Would you feed a newborn baby pot roast and beer?
Would you eat eggs if you had an allergic reaction to them?
If you answered “no” to either:
You are well on your way to understanding that every creature has nutritional needs that can change over time and under certain circumstances.
Keeping your cat happy and healthy is important – and a huge part of this means adapting her diet to her life stage.
When it comes to feeding cats and choosing the best food, you must always consider the life stage of the cat and his or her medical condition.
Let’s have a look:
The main stages a cat will go through over a normal lifespan, and then some common diseases that will have an impact on the best food choices for your cat.
Life Stages of a Cat:
Kitten Stages Of Growth
Kittens get their nourishment from their mother’s milk from the first four to eight weeks of life.
Commercial cat food should be introduced after the first month, even though they may continue to suckle until eight weeks of age or longer.
A kitten requires as much as three times the caloric intake of adult animals, and so it perfectly acceptable to feed them free choice until they are sexually mature, which occurs around four to six months of age.
Dry kitten food contains everything a growing cat needs for normal development, and is convenient for free choice feeding. (understand everyone has an opinion about dry cat food. Most say never feed a cat this and others say it’s ok if needed.)
If you notice kittens are having a hard time chewing the kibble, try soaking it in a little bit of water or milk replacer to soften it.
Alternatively, you can use wet, canned cat food.
Just be sure to pick it up after 2-3 hours as it can spoil easily when left in open air.
In order to avoid wasting the food, put down just 1/3 to ½ a can at a time and store the rest in the refrigerator.
Do not forget:
To let the food come up to room temperature before feeding, or put it in the microwave for a few seconds.
If orphaned, kittens should be fed commercial cat milk replacer until three to four weeks of age; when wet or dry food can be offered.
Kittens should never be fed cow’s milk instead of milk replacer because many cats are lactose intolerant.
Feeding them cow’s milk can cause severe gastrointestinal upset that could be life threatening in very young animals.
Once the kitten will consume regular kitten chow, it is no longer necessary to continue with the milk replacer, although it is best to make this change gradually.
Weaning is About More Than Food
Did you know that in a recent study, 41% of cat owners indicated their pets had aggression problems?
Even though cats can live as solitary animals, the short time they spend with their mother and siblings is critical for healthy psychological and social development.
Since kittens rely on their mother for food, cleaning, shelter, and protection, interfering with the early stages of the weaning process can leave a kitten with poor social skills among felines.
This, in turn, can lead to extensive psychological and behavioral problems when the kitten tries to cope in a human household regardless of whether or not other cats are present.
During a natural weaning process, the mother cat will make herself unavailable to the kittens, or use other measures to establish respectful contact and permissions.
Gradually, the kittens will become more independent and show increased interest in other food sources.
This is a good time to pick the kittens up and hold them so that they get used to humans.
As the kittens become more independent, the time you spend with them can also increase.
If you take the kitten away from the mother and isolate it, even for a few hours a day, it loses important chances to learn how to interact properly.
Unfortunately, even if you isolate all the kittens at once, they lose vital interaction time when their mother will teach them appropriate boundaries.
Lack of proper socializing in cats is just as bad as it is for dogs.
In the end, you will wind up with an aggressive cat that may do everything from attack other cats and humans to completely ignoring litter box training.
Young Adults And Their Food
After weaning, kittens will continue to grow and develop at a rapid pace until one year old, and then experience additional spurts for about another year.
Internally, this is a critical time for heart, lung, and bone development.
You can begin introducing adult food at around six months old, and let the cat gradually choose what he or she prefers to eat. It is still best to keep them on kitten chow for at least one year.
⚙ Food For Prime Age Cats
Once cats reach full size and strength, they are like humans in the sense that caloric intake must be closely geared to physical activity.
If your cat is indoors, spayed or neutered, or doesn’t get much exercise, then it is best to go with low carb and low calorie food options.
CatInfo.org has a great case study on how she helped a few cats get down their weight safely.
Obesity in cats is every bit as deadly as it is in humans.
Cats that are obese cannot even properly groom themselves and may wind up with abdominal skin sores and urine burns.
⚙ Food For Pregnant Cats
How long are cats pregnant?
It takes 65 – 69 days from conception for a mother cat to birth her kittens.
During the first stage of the pregnancy, you can keep giving the mother cat her usual food.
As the pregnancy cats stages progresses, you can increase the amount of meat protein in her diet.
When caring for a pregnant cat, most veterinarians will tell you that as long as the mother cat wasn’t obese to start, it is best to let her eat as much as she wants.
