Healthiest Cat Food - How to Chose The Right Food For Your Cat

Cats in different stages of life need slightly different proportions of protein and fat. Choosing the healthiest food for them requires an understanding of these life stages.

Is there a variation in diet for different lifestyles then? Yes. Consideration must also be made for sick or overweight cats. This article provides an estimate to keep all these different cats healthy.

The best cat food

The ideal food for a pet cat should mimic a wild cat’s natural diet as an obligate carnivore. Studies have revealed that the natural diet of free-ranging cats was 60% moisture, 52% protein, 46% fat and only 2% from carbohydrates.

Protein in your cat food must come from an animal source, not from plant matter. Animal proteins have a complete amino acid profile. Dogs and humans are somehow able to process amino acids from plant sources but cats cannot do this.

Animal fat is very important for felines as it gives their food taste. Cats naturally find fat attractive because they have evolved to convert this into energy.

The 2% of carbohydrates come from pre-digested food in the intestines of their prey. They are not biologically adapted to process and burn carbohydrates like herbivores and omnivores.

That is why diets high in carbohydrates can lead to diseases such as diabetes, obesity and many other ailments.

To stay healthy, cats also require more than a dozen other nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. The most critical for maintaining the health of their heart and brain is taurine, which comes only from animal protein.

These nutrients are easily destroyed by cooking. Highly processed food, especially dry food, tends to have less nutrients and fats. Manufacturers will then add flavouring to make the food palatable, as well as preservatives to make it last a very long time.

Although cats need certain amounts of each specific nutrient to be healthy, more is not always better. This is particularly true of vitamins and minerals. Therefore, supplements are usually not necessary if you are giving them a balanced and complete diet.

On top of that, dry food tends to have a high percentage of carbohydrates of about 35 to 50 percent. The source is from grains and potato to add bulk as well as act as a binding agent for the ingredients of the cat biscuit.

Plenty of fresh water is also essential – key to keeping cats of all ages healthy. In the wild, cats depend almost solely on water from their prey which contains 60% of moisture in the meat.

As a result, cats have a strong tolerance for thirst. Those that eat kibbles may not drink enough water even when they are thirsty. Prolonged dehydration often leads to urinary tract diseases and other health problems.

Therefore, the best cat food should also have a high moisture content, ideally wet food made from raw or unprocessed meat.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners actually recommends feeding cats wet food throughout their lives now.

The type and percentage of nutrients needed depend on a cat’s stage of life, and whether it has any health issues. Let’s begin with the first stage of a cat’s life – as a kitten.

Kittens

Kittens have a growth spurt in the first few weeks of life. To support this growth, they have slightly different needs from an adult cat.

Jennifer Larsen, DVM, PhD, is a nutritional consultant and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis.

According to Ms Larsen, kittens eat at least three or four meals a day. They need fat, some fatty acids and most vitamins similar to adults but kittens have a higher requirement for protein, amino acids, minerals and certain vitamins.

Most cats reach sexual maturity after 4 months of age but they only stop growing at 12 months. For these reasons, most experts recommend specially formulated kitten food until age 1.

To ascertain whether a kitten food is of high quality, check the label. It should at least contain recommendations from a recognised and relevant authority on pet food.

Milk is fine during the first 1 to 2 months because kittens have the enzyme to digest lactose. But once they are weaned after the 2nd month, they gradually lose this ability.

Homemade diets should be used with caution because these can be low in calcium, leading to a mineral imbalance that causes hyperparathyroidism, a disease more common in rapidly growing kittens.

A healthy kitten should be alert, have a steady weight gain and a clean glossy coat.

Start kittens off on wet food because cats are habitual and picky feeders. Once they are accustomed to a certain kind of food, it is very hard to make them eat something else.

Young kittens’ teeth are also very small at this point so they can’t chew dry food well. Wet canned food will give them enough nutrition to grow properly and it is easier on little teeth.

Choose wet canned food made from raw meat. However, try to avoid giving kittens completely fresh meat off the market for these reasons:

  • Raw meat or liver may contain parasites and harmful bacteria.
  • Raw eggs may contain Salmonella and may decrease absorption of a B vitamin, leading to skin and hair coat problems.
  • Raw fish may lead to a B vitamin deficiency, causing loss of appetite, seizures and even death.
  • At such a young age, a kitten’s immune system may not be strong enough to defeat any bacteria or virus on raw meat.
  • Intestinal parasites will stunt the kitten’s growth and affect its health.

