When is my cat considered to be a young adult?
Cats are considered to be adults by the time they are 1 year old. It is not uncommon for them to live up to 20 years or longer. Once they reach 7 or 8 years of age, however, cats are considered to be "senior citizens," and age-related diseases and metabolic changes begin to emerge. The time between kittenhood and the senior years is young adulthood, and it is important to recognize the feeding goals and nutritional priorities of this life stage.
What are the main priorities in feeding a young adult cat?
The primary nutritional goals for the young adult cat are to maximize health, longevity, and quality of life. The nutritional requirements for this life stage are quite broad because a healthy young adult cat can tolerate and compensate for fairly wide fluctuations in her nutrient profile. An appropriate nutrient profile for the young adult cat should consider the common health issues that may be influenced by nutrition, including dental disease, obesity, feline idiopathic cystitis (also known as feline lower urinary tract disease), cancer, and osteoarthritis (OA).
Your veterinarian and veterinary healthcare team make excellent partners in choosing a nutrient profile that best suits your individual cat. Relevant factors to consider include age, gender, lifestyle (indoor versus outdoor), hunting behavior, and the presence of other pets in the household (cats and/or dogs). An important first step is a good, thorough physical examination to determine if the cat is underweight, overweight, or at an ideal body condition. Body condition score is more important than the actual weight number.
"It is better that we recognize the need to control portions, caloric density, and caloric intake to prevent unwanted weight gain."
Neutered cats have an increased chance of becoming overweight versus intact cats, but the overall health risks associated with being sexually intact are far greater. Likewise, indoor cats have an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese because they tend to lead more sedentary lives. That said, an outdoor lifestyle presents hazards not encountered indoors, and outdoor cats tend to have a shorter lifespan than their indoor counterparts. It is better that we recognize the need to control portions, caloric density, and caloric intake to prevent unwanted weight gain. Most cats are neutered by 5 or 6 months of age. They should continue to be fed a nutrient profile formulated for growing kittens until 10 to 12 months of age; however, their daily intake must be strictly controlled to maintain ideal body condition. Once cats are 10 to 12 months of age, the nutrient profile for the young adult may be introduced, also with a plan for portion control and a specific feeding schedule.
Does breed play a role in nutrition?
Cat breeds have less of an impact on nutritional choices than dog breeds, but the breed may give clues to the cat's expected calorie consumption and need. For instance, the Abyssinian tends to be a very active, curious, playful breed. The Persian, on the other hand, tends to be a quiet breed, happy to engage in lots of "lap time." Although breed predispositions may influence decisions about caloric density and portion control, there is absolutely no data to support any specific nutrient requirements by breed.
What nutrients does my cat need?
Water is the most important single nutrient, but no definitive water requirement has been determined for cats because their water intake can vary dramatically based on whether they eat dry versus canned food and based on their activity and environment. Because cats tend to make very concentrated urine, and concentrated urine can lay the foundation for idiopathic cystitis, increasing water intake in young adult cats is desirable. Many cats will drink more if offered a source of flowing water, as may be created by using a fountain with a circulating pump and filter. Be sure to clean fountains regularly and change the filter according to the manufacturers' recommendations.
Protein is an important nutrient to consider for the young adult cat. All nutrient comparisons must be on a dry matter (DM) basis in order to be valid. According to the National Research Council (NRC), the minimum recommended allowance for protein in food formulated for adult cats is 20%, and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recommends a minimum of 26% protein DM. Although it is important to meet the minimum protein requirement in young adult cats, there is no benefit to feeding a large excess of protein because it will be broken down and stored as fat. Also, excess dietary protein over the lifetime of the cat may contribute to the progression of early kidney disease.
"Cats are obligate carnivores, which means that their protein must be animal derived, so a vegetarian diet is inappropriate."
Cats are obligate carnivores, which means that their protein must be animal derived, so a vegetarian diet is inappropriate. In general, adhering to a recommended protein content of 30% to 40% DM is appropriate for the young adult cat, whether active or sedentary.
When it comes to fat, however, active versus sedentary makes a difference. A sedentary cat should be fed a food ration containing 9% to 17% fat DM versus 10% to 30% fat DM for a more active cat. Fiber content may assist with satiety (the sense of feeling "full"). For inactive cats, the target fiber content should be 5% to 15% DM, whereas fiber can be less than 5% DM for active cats.
A nutrient profile that has been assessed through feeding trials may be superior to one that has merely been formulated to meet AAFCO requirements. Homemade diets are generally quite unbalanced and should be avoided. Cat food manufacturers' contact information, which can be found on the food labels, can be used to request dry matter data for a particular nutrient profile.
How much and how often should I feed my cat?
Because cat obesity is such an important health issue, it is best to choose a daily portion that is at the low end of the recommended feeding range. Meal feeding 2 or 3 times per day using a measured portion provides optimal control over intake and allows for easy modification if your cat's weight fluctuates. At least several times each year, it is appropriate for your veterinarian or veterinary healthcare team to assess your cat's body weight and body condition. Home assessment should be done more frequently - every 2 to 4 weeks - and if change is perceived or suspected, your cat should be weighed at the veterinarian's office.
What is my takeaway message?
By paying attention to a few nutritional details, we can lay an excellent nutritional foundation to maximize health and longevity for young adult cats. Your veterinarian remains the best source for a nutritional recommendation specific to your cat. Remember that your cat's nutritional needs may change over time if his health status changes.