Fetal kittens require a lot of nutrients that must be provided by the mother.
A few weeks before the kittens are born, the mother cat’s body must also begin preparing to make milk.
Once you can see that the kittens are getting bigger, it is a good time to start adding kitten chow to the mother’s food.
This will help her produce more milk and provide additional nutrients for the kittens.
Continue providing kitten chow for the mother cat until the kittens are weaned.
⚙ Food For Senior Cats
There will come a time in your cat’s life he or she will sleep more and move around more slowly.
Your cat will need more protein, but a high quality protein. And a whole, raw, unprocessed, organic, non-GMO, and in its natural form type diet.
At this stage of life…
Your cat still needs to have the proper amount of:
While they may not need as much, it is still important to make sure they get the basics:
- If you are already feed your cat a low carb diet, try to cut back on fat content instead of dropping the carbs further.
- It is important to control portion size as much as possible.
- Portions can be divided into two or three meals a day.
- Feeding measured amounts of food on a daily basis will help prevent obesity.
Now that you know the different life stages and eating habits of a cat, it’s time to learn about…
⚙ Choosing The Best Cat Food: Is there really a “best”?
There seem to be an endless number of opinions about what constitutes cat food these days.
Not only are there an infinite number of brands, there is considerable controversy over wet versus dry.
We are now also in what I call the age of designer pet food where some people claim that only natural, organic, and grain-free options represent real and nutritionally balanced cat food.
There is also much debate about feeding raw versus cooked food and the use of by-products.
No wonder consumers feel overwhelmed!
Below is a great video of a couple making and experimenting with raw cat food for their outdoor cat:
⚙ How To Read The Cat Food Label:
First and foremost, a good quality cat food will be AAFCO approved.
AAFCO, or the Association of American Feed Control Officials, is a government agency that regulates sale and distribution of pet foods.
The AAFCO tests pet food to ensure nutritional adequacy and balance per life stage.
They also make sure that the nutritional content information on the label is accurate.
Knowing how to interpret the food label is vital to choosing a good quality cat food.
The published nutrient requirements put forth by AFFCO for protein content for cats is 30% for kittens and lactating queens and 26% for adult felines.
For a complete list of nutrient requirements, please see this link.
Step 1: Decipher the Food List
You can start off by taking a shortcut on this one.
If the list is full of weird sounding things that you can’t pronounce, put the can or bag back on the shelf and look for something else.
Dyes, preservatives, and other unnatural chemicals are just as bad for your cat as they are for you.
The ingredient list is the first misleading element of a cat food label.
While it is likely true that the first few ingredients constitute the bulk of the diet, these ingredients are listed by weight.
Ingredients containing more moisture such as whole meat chicken will be listed before chicken meal because they weigh more, even if the chicken meal is actually contributing the same or even more actual chicken to the diet.
Another trick pet food companies employ is the use of uncommon yet seemingly healthy ingredients such as blueberries or other fruits.
While these sound appealing to consumers, it is safe to assume that if ingredients such as these are listed after the vitamin and minerals and towards the end of the ingredient list, they are not present in nutritionally significant amounts.
Step 2: Evaluate Controversial Food Ingredients
Some ingredients may be controversial depending on who you ask.
By-products or by-product meals, corn, and grains are among these.
Despite being maligned by various sources, by-products are basically the part of the animal that most people don’t want to eat.
AAFCO approved foods restricts the use of animal parts such as:
Digestible and nutritionally accessible byproducts that you may find in AAFCO approved foods include:
- protein sourced from the liver
- other organs from slaughtered animals
Experts dispute whether grains and soy are truly healthy for cats or not.
From my experience…
I know many cats who have eaten inexpensive, low quality dry food and have lived to a ripe old age of nineteen or twenty! Not only that, but many of these cats were healthy and active for all or the vast majority of those years.
It is true that cats are natural carnivores, and that in nature, their diet would contain very little carbohydrates compared to the amounts that are present in commercial cat food, particularly dry.
Grains used in cat food provide valuable energy and help bind food together.
Some cats find dry food more palatable than wet.
Dry cat food is also generally cheaper, and less prone to spoiling.
In situations where cats are obese, diabetic, or have allergies, your veterinarian may recommend a food either lower in carbohydrates (which usually means a moist diet) or the use of a limited ingredient diet which generally use less immunoreactive starches from sources like potatoes.
The use of terminology such as all natural or organic has added new layers of confusion to the food conversation as well.
The AAFCO definition of natural basically means when a pet food claims to be such, it must be devoid of ingredients that were chemically synthesized.
