grain or milk protein, not meat protein. Don’t, however, feel that canned cat food is the only answer because it may also contain fillers including grains, meal, by-products, milk, etc. Several articles suggested that a combination of dry and canned may be the best for your cat.

5. Raw meat vs. high-protein canned cat food: Analysis: I never felt this issue was totally resolved. It has much to do with the individual cat and his owner. Canned food is more convenient and has a longer shelf life, and should be kept refrigerated after it is open. Raw food takes more preparation and has a shorter refrigerated shelf life. You can read discussions on this subject on several cat forums.

6. Grocery store cat food vs. pet store or online high quality cat food: Analysis: I believe that we could all come to the conclusion that a high protein from meat is the better choice, and that product would probably best be purchased at a pet store (which also carry the grocery store brands), or online.

In conclusion, here are a few final thoughts.

* Even thought the cost is higher with a better quality cat food, your cat will eat less because it is a better protein and he is nutritionally satisfied. He won’t eat as much, and he will be less likely to develop liver or other diseases. You, therefore, will have less expensive vet bills, and a happier, healthier cat.

* Read the labels, do research (other than asking friends and listening to or reading ads), and become an educated consumer. Purchase the cat food you feel is best for your cat.

* Consider the age of your cat. A kitten shouldn’t eat the same cat food as your mature cat. The brands will indicate on the label which food is best for your age of cat.

* Introduce any dietary changes slowly, probably over the course of a week or so.

* Research the web, read books, or talk with your vet so you can decide which cat food is best.

All cat foods are not the same. Your cat’s taste buds may like some brands or meats better than others. Purchasing the cat food you feel is best will give you peace of mind by giving him the best cat food you can afford, and he will feel better and more satisfied as he adjusts to his new diet.

Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian nor do I have any formal training in any medical field. This article is not to replace the advice of your veterinarian. I am only providing options and ideas that you may want to discuss with your veterinarian

Having had cats and dogs most of her life, Lori Kniff is concerned about the health and safety of our best friends, our dogs and cats.