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What Should I Feed My Cat?
Sometimes a cat owner's efforts to provide a healthful and illness preventing diet to their pet are met with disdain from the cat. Cats invented the word finicky. They may have developed cravings, like humans are known to do, for high glycemic foods. However, once a change is made, those cravings are soon lost. This appears to be the case with cats who eat dry food only and are overweight. It can be difficult to get them off of dry foods and onto a moist, low glycemic diet. However, those cravings do go away and so does the extra weight, and the cat will show enthusiasm for the new diet. Make slow changes. Go to www.catinfo.com for Dr. Pierson's helpful tips for changing diets for a stubborn cat.
There are two instances where you must be cautious about withholding a preferred food from your pet. A sick cat who is losing weight must be offered anything they will eat until they are strong enough to change to a more optimal diet. An overweight cat must not be allowed to have rapid weight loss, even over a couple of days, because they are predisposed to serious liver problems. Most importantly, be patient and persistent because it is worth the effort.
How Do Poor Diets Cause Illness?
If scientific details don't interest you, feel free to skip this section and know that diets high in fat, sugar, and glycemic index trigger a vicious cycle in the body that leads to chronic illness. Once ingested, an inflammatory response releases cytokins such as Interleukin -6, especially in overweight individuals. This promotes release of active oxygen species such as C-reactive protein (CRP). We can test for CRP levels in a patient; high levels indicating high levels of inflammation. Free radicals are generated leading to oxidative stress and more inflammation, triggering a vicious cycle. Eventually, pancreas cells lose sensitivity resulting in insulin resistance. The immune system is compromised, decreasing the body's ability to remove cancer cells, and kidney and liver functions are affected with chronic inflammation.
In order to prevent inflammation and promote wellness, I recommend that you choose your cat's diet with the following goals in mind. An ideal diet is:
There are different options and I have discussed each, listing the advantages and disadvantages. You can choose which fits your budget, schedule, and philosophy. The categories are: raw diet, homemade diet, commercial canned grain free diet, and dehydrated foods diet. I no longer recommend dry food because it is overly processed, too low in moisture for cats, who have low thirst drives, and is a common cause of obesity in cats.
Raw DietsThe main advantage is that raw food moves slowly through the gastrointestinal tract leading to increased digestion and nutrient absorption with optimal effects on GI flora (good bacteria that constitutes a large part of the immune system). The disadvantage of this diet is the potential for infection from bacteria in improperly handled food. There are actually a greater number of illnesses reported from commercial cooked foods than reports of actual bacterial illnesses from use of raw foods. Many cats absolutely thrive on raw diets and their owners would never go back. Some pets do not do well on raw, especially if started later in life. To decrease risk as much as possible, choose a commercial raw food over homemade raw diet. Some brands are Nature's Variety Medallions (my favorite), Rad Cat, Stella and Chewy's, Feline's Pride, and Oma's Pride. They are immediately frozen and kept that way until you feed your cat. Do not thaw in the fridge. If you are set on making your own raw food, do not get your met from a grocery store chain. Choose a butcher in whom you feel confident about the age and handling of their products.
The advantage of home cooked diets is that using fresh, cooked, unprocessed meats has many of the benefits of a raw diet without the risk. The disadvantage is the potential high cost and inconvenience. Also, homemade diets are not "balanced" for long term feeding. Many people have been able to make home cooked food for their pets with minimal cost and time invested. Dr. Lisa Pierson has a website with detailed discussions about home cooked feeding at www.catinfo.org. She details the health benefits and gives tips on food preparation and how to transition your cat onto a homemade diet.A "balanced diet" can be fed for life without causing nutritional deficiencies. This is more important for pets than for humans because pet owners tend to feed the same thing to their pet for years unlike humans who can balance their own diets with common sense and lots of variety. Veterinary nutritionists do not recommend following a basic "recipe" for homemade diets because these diets cannot be balanced without knowing the specific ingredients and their specific weights. However, a basic, vague recipe is given below as a starting point so you may vary the meats to please your pet. The more varied a diet, the less likely it is that there will be deficiencies but, also, ironically, the more difficult it is to balance. A way around this would be to take a basic diet and choose the exact ingredients you plan to use in your homemade diet, weight each ingredient. Now you have a specific recipe. You could do more than one, with fish and chicken, for example. Then, you can contact a veterinary nutritionist to insure each is balanced. You must give them specific ingredients and measurements in order for them to do their calculations. Nutritionists can be found at www.petdiets.com or balanceit.com (they provide supplements, as well) and others are listed at www.acvm.org. Some are high cost and others are not. They will also formulate a diet for you from scratch and specify foods and supplements that are fresh, whole, and containing no synthetic vitamins.
This is a basic recipe that can be used (not balanced for long term use):
There is a rabbit variation of this diet for pets that are on a "novel" protein diet which can be found at www.catinfo.com.
Commercial Canned Grain Free Cat Food
Disadvantages of this diet are the cost and the fact that these foods are somewhat processed. The advantage is that commercial diets are balanced. Choose foods that are high in protein (10% or higher dry matter as is on label), no additives, no grain, and with quality ingredients. Cats with renal disease should not be on an ultra-high protein diet. Their actual protein needs are somewhat controversial at this time so ask me on an individual case basis.Some companies that have good reputations for high quality "natural" diets include: Nature's Variety Medallions that you can lightly cook (doing so gives you the advantage of unprocessed raw foods without the risk of bacterial contamination. Other brands include Wellness, Weruva, Organics, Orijen, Evo, and Newman's Own. New grain-free formulas come out every week. The website www.onlynaturalpet.com is a large online store that carries pet foods, supplements, and other products. Because they list all of the ingredients in every product that they carry, it is a great place to research foods and supplements to learn what is out there and compare prices.
These diets are relatively unprocessed. You add water and get a goopy but fresh food. It is a great choice nutritionally but some cats don't care for the texture. Honest Kitchen is the most popular brand for dehydrated diet foods.
Dry Food in a Bag
Just say no!
When and How Much to Feed?Cats should be fed twice a day and should not be allowed to eat as much as they want. The feeding recommendations on packages of food are often too large of a quantity. You are feeding nutritionally dense food now and they don't need as much. Your cat should eat the amount of food that allows him or her to maintain a lean weight. This is generally 5 to 10 ounces a day. Many overweight cats will lose weight just by taking them off of dry food that sits out all day waiting to be grazed upon.