It is a good idea to expose kittens to different types of meat so that they don’t fixate on only one type. This is crucial also because different proteins have different nutritional values.

Check the label of your cat food for suggested amounts. Of course, take into account whether your kitten is already pudgy. You do not want your cat to become obese and have health problems later on.

Adult cats

Different breeds of domestic cats have varying points of maturity. The general rule of thumb for average-sized breeds is that they reach full growth at 1 year. This is when they are considered truly adult.

Adult cats are slightly less frisky than kittens so their diet should be of lower caloric value. Basically that means less fat than kitten food since fat is what cats derive energy from.

Since they are fully developed, adult cats need less protein than kittens. The proportion of nutrients should revert to a free-ranging cat’s at 52% protein, 46% fat and 2% from carbohydrates.

Their food should also have high moisture content at a minimum of 60% and fresh water should be available at all times.

Nonetheless, some cats will not drink enough water on their own, so giving them wet food is the best option. Many health issues are diet-related, particularly in relation to lack of water.

Wet food made from raw or unprocessed meat has the highest water content and nutrients. Giving your cat the healthiest option will help to keep diseases and ailments at bay.

When considering the perfect diet for an adult cat, you also need to consider whether the cat is overweight or sick, and whether it is an indoor or outdoor cat.

Senior cats

Some breeds start showing signs of aging earlier than others, which is when they are considered an old cat. Generally, a cat is classified as “senior” if it is over 11 years old.

When choosing a food for your senior cat, Dr. Fascetti says your main goals should be:

  • Maintaining their health and ideal body weight
  • Slowing or preventing chronic illness
  • Lessening the symptoms of any pre-existing illnesses

When should you switch to a “senior diet?” According to Dr. Bartges, it all depends on the individual cat and the veterinarian’s recommendations.

If the cat is maintaining body weight and muscle condition on a certain diet, there is no reason to change it.

If the cat is gaining weight for no particular health reason other than a change in metabolism, then feeding a ‘senior’ type of diet or a lower energy and higher fiber diet may be recommended.

If they are losing weight for no apparent health reason other than a change in metabolism, it may be time to change to a kitten diet which is calorically dense.

The switch should be done over several days, to ensure the cat accepts the new food. Some cats take up to months to accept the new food.

According to the report Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats by the National Research Council, cats will choose foods based on taste, texture and moisture content than nutritional adequacy.

As cats get older, taste becomes increasingly important as their senses start to wane. Wet foods, says Dr. Fascetti, tend to rate higher on the palatability scale.

Wet cat food made from raw meat generally has all the natural fatty acids that give the food flavour. It also has many times more water content than dry food. Wet food will ensure your old cat gets enough water in its system.

Some senior cats have missing teeth, which makes eating dry food difficult. Once they go off their food or don’t eat enough due to this discomfort, their immune system will become compromised because they aren’t getting enough nutrients. That’s when health problems start to set in. 

Indoor cats

Although indoor and outdoor cats have the same basic nutritional needs as a regular adult cat, those housebound have lower activity levels. Indoor cats should then be fed a diet low in calories to prevent obesity. 

Food low in calories would have a very low percentage of fat compared to food for an active cat. At the same time, it should still be high in protein and also contain zero carbohydrate.

To avoid overfeeding your cat, measure out a serving size at each meal. This means no free-feeding. The label on the food container should tell you how much a serving size is.

If you feed several, small meals throughout the day, your cat will quickly learn to adapt. This will keep its energy up but prevent weight gain.

Try to keep to wet foods as dry foods are especially calorie heavy.

Indoor cats also have a higher tendency of developing hairballs. Their ideal food should also be high in fiber to help push the hair through before it can form into a ball. 

If it is difficult to find cat food that is high in fiber, you can consider this alternative – mix fresh or cooked vegetables in its food.

Lettuce and cabbage are popular favourites among cats. These are safe to be given in small quantities at a time, whether fresh or boiled.

To retain all the vitamins present in these juicy, sweet vegetables, serve them chopped or sliced thinly like blades of grass together with their wet food.

Cats with some fresh vegetable in their feed have been proven to have very little problems with hairball or constipation.

Carrots are a very safe option for cats but once again, give it in moderation. Serve carrots chopped finely or boiled to make it softer.

It is advisable to alternate the type of vegetable. Too much of anything is not a good thing just as how it is for humans.

Outdoor cats

These adventurous cats are out and about hunting and catching mice, rats, birds, lizards and frogs. They may or may not actually eat their quarry, though.

