Feeding Your Cat Well - An Overview

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

Now more than ever, people recognize the connection between good eating habits and good health. Food has been implicated in several important human diseases including diabetes mellitus, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer. Nutrition plays a similar role in determining the health and longevity of cats, which are primarily affected by three essentials:

  1. Genetics, over which we have limited influence.
  2. Environment, which we control to the best of our ability and make as safe as possible.
  3. Nutrition, which is the factor over which we can exert the greatest control as pet owners.

It is natural then for us to pay closer attention to what our cats eat in order to maximize their overall health and life expectancy.

Need-to-Know Facts About Pet Nutrition

Veterinary nutrition is a scientific field that has exploded in the past several decades, and our cats have reaped the benefits. One of the key nutritional concepts that contributes to a high quality of life and long life expectancy is the recognition that not all life stages are the same. In other words, kittens have different nutritional needs than adult cats, and they in turn have different needs from senior cats. It is a myth that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to feline nutrition reflects the best we have to offer. There are many cat foods labeled "For All Life Stages," but this merely means that the food will support the highest need life stage - a mother cat feeding milk to her kittens. For example, it is intuitively obvious that a 10-year-old couch potato domestic shorthair does not have the same energy requirement as a 2-year-old queen who is feeding 6 kittens on the milk she produces herself.


Making Smart Feeding Choices for Your Cat

The best strategy for feeding your cat well is to partner with your veterinarian and your veterinary healthcare team and start by performing a nutritional assessment. This means that your veterinarian will conduct a thorough physical examination to assess your cat's body condition, body composition (lean versus fat), and to determine if your cat has any existing medical conditions that require attention or could be addressed nutritionally such as obesity, osteoarthritis, or kidney disease. A proper nutritional assessment requires that you discuss with your veterinarian what food is being fed, how much is being fed, and when mealtimes occur (free feeding or grazing is not recommended). These details help determine the best nutritional choices to make.


Choosing a Nutrition Formulation

Based on your cat's life stage, breed, age, gender (neutered versus intact), size, lifestyle, and body condition/body composition score, your veterinarian can make a specific nutritional recommendation. When choosing a nutritional formulation, be sure to look for a statement on the label that the food has met the requirements of the regulatory agency called Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The food should either have been formulated or fed in feeding trials to meet AAFCO requirements. This means it has been analyzed in an independent laboratory and has been found to be in alignment with regulated levels of specific nutrients, or that it has been fed to cats in a feeding trial to determine palatability and bioavailability. It is critical to understand that cats cannot be fed a vegetarian diet. Cats are obligate carnivores, and their nutrient profile must contain a meat-sourced protein. Your veterinarian can help with additional details about this feline nutritional requirement.

"When choosing a nutritional formulation, be sure to look for a statement on the label that the food has met the requirements of the regulatory agency, Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)."

Once a nutritional formulation has been chosen, it is important to determine the appropriate measured portion to be fed at each meal, as well as determining meal frequency (at least twice daily). It is a myth that cats can accept responsibility for feeding themselves without overeating. Cat foods today are very tasty and very calorie-dense, which means a little goes a long way. Your veterinarian is the very best resource for a food portion recommendation.

Ongoing Nutritional Maintenance and Your Cat

When nutrient profile, meal size, and meal frequency have been accounted for, it is important to keep track of your cat's weight and body condition to fine-tune portioning. Also, as your cat ages and her body changes, it will be important to adjust the nutritional formulation to meet her changing needs. Kitten, adult cat, senior, and geriatric cats are four significant life stages we need to address nutritionally. In addition, there are many medical conditions that can be managed or improved by feeding specific nutritional profiles. Your veterinarian is always ready to help you make the best nutritional choices for your cat - at any age, at any size, or in any condition. Take advantage of nutritional science to make the best nutritional choices to enhance life quality and life expectancy for your cat.

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