A Guide to Feeding Your Cat
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
Whether your cat is a picky eater or not, they probably let you know how they feel about what you put in their bowl. Cats are very opinionated about food, and a lot of their food preferences are formed in their first year.
If your cat is a kitten, now is the time to get her used to different types of food -- wet, dry, and semidry. But even if your pet is older, there are still ways to make sure they are getting all the nutrients they need to be healthy.
Choose Balanced Food
All cat owners should know how to read a cat food label and it's never too late to learn. With so much advertising, people tend to focus on ingredients, but the nutrients are more important, namely protein and fat.
It’s become a trend to disregard grains and carbohydrates in pet food as filler, but those ingredients are not necessarily bad for your cat. Plus, food made of only protein and fat gets pricey. Carbs can be valuable to hold dry food together and make food more affordable, and many cats like that crunch.
But how do you know if your cat’s food is balanced? Look for a statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) on the package, saying that the food is complete and balanced. If the food has this distinction, there’s no need to give your kitty extra vitamins or supplements -- the food has all they need.
How Much, How Often?
Most cats will eat their main meals at dawn and dusk, when they would normally be hunting and catching prey in the wild, so those are often the best times to feed them.
Depending on your cat's eating behaviors, you may have to feed them in one of various ways.
- Some cats will nibble at their food throughout the day if you leave food sitting out.
Be aware: Cats are not good judges of how much they should eat. Overfeeding is an epidemic.
When cats gain too much weight, they can have serious health problems.
- In some cases, it's better to feed your cat only at specific mealtimes. This will allow you to monitor the calorie count of your kitty's meals and the frequency with which they eat.
- If you have multiple cats, it is likely that they will have issues sharing a bowl. Some cats also have a tendency to steal food from the other cats. Feeding them in separate bowls at specific meal times can be a great way to control that behavior.
- If your cat eats very quickly and has a tendency to get sick after their meal, you may want to invest in a puzzle bowl which forces the cat to eat slower by making it more challenging to reach the food.
How much food your kitty should get in their bowl depends on their age, size, and how active they are. The average is about 200 calories per day. The calorie count can vary significantly from food to food. It’s a good idea to ask your vet to help you calculate your cat’s dietary needs.
If your cat is more chowhound than finicky feline, it would be more helpful to switch to a food with lower calories than to cut back on quantity. The problem with restricting food quantities is that it can lead to mean cats or cats that start to forage in your kitchen.
What about treats? It’s fine to dole them out occasionally, but don’t overdo it. They should be no more than 5% to 10% of your cat’s daily calories.
Homemade Cat Food
What about making your own cat food at home? If you decide to go this route, you shouldn’t do it alone. It is strongly recommended that you get a veterinary nutritionist to help you. Cats are only 8 to 10 pounds, and changing one ingredient can change the whole nutritional value of their diet.
Common Cat Feeding Mistakes
Too Much Food
Probably the most common mistake people make when feeding cats is over-feeding. Obesity is the most common nutritional disease seen in cats. Although a pudgy kitty may look kind of cute, obesity is associated with cat health issues including diabetes, arthritis, and urinary tract disease.
It’s not necessarily that we’re intentionally giving our cats more food than they need. It’s that our kitties are very sedentary and their nutrition needs are much lower, so it's easy to overfeed them.
Feeding Only Dry Food
As it turns out, today’s domestic tabby evolved from desert-dwelling ancestors, a heritage that no doubt left our furry felines with their grace, hunting prowess -- and low thirst drive.
We know that a cat’s sensitivity to thirst is blunted compared to a dog. They don't voluntarily drink water like a dog would. And because cats naturally produce highly concentrated urine, not providing enough moisture in their food sets them up for kidney and urinary tract problems.
Why not practice preventive nutrition by feeding them moisture-rich canned food?
Cats are designed to get their water with their food. Mice, a cat's normal food, are about 70% water. Canned cat food is about 78% water while dry cat food is between 5%-10% water. That's why canned food does a much better job of keeping your cat well-hydrated. Rotate between dry and wet food, feeding your cat the wet food at dawn and dusk.
Offering Too Little Water
Water is vital for cats as well as people. Essential to life, water accounts for 60% to 70% of an adult cat’s body weight. A serious water deficiency can have critical repercussions for pets, causing serious illness or death.
Although wet foods can go far toward meeting your feline friend’s water needs, cats should also have several sources of fresh water available through the house. Pay attention to where the cat likes to be so that there's water there and be aware that some cats prefer running water.
Some cats are pickier than others, detecting the taste of chlorine in tap water, not drinking if the water has been sitting for too long, or refusing to share a water bowl with other cats.You might want to buy purified bottled water for them.
Here’s a tip to help encourage your cat to drink more water:
- Locate a couple leaves of fresh catnip
- Fill a bowl with water and crush the leaves under the water
- Sit back and watch susceptible kitties ‘go wild’
Going Vegetarian or Vegan
According to some vets, another up-and-coming mistake made when feeding cats is trying to make cats vegetarians or vegans. Vegetarian or vegan diets might be a healthy choice for you, but they’re a bad idea for your cat.
Unlike dogs and humans, cats need specific vitamins, minerals, and proteins that only come from meat, but not raw meat. Raw meat may be part of life for big cats in the wild, but it’s unnatural for house cats. Plus, bacteria on raw meat, like salmonella and E. coli, can make your cat (and you) very sick.
Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat mainly meat and animal organs to thrive. The amino acid taurine, for example, is found only in animal tissue. Lack of taurine can lead a cat to experience heart problems, blindness, and even death.
Creating Nutrient Deficiencies
The interest in homemade food for cats (and dogs) is on the rise. It is important to realize, however, that homemade does not always mean healthy. A common mistake made by well-meaning people is the feeding of unbalanced homemade diets.
That’s because when making cat food from scratch, some people fail to realize all of the nutrients your pet would get from eating a whole animal. A cat would be eating both the meat and bones of their prey, which provides a proper calcium-to-phosphorus ratio.
A cat diet too heavy in tuna, liver, or liver oil (such as cod liver oil), can lead to vitamin A toxicosis, resulting in bone and joint pain, brittle bones, and dry skin.
A diet too rich in raw fish can destroy vitamin B1, causing muscle weakness, seizures, or brain damage.
If you wish to make your pet's food, you need to follow a properly balanced recipe. One way to do that is to start by talking to your veterinarian, who can guide you away from food fads and steer you toward a balanced, healthy eating plan for your cat.