Post by guest contributor Dr Matthew Homfray
THEY say we are what we eat. This applies to your pet as much as it applies to yourself. A good diet means less health problems, less trips to the vet and lower veterinary bills. But how much thought have you given to what your cat should be eating to maintain optimum health? Ask yourself the following questions.
How many times a day do you feed your cat?
Since cats cannot be exercised like dogs can, the only way you can influence your cat's weight is by controlling the amount and type of food he or she eats. If the cat is being fed individual meals several times daily, there is often a tendency by the owner to offer the daily supply of food on several occasions rather than divide up the daily feed into several meals. This can also occur with cats fed dry food ad lib. Cats usually regulate their food intake, but continual exposure to large quantities of food may lead to over-eating and subsequent obesity if too many calories are consumed. In short, both several individual meals a day and ad lib feeding are fine, it is the total amount offered per 24 hour period which is the important figure.
Kittens should be fed small meals at regular intervals due to their tiny stomachs. Four or five meals are recommended at eight weeks of age, decreasing to two at six months of age.
Is your cats diet manufactured specifically for cats or do you give human food?
Some cat owners like to spoil their cat by feeding them human food as the bulk of their diet. Others have tried feeding their cat regular catfood, but find their fussy cat will not touch it, and prefers to wait for the inevitable human food offering, which soon becomes the staple diet.
Is it really unhealthy to feed cats human food though? Of course it depends what food. Remember that cats are carnivores, and require a high proportion of meat in their diet. They simply cannot adapt to a low protein diet, and will lose bodyweight if deprived of it. In fact, as a species they are relatively unique... a deficiency of the amino acid, arginine, in a single meal can lead to symptoms of lethargy, hypersalivation and vocalisation. Arginine is required by the cat to produce urea, a waste product resulting from the breakdown of protein.
Another essential nutrient for the cat is the amino acid, taurine, which the cat cannot manufacture sufficiently by itself to meet its needs. The cat's diet must therefore contain taurine in sufficient quantities. If a deficiency develops there is a high risk of serious and irreversible damage to major organs such as the heart and the eye. Taurine is found almost entirely in meat, confirming the fact that the cat is a compulsory carnivore.
Another disease of nutritional origin is that caused by cats eating raw liver regularly, who can suffer from a condition called hypervitaminosis A. Cats suffering from this can present with signs of lethargy, unthriftiness, a stiff neck and other skeletal problems. To play it safe, do not feed your cat liver more than once a week.
Reputable cat foods are formulated after extensive trials by pet food companies to provide the mixture of protein, carbohydrate and fat that suits feline physiology best. It is easier, cheaper and possibly more healthy for your cat to be fed a reputable cat food diet, with occasional treats if desired (tuna, liver etc).
Which is better out of dry cat food or wet cat food?
Most vets recommend complete dry biscuit based cat food. This is because studies have shown that cats on dry food diets are less likely to suffer from dental disease than those on wet food from a tin or pouch. The physical motion of biting these biscuits helps prevent tartar from adhering to the surface of the tooth. However, even cats with no teeth can eat biscuit based food without a problem, as they just scoop up the biscuits with their tongue and swallow them whole. Another advantage of dry food is that it does not spoil as quickly which is useful for cats that are fed ad lib.
There are occasionally reasons why a wet food is preferable, as a method to increase the water consumption in a cat with a urinary problem such as cystitis.
Which is the best cat food to choose?
There are so many different brands of cat food on the market, the best one is basically a matter of opinion. Certainly palatability is a factor, there is no point in purchasing a particular food if your cat cannot stand it, although this is occasionally a necessity in cats requiring prescription diets. Rather than recommending you a specific brand, we suggest that you choose one which adheres to the criteria below.
Cat foods labeled as complete and balanced must meet standards established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), either by meeting a nutrient profile or by passing a feeding trial. There are now two separate nutrient profiles for cats - one for growth (kittens) and one for maintenance (adults). Maximum levels of intake of some nutrients have been established for the first time because of the concern that overnutrition, rather than undernutrition, is a bigger problem with many pet foods today. The standards include recommendations on protein, fat, fat soluble vitamins, water soluble vitamins, and mineral content of foods. If you are prepared to get technical, you should choose a food that comes closest to AAFCO recommendations.
In summary, consider the following points:
Choose a food that suits your cats age. Most big pet food companies will have different foods for kittens vs adults. Cats with medical conditions may be recommended special prescription diets.
Choose a food that come closest to AAFCO recommendations.
The ingredients contains the truth about a particular food. Everything else is there only for marketing purposes.
There are no legal and scientific definitions for the terms "premium," "super premium," "quality," or "natural."
Use dry matter numbers to evaluate and compare foods.
The source of ingredients (e.g. animal vs vegetable) does not matter, except in the case of food allergies.
Avoid supplementation. All commercial cat foods have more than enough protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. Feeding your cat a good food incorrectly can lead to significant problems.
My cat is overweight, but no matter how hard I try I cannot get him to lose weight. What can I do?
Your cat is almost certainly being fed too much. Below some common mistakes are listed. Have a good look at these and make sure none of them could apply to your cat.
Not following the guidelines on the packet when measuring a portion. Most cat foods will have a table on the packaging suggesting daily portions for cats of different weights. The weight of food suggested is per 24 hrs, not per portion! Use your kitchen weighing scales to measure out the portion until you are sure of the correct amount.
Using a complete dry diet as a replacement for regular biscuits, and mixing it with wet cat food. If it says complete, you should not mix it with anything or you will overfeed.
Offering inappropriate food that is high in fat, or cream/full fat milk to drink.
Several members of the household feeding the cat at different times, whenever the cat is meows for food.
Giving the cat regular treats in addition to its main meal.
The cat is getting fed by neighbors, who think they are being kind by feeding it and enjoy the attention it gives them.
The cat is scavenging food from outside sources, such as other peoples bins.
The cat is part of a multi-cat household and is stealing food from the other cat(s), or even the dog.
Keep an open mind. If there is a possibility that any of the above scenarios might be the case with your cat, investigate it. If you are still at a loss, consider starting a prescription diet (see below).
I have heard you can get special light diets, or prescription diets for fat cats. Do they really work?
Yes they do, if used properly. These types of cat food are available in complete wet (tinned or pouches) form or dry (biscuit) form, and are growing in popularity amongst conscientious pet owners. They are low in calories and high in fibre, and often contain high levels of L-carnitine. L-carnitine has been used to help with fat metabolism in other species and recent scientific work indicates that it helps reduce weight in overweight dogs and cats. The real benefit of these low calorie diets though is that because of its low calories, cats can still eat reasonable sized portions and therefore feel full. This means they are more content and less likely to beg and look for extra food.
These diets are perfectly healthy for normal sized cats to eat too, so if you have a multi cat household and it is unfeasible to separate the cats during feeding time, you can safely feed all of the cats the prescription diet together.
Where can I buy this low calorie food from?
Many of the big pet food companies are waking up to the problem of pet obesity, and adding light versions to their range. However, they are unlikely to be as effective as the traditional prescription diets that are on the market.
They are known as prescription diets, because they are a specialist food normally prescribed by a veterinarian. However, you do not need a prescription to buy the food as it is a general sales list product. These foods are rarely available in supermarkets as many supermarkets are keen to sell their own brand, or have deals with the big pet food manufacturers. Many owners but their prescription diet from their veterinary clinic for convenience, whilst others prefer to shop around to get the best price. Many online pharmacies and pet stores are now offering these prescription foods, but whilst they may appear cheaper online, watch out for delivery charges added on top.
Author: Dr Matthew Homfray
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