To help your cat lead a healthy, happy and active life for as long as possible, her diet needs to achieve the right balance of the five major groups of nutrients: protein, fats & oils, vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates. Did you know that cats actually need to obtain 41 different and specific nutrients from their food?
Unless your cat is pregnant or nursing, undergoes a significant change in exercise regime (e.g. moves from an outdoor to an indoor environment) or is suffering from a particular medical condition, there is no reason to upset the nutrient balance that is appropriate for a normal, healthy adult cat from 12 months of age until they reach 'senior' status around the age of seven to ten years.
Unlike dogs, cats are obligate carnivores. This means that they need meat in their diet, so can never be vegetarian or vegan. Cats require higher levels of protein in their diet than dogs and meat is a ready source of protein. Additionally, although they don’t have a necessary requirement for carbohydrates in their diet, they are able to use carbohydrates to obtain energy.
Meat provides cats with three essential nutrients that they cannot live without: taurine, arachidonic acid and vitamin A. Taurine is an essential amino acid that is only found in meat protein and is required for a healthy heart and good vision. Arachidonic acid is an essential fatty acid, again only found in animal fats and also known as one of the Omega 6 fats. It contributes to a shiny coat and healthy skin, as well as playing a key role in wound healing. Finally vitamin A needs to be provided in a nutritionally balanced cat diet and is found in both liver and kidney as well as other meats. Vitamin A is vital for good vision, particularly at night, as well as keeping coats shiny. However, care needs to be taken not to over-supply Vitamin A as it can lead to very serious bone abnormalities. It is therefore critical to ensure the correct balance of all necessary nutrients in cat diets. Good-quality, complete manufactured cat foods have been carefully formulated to provide the exact balance of all the nutrients a cat requires to thrive, as well as ensuring excellent taste! Adding human food or supplements to a nutritionally balanced, complete commercial cat food may upset that balance.
Water is essential for all living beings and cats are no exception. The amount of water a cat needs depends on several factors including environmental temperature, exercise levels and whether or not they are eating wet or dried food. Cats can lose almost 100 per cent of their body fat and 50 per cent of their protein but still survive. A loss of only 15 per cent of their water can lead to death, and insufficient water intake can also contribute to bladder problems and cystitis, so you should ALWAYS make sure your cat has access to plenty of clean, fresh drinking water. Cats are desert animals and are very good at concentrating their urine. Some medical conditions such as cystitis are managed by increasing water intake amongst other treatments.
It’s also worth noting that cats may prefer to drink water from unusual sources such as dripping taps, a puddle in the garden or even the shower, but they will still need an easily accessible source of constant fresh, clean water. This doesn’t have to be a water bowl; water fountains, for example, are a great alternative for those cats who like running water, or you can put a bowl outside to catch rainwater. All water sources should be placed away from food bowls where possible as, in the wild, cats do not like to drink where they eat.
Proteins, made from small units called amino acids, are the building blocks of the body. Cats require larger quantities of protein than dogs due to their carnivorous nature, and good sources include animal meats, such as chicken, beef or fish, and eggs. Cats need certain specific proteins in their food containing essential amino acids that their bodies cannot manufacture on their own.
The proteins in complete and nutritionally balanced cat food will contain all of the essential amino acids your cat needs and are responsible for forming healthy muscle, skin and hair, as well as being an integral part of the immune system and ensuring transport of oxygen. Insufficient protein can lead to poor growth, loss of muscle bulk, poor coat condition and increased risk of infection through impaired immunity. Excess protein gets stored as fat.
Fats, made from small units called fatty acids, provide the 'fuel' your cat needs to stay active - supplying more than twice as much energy as protein or carbohydrates. Good fats, and essential fatty acids such as Omega-3 and Omega-6, are vital for a healthy skin and coat as well as providing insulation and protecting internal organs. Fats are also important for improving the taste of food!
The in complete and nutritionally balanced cat food will contain all of the essential fatty acids your cat needs. Too little of the good and essential fats can lead to poor skin and coat condition. Too much fat can lead to clinical obesity and associated medical problems.
Although carbohydrates are not an essential component of the cat diet, they do provide a readily available energy source. Fibre can help to maintain a healthy gut by promoting good bacteria and ensuring normal intestinal function. Too much carbohydrate in the diet gets stored as fat. Some medical conditions (e.g. diabetes and obesity) can be managed with a lower-carbohydrate diet as recommended by your vet.