Natural foods can only consist of ingredients that were derived from animal, plant, or mined states that have been subjected to no more than physical processing.
An organic food must undergo approval and meet the requirements of the USDA Organic Food Production Act.
Other words such as human-grade, premium, or holistic are basically meaningless because there are no federal, or other mutually agreed upon standards to measure these claims by.
These words are used for marketing purposes only.
They are designed to appeal to consumers to make them think these products are healthier.
Oftentimes, these foods are much more expensive than traditional cat foods, even though they may be no more nutritious than Friskies or Nine Lives.
Know that you know the steps to choosing a cat food, let’s address some common cat food questions…
⚙ Dry Vs. Wet Cat Food?
This is one of the bigger questions put forth by pet owners.
There is no consensus at this time, though veterinarians are increasingly leaning towards the use of wet foods.
In my own experience with cats of all ages, I have found that there are pros and cons to both food types.
Dry food is more economical, does not tend to spoil, and has a higher energy density.
On the less positive side, dry food is richer in carbohydrates and fillers that increase the risk of allergies and diabetes.
Wet food is higher in protein, fat, and water content. Water content can be especially beneficial to many indoor and some outdoor cats that suffer from urinary tract issues or renal disease.
For animals who suffer from asthma, feeding a wet diet or adding water to a dry food may be beneficial.
When deciding to feed dry, wet, or a combination of the two, considering the needs of the individual cat is very important.
⚙ Raw Foods: Harmless Fad or Dangerous Phenomena?
Raw diets have also become a popular trend that got started with dogs.
Today, there are an increasing number of feline raw diets commercially available.
The driving reason behind this is obvious: in the wild, the natural diet of carnivores such as cats is raw meat.
There are some serious health concerns, both for owners and their families, and the pets who are consuming the raw meat.
The number one reason most veterinarians discourage use of these diets is because of the risk for serious food-borne illness caused by a wide variety of pathogenic bacteria, including E.coli and Salmonella.
This can pose serious, even fatal, consequences for very young, very old, and immune-compromised individuals in the household, human and animal alike.
⚙ Does Brand Matter?
Finally we come to brands.
What is the best brand of cat food?
There is no best!
Many people, including veterinarians, feel that it is best to choose food made by reputable, well-known companies such as:
Obviously there are a ton more commercial cat food companies and these listed as well as others are reputable but doesn’t mean the actual food they make is quality or best for your cat. (consult a vet always!)
These companies have decades of experience with producing consistent batches of food that are in compliance with federal nutritional guidelines.
Some of these companies are also leaders when it comes to doing research that helps improve recipes so that animals live longer and healthier lives.
On the other hand…
Newer companies have to go through a “learning phase” that may produce contaminated batches of food, or they may make other mistakes that can cost your cat his or her life.
Even though larger, more well known companies can also make mistakes, they are more likely to find out faster and issue recalls in a more timely manner.
As a case in point:
Consider that from January 2017 to March 2018, only one major, established manufacturer of cat food, 9 Lives, had a recall.
During the same period, 9 smaller, less well known companies had recalls on their pet foods.
In addition, 2 of those 9 recalls were for Blue Ridge Beef Products.
How do you know you cat’s food is made by a trustworthy manufacturer?
Ask the right questions, and pay attention to pet food recall notices.
- Does your company employ a veterinary nutritionist?
- Is the pet food formulated by these individuals?
- Is the food manufactured by a third party plant?
- Is the manufacturing facility USDA approved?
- What kind of research has been conducted on your companies products and is this information published in peer-reviewed journals?
These questions are a good place to start to ensure that you really are getting what you pay for in terms of food safety.
Now that you’ve selected the food that’s best for your cat…
⚙ Basic Feeding Guidelines and Managing Health Issues For Your Cat
It is incredibly important to feed your cat a food that is balanced for the correct life stage.
- Caloric content of adult cat food should be around 300 kcal/cup or 150 kcal per can.
- Most kittens require 400-500 kcal per day, and adult cats between 200-300 kcal per day.
Feeding your cat according to the labeled recommendations is helpful, but these should be guidelines only, as metabolism varies from animal to animal.
- For kittens and nursing moms, it is perfectly fine to feed free choice.
- For healthy adult animals, start with the suggestions on the label, and reassess your cat’s body condition every few weeks.
Never go below the manufacturer’s recommended daily feedings without consulting a veterinarian first.
Lack of sufficient caloric intake, even in obese cats can lead to fatal liver damage in a matter of days.
⚙ Cat Obesity: Epidemic Of Fat Cats
To judge obesity, veterinarians use something called a body condition score to evaluate an animal’s weight objectively.
