How to Feed Cats

Keeping cats indoors is a good way to prevent them from being hit by cars or eaten by dogs, coyotes, or other animals.  Unfortunately indoor only cats can suffer from obesity and boredom, both of which have unpleasant consequences.  Obesity can lead to arthritis and diabetes.  Boredom can lead to cats attacking people or each other to express their innate desire to hunt, or to stress leading to peeing outside the litter box.  So we have to help our indoor only kitties with not just proper nutrition to prevent obesity, but proper feeding to prevent boredom.

You probably know that cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they depend on certain nutrients that comes only from animal flesh in order to survive.  These nutrients include the amino acids (things that make up proteins) arginine, cysteine, taurine, methionine, as well as the vitamins niacin and vitamin D. Without these nutrients found only in animal flesh, cats would die.

Cats don’t depend on carbs for energy, which makes sense considering the prey items they evolved to eat contain less than 2% carbohydrates.  They get energy from proteins through a process called gluconeogenesis.  Dogs and humans simply break down carbs into sugar but cats can’t do this.  So carbohydrates aren’t very useful to a cat.

Domesticated cats originally came from the deserts in Africa.  They hunt things that live on the ground- rodents, lizards, bugs- and things that live in the air- birds.  There isn’t a lot of water in the desert obviously, so cats don’t really hunt for fish.  In fact, a lot of cats are intolerant or even allergic to fish.  What little water is in the desert is either flowing rivers, which tends to be safe to drink, or after a rainy season, stagnant puddles, which isn’t necessarily all that safe.  This is why many cats will only drink from running faucets or fountains.  Regardless, cats evolved to get all of their water requirements from their food.

Adequate water intake is necessary for cats to keep their kidneys happy long-term.  Water can also help prevent diseases such as feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD) which can cause life-threatening and expensive to treat urinary blockages.

Cats preferences for specific foods in the wild comes from what their momma brings them as kittens.  Some cats are great birders, others are better mousers, and so on.  Whatever the momma cat brings the kittens is what the kittens recognize as food.  Then the momma shows the kittens how to hunt whatever it is she’s good at catching.  This is why some cats like poultry flavors and others prefer rabbit.  So far, nobody’s come up with a lizard-based cat food!

To most closely match what cats evolved to eat, we recommend predominantly a canned food diet, preferably poultry based.  This ensures the cat is getting all the protein, specific nutrients, and water that they need to be the most healthy.  Canned food also makes cats feel full without taking in as many calories as dry food.  This prevents obesity which can lead to diabetes and arthritis.

Canned cat foods come in 2 basic sizes, the small 2-3 oz cans and the larger 5-6 oz cans.  Conveniently, the average size cat needs 2 of the smaller cans or 1 of the larger cans per day.  Measuring not required!

Brands that have done the most scientific research into cat nutrition are Purina, Iams, Royal Canin, and Science Diet.  You don’t have to buy expensive exotic cat foods; they do just fine on Friskies (it’s owned by Purina)!  These foods are complete and balanced for long term health.

HOW you feed your cat is also important.  Cats need to express their natural instincts as much as possible, including hunting.  When cats are restricted from expressing their natural behaviors, they do things we don’t like, such as attacking people for fun (especially feet).  Toys can help replace the act of catching and killing prey.  But cats spend a lot of time not playing and this is where a few tablespoons of dry food or cat treats can come into play, literally.

To encourage activity in cats, use food or treat dispensing toys.  Rotate them out, put them in different rooms of the house so the same toy is never in the same location.  Another thing to do is hide some dry food or treats.  There are several toys made specifically for this purpose but you can also do something as simple as putting a few treats or kibbles in a ball of paper.  Let the cats figure out where the food it.  It can keep them from getting bored, encourages exercise, and meets their hunting needs.  Our favorite food and treat dispensing cat toys are found here.

Finally we need to dispel a few myths about feeding cats.
1) Dry food doesn’t do anything to keep cats’ teeth clean, unless it is specially designed for that purpose such as Prescription Diet t/d from Hills.

2) Canned food does not cause diarrhea in cats.  If your cat gets diarrhea from switching foods, it is more likely to be a food allergy or intolerance.  Try a different protein source.  The most common food allergies in cats are fish and beef, so try a poultry based diet.

3) After kittens are weaned, most cats become lactose intolerant.  They don’t need milk or dairy, and in many cases, those things will cause diarrhea and/or vomiting.

4) Dry food contains a lot of plant-based carbs that cats don’t need.  This is due to the manufacturing process.  Canned food is much better for them!

Certain medical conditions may require a different diet for your cat.  Your vet will tell you if your cat needs a specific food for a medical condition.  But for healthy cats who are not obese, choose a canned cat food for the main meals, and no more than 2 tablespoons of dry food or treats per day for play/hunting.  You’ll be helping your cat live a longer, happier, healthier life!