Minerals, such as calcium and phosphorous, are essential for strong, healthy teeth and bones and must be provided in sufficient and balanced proportions through the diet. This is particularly important for growing kittens. Other minerals that are important for normal body function are sodium, chloride, magnesium and potassium, as well as zinc, copper and iron. All dietary minerals must be carefully balanced, and all good-quality, complete manufactured cat foods will provide this. If minerals are not properly balanced, an excess of one can lead to a deficiency in another.
Vitamins are required in small amounts through the diet to help maintain growth, normal vision, a healthy skin and coat, wound healing and normal functioning of the nervous system. They are also involved in nearly every chemical reaction at a cellular level for the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Vitamins can be divided into two groups: fat-soluble and water-soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) are stored in your cat’s fatty tissues, whereas water-soluble vitamins (B complex and C) are excreted in the urine. Unlike humans, cats do not have an essential requirement for vitamin C as they can make it themselves, although it can form part of a balanced diet and is an antioxidant.
Cats don't need milk after weaning. In fact, many cats have difficulty digesting milk as they don’t have enough of the enzyme they need to break down and use lactose (the sugar found in milk) once they have been weaned. Cow’s milk can therefore quite often cause diarrhoea. Specially formulated 'cat milk' with a very low-to-absent lactose content is becoming more widely available, but be careful and always remember that milk is a food and not a substitute for water.
Moist or 'wet' foods
Keep opened, unused portions of food in cans, foil trays or pouches covered and refrigerated for up to, but no longer than, 24 hours. Always serve the contents at room temperature. Cats are notoriously conscious of smell and texture and food that is straight from the fridge won’t be as appealing to them. Be careful not to leave moist or wet food out for more than an hour or so as it will turn crusty and unappetising and may become populated with bacteria, which could lead to a tummy upset.
Complete dry foods
With the right balance of nutrients and a crunchy texture to help keep your cat's teeth healthy, dry kibble foods are very popular with cats. They are more concentrated with nutrients than moist foods, so only small servings are needed. Always make sure you follow the feeding guidelines on the pack, and you may need to make minor adjustments to serving size based on your cat’s own body condition score.
Make sure the food is described and labelled as a 'complete' food rather than 'complementary' one; otherwise you might be buying a snack treat instead of a balanced meal. Also, if you decide to change food types, either from wet to dry or vice versa, or change between different brands, always make sure you introduce the new food gradually over a seven-to-ten day period. Sudden switching of foods and brands can lead to tummy upsets, particularly if your cat is used to always eating the same food. And remember, always to provide lots of fresh, clean drinking water at all times.
If you regularly prepare your cat’s meals from raw or cooked meats, particularly cuts of beef, pork, lamb steak, minced meat, chicken breast or fish, take care. These meals, without proper supplementation, are often too high in protein content and not rich enough in other important nutrients and minerals like calcium and taurine. They are also high in phosphorous which can result in severe bone problems. Imbalances such as these can lead to your cat becoming malnourished and developing serious and possibly fatal health problems. Take special care with feeding liver. Cats love the taste and it’s great for treats, but it should never form part of the staple diet as its very high levels of Vitamin A can lead to bone deformities. It is incredibly difficult to provide a balanced diet using home cooked or raw foods and consultation with a veterinary nutritionist is required.
Raw meat can also contain parasites and bacteria, such as salmonella, which can make your cat sick. Never give bones to your cat; even soft bones, like those found in chicken necks and wings, can splinter and even lodge in your cat’s mouth or throat.
Some cats love products containing dairy such as cheese, yoghurt and scrambled eggs, but remember that cats have difficulty digesting dairy foods (see section on Milk above). Human foods without the right supplementation are nutritionally unbalanced for cats.
Supplements are not necessary when a normal, healthy cat is being fed a complete and balanced diet. However, situations such as pregnancy, over- or under-exercise, or existing medical conditions can leave cats with special nutritional needs. These needs can be met by the appropriate choice, after discussion with your vet, of a manufactured pet food tailored to the specific requirements of your cat.
Some pet owners believe that extra calcium should be added to the diets of pregnant and nursing females and growing kittens. Whilst it is true that an increase in certain nutrients, including minerals, is needed at these times, it is critical that they are given in the correct proportions via a high quality, nutritionally balanced diet that is specifically formulated for this life stage. Adding them out of proportion to other nutrients can contribute to skeletal deformities and other problems. Have a chat with your vet to discuss your cat’s needs during these different life stages.
And remember, never feed dog food to cats as it will not have the essential additional amino acids, fatty acids or vitamins that cats absolutely must have in their diet.