A body condition score will take your pet’s “framework” into account.
As with humans…
Cats can be:
- big boned
- medium framed
For a rough idea of your pet’s body condition score, feel for your cat’s spine and ribs first.
The dorsal spinous processes of the vertebrae and the ribs should be easily felt, but not easily seen.
The second area we palpate is the inguinal area.
This is the region that extends from the lower abdomen to the groin. If your cat is overweight, there will be a large fat pad in this area.
If your cat needs to lose weight, start off by measuring the amount of food you are feeding him or her on a daily basis, including treats.
Next, subtract 1/8 cup from the current daily food allotment, provided you won’t be going below the recommended guidelines from the manufacturer.
Each week, reweigh your cat and cut back the servings by another 1/8 cup if it is safe to do so.
When, or if you reach a point where the daily serving falls below the recommended amount, consult your veterinarian to obtain a prescription or recommendations for a different food brand that will safely lower caloric intake for your cat.
This process can be difficult if you cat is accustomed to overeating and begs for food.
Lisa A. Pierson, DVM put it best from her article by saying:
People and animals can, indeed, maintain an appropriate weight even when eating an unhealthy diet. So, to that end, it is very important to understand that even if you have a cat that is at an appropriate weight, this does not necessarily mean that he is eating a healthy diet.
Providing play or environmental enrichment can help increase your cat’s activity level and distract from constantly wanting food. You can also use a range of cat toys that make your cat exercise in order to retrieve treats from within the toy.
It is very important to not give cats excess treats, especially if they are obese.
Treats should constitute no more than 10% of a healthy cat’s diet, and less than 5% of an obese animal’s diet.
If you are feeding treats, you should decrease the amount of actual cat food you are feeding by the corresponding percentage.
Pet owners that are concerned about their cat’s weight often look for high fiber foods as an answer.
Usually, the more effective high fiber foods such as Hill’s r/d or metabolic formulas or wet foods which are lower in carbohydrates require a prescription from a veterinarian.
While non-prescription brand formulas may help a little bit, they usually don’t alter the nutritional profiles enough to manage more severe problems.
⚙ Diabetes Mellitus In Cats
For diabetic cats, generally foods with lower calorie and carbohydrate content are recommended.
Also, foods higher in protein and fiber may be beneficial.
Veterinarians typically recommend prescription diets such a Hill’s w/d, r/d, or metabolic formulas, especially if the diabetic cat is also overweight.
Royal Canin and Purina also have comparable prescription diets if your cat winds up not liking the flavor or texture of the Hill’s products.
If high fiber diets are recommended, a prescription diet must be used, as most commercial cat foods do not have enough fiber to aid with necessary weight loss.
If cost is an issue, a high quality exclusively canned diet can help if the diabetic cat is also overweight.
It is important to note that weight loss combined with a ravenous appetite is one of the most common symptoms of diabetes in small animals.
A weight loss diet may not help if your cat is already at an optimal weight.
Ketoacidosis or DKA In Cats: You might need to turn the volume up to hear her speaking!
A life threatening condition, will still occur regardless of your cat’s weight if there isn’t enough insulin available to bring glucose into the cells.
⚙ Renal Disease In Cats
As in humans, feline kidneys are two small organs that have a major impact on every part of the body.
Along with filtering out toxins and waste from the blood, the kidneys also regulate blood pressure and balance electrolytes.
They are also responsible for excreting excess glucose (which is part of why diabetes causes kidney damage), and some regulation of proteins.
When the kidneys are not working correctly, potassium levels can go too high and cause a heart attack.
Weakened capacity to filter the blood can also lead to lethargy, erratic mentation, and in the end stages, erratic motor control.
When the kidneys become damaged or start to fail, they operate more like a colander with holes, and therefore are unable to regulate critical molecules like they normally do.
For cats with renal disease:
Kidney-friendly diets are restricted in protein and ash, which lessens the normal workload for these vital organs.
These diets are available in both canned and dry form, though using at least some canned food will help increase water consumption and prevent dehydration.
⚙ Lower Urinary Tract Disease
Moist diets are also beneficial for cats who suffer from lower urinary tract issues including cystitis and urolithiasis.
Obesity, decreased water intake, and not flushing the kidneys and bladder often enough all increase the risk of developing Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD).
Since neutered male cats are more likely to develop FLUTD, many veterinarians recommend feeding at least some wet food as a preventative measure.
From personal experience with a male cat that had this problem, it is my opinion your best option will be to start early by requesting routine urine screening with each yearly exam.