Nevertheless the risk of catching parasites or germs from these small animals is ever present. Sometimes a cat will even come home with injuries from fights with other cats.

Since you can’t stop an outdoor cat from hunting or getting into fights, what you can do is make sure you give your cat the most nutritious food possible. The proportion of nutrients should be that of a regular adult cat.

A strong immune system will be a cat’s best defence from possible infections, be it from germ, parasite or injury.

The healthiest food for an outdoor cat is wet food made from raw or unprocessed meat. This type of meal has the highest water content with the most intact nutrients. 

Sick cats

A sick cat will understandably have poor appetite and may go off its food. This is bad news as it will deprive itself of sufficient nutrients to recover from an illness.

The very basic of a healthy diet for a sick cat would be:

  • High moisture content
  • High protein
  • Medium fat
  • No carbohydrate
  • Complete range of minerals and vitamins

For cats with urinary tract problems, you’ll need to increase their water intake and encouraging more frequent urination.

You may do this by giving them only a wet food diet made from raw or unprocessed meat. This type of ingredient will have the highest amount of minerals, vitamins, amino acids and fatty acids.

Adding small portions of high-water content vegetables can also increase the moisture in their food. Lettuce, cabbage and carrot are a few examples.

Then, you’ll need to monitor your cat's food and water intake. Separate your ill cat from other pets in the household so you know who is eating the food.

Fresh water should be available at all times. But if your cat simply refuses to drink on its own, fluids can be administered by mouth using a syringe.

Give your cat small, frequent, highly digestible meals. Warming food to body temperature often makes it more appealing.

Some sick cats can be encouraged to eat more by hand feeding. But if it cannot eat on its own, your veterinarian may suggest giving liquid food via a syringe.

Wet food is easier to swallow and easier for digestion. Cats suffering from kidney disease have to rely solely on wet food. Dry food is rarely recommended for sick cats.

Special Formulas may be required for different illnesses and these can be recommended by your veterinarian. These cat foods may not contain certain ingredients that regular cat foods contain. 

Fat cats

Without a doubt, fat cats are cute and comical, but this excess weight is very bad for their health. Overweight or obese cats have a high tendency of developing serious illnesses like diabetes, liver disease, urinary illnesses and arthritis.

How do you gauge whether a cat is fat?

Here is an easy scale for reference according to the Cornell Feline Health Center of Cornell University.

 

The first step is to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Follow the vet’s instructions to help your cat lose weight safely. Sudden weight loss is bad for its health.

If your cat is mildly overweight or is simply eating too much of her regular food, then the solution may be as simple as offering smaller meals.

If your cat is considered obese, you may need a specialized diet that has fewer calories while still containing all necessary nutrients, i.e. protein, fat, vitamins and minerals.

High protein

No matter the weight, a cat still needs its protein from animal sources. Protein is necessary in order to prevent loss of muscle mass as your pet loses body fat.

Studies have also shown that protein helps cats feel satiated long after a meal, which is a plus during calorie restriction. For these reasons, a weight management diet should have at least 35-45% protein content.

High fiber and water content

Both of these ingredients help prevent a cat from becoming hungry after a meal.

Adding small portions of raw or boiled vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage or carrot, will bulk up the meal and fill the cat’s stomach without increasing caloric count.

Carnatine

Several studies have examined the role of the amino acid carnitine supplements in feline weight loss. This amino acid is naturally present in muscle, and is believed to turn fat into energy that can be metabolized by the body efficiently.

Low fat

A regular cat’s fat requirement is 46% of the entire meal. For an obese cat, this should be way below that figure. Needless to say, treats must be kept to a minimum as well, to constitute only 10% or less of daily calories.

Conclusion

All cats – young, adult, old, fat, thin, sick – need plenty of water and the same basic nutrition. This means a high percent of protein followed by fat and the accompanying minerals and vitamins. Water content is the highest in wet food.

For a healthy start right until the end, it is recommended that kittens are fed wet food so that when they are old and toothless, they can accept the same easily.

Raw or unprocessed meats prepared in small portions contain the most natural nutrition since the nutrients are not lost from excessive processing, heating or cooking. These are also safer than off-the-market fresh meat due to high industry standards and the pasteurisation process required after packing.

Since it can be tricky trying to figure out the “lower” and “higher” portion of what is mentioned in this article, here is a very general visual guide for easy comparison.

Exceptions may apply for specific cases or situations, so it is wise to consult a veterinarian before making drastic changes to your cat’s diet.

Sources:

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