By the time your cat starts straining with urine or developing urinary tract infections, the process is already set in.
It is also important to note that cats hide their pain and suffering well.
This is just one of many diseases where this trait can kill unless you make use of thorough yearly veterinary physicals that include blood, urine, and fecal exams.
If the veterinarian detects crystals, you can either use prescription brand Hill’s c/d or Royal Canin SO (these links take you to Amazon) foods to reduce the production of crystals that will eventually cause a blockage.
If your cat refuses to eat this food or stops eating it, do not go back to regular foods.
Go immediately to the vet and find out what you need to do to create a healthy home cook diet.
As I found out too late:
As in over $4,000 in surgical bills and post-op care costs for urethral obstruction, increasing water intake was a critical factor that wasn’t being satisfied by using canned cat foods.
For my cat:
The best answer–
As in the one that would have spared him that surgery and an over 30% loss in kidney function–was simply to boil meat for him and make sure there was plenty of broth in the bowl.
⚙ Inflammatory Bowel Disease In Cats: Diet
Inflammatory bowel disease generally occurs when cats develop an immune intolerance to protein or carbohydrate molecules in their diet.
If this is suspected, most vets start of by feeding the cat a meat based protein that they haven’t consumed before paired with a plant based protein that is well tolerated in cats.
If your cat normally eats food with:
The veterinarian may recommend:
While carbohydrate sources are usually limited to rice or potato.
Here’s a short pre-recorded live questions/answer video on treating IBD in cats or pets:
⚙ Hepatic Lipidosis: When A Cat Has Liver Failure…
Just about everyone has heard that you can live for several weeks without food as long as you have water.
This is simply not true for cats.
If they go even one or two days without food, it will start causing liver damage.
Hepatic Lipidosis, also known as fatty liver syndrome, this condition is common when cats stop eating enough food, regardless of the reason.
Cats with hepatic lipidosis are generally treated in an in-hospital setting, since an esophagotomy tube is most often required.
Under veterinary care…
These cats will be fed a calorie-dense, nutrient-dense diet such as Hill’s a/d. <super expensive!
They are also usually started on high doses of milk thistle and SAMe for cats, which prevent further oxidative damage to the liver itself. (If you plan on doing this please consult your veterinarian first!)
Transitioning the patient to a maintenance diet will depend on the underlying cause of the anorexia itself, extent of the liver damage, age, and life stage of the cat.
Below is a recovery journey of Juicy the cat when she had liver failure:
⚙ Those Dreaded Hairballs That Plague Your Carpets.
Vomiting hairballs is a common problem for many cats.
Passing a hairball more than once a month can be a sign of underlying skin or gastrointestinal tract illness.
If your cat does have occasional hairballs, they can certainly benefit from a hairball preventative or a high fiber diet.
Hairball medications such as Laxatone or Cat Lax are basically flavored petroleum jelly that coat the food and stool so that it passes through the digestive tract more easily.
You may also want to try providing natural grass trays.
Coconut oil can also be used to make hairballs pass more easily, boost the immune system and provide other health benefits.
For high fiber diets, one study found that feeding long haired cats a diet with fiber levels of 11% and 15% minimized hairball formation.
⚙ Cat Nutritional Supplements: Do Cats Need Vitamins
If feeding a balanced commercial diet to a healthy cat, most would say supplements are not necessary, and may even be harmful.
There are however a variety of conditions when certain supplements may be beneficial when given in the right amounts.
Example supplements for cats include:
- glucosamine supplementation for arthritis: Cosequin is a great choice – I used this on 2 of my cats for a couple years until they got better!
- cobalamin for cats with chronic gastrointestinal disease
- administration of free radical scavengers in animals with hepatic failure.
In some parts of the world, tripe, which carries probiotic bacteria in it is routinely added to cat food.
If your cat has skin and fur disorders or various digestive disorders, a probiotic formula may be useful.
Supplements still cannot take the place of a thorough veterinary exam with complete chemistry screenings.
Given the soaring rate of feline cancers:
It’s more important that ever to never assume that your cat is dealing with a simple or non-life threatening problem.
The single best thing you can do for your cat is make sure he or she gets the proper nutrition for every stage of life and medical condition.
In some cases:
Pet food brand can make a difference, as can the type of food that you give to your cat.
It’s always important to consult with a competent veterinarian and pay attention to routine physical exams so that you can spot problems early and take care of them before they cost your cat’s well being or its life.
Weber, Influence of the dietary fibre levels on faecal hair excretion after 14 days in short and long-haired domestic cats. Vet Med Sci. 2015 Jul: 1(1): 30-37