Your Animal’s Diet Matters!
As one of the fundamental conditions needed to sustain life, nutrition drives every aspect of our biological functioning, either fortifying or weakening body and mind. A good diet will fend off illness and disease, ensure that we have enough energy to live a productive life, and toughen our bodies against injury. A poor diet leaves us vulnerable to every kind of physical harm, and can exacerbate, or even cause, mental health disorders, leading to increased levels of depression and anxiety. In other words, food matters. A lot. As humans we have access to a wealth of information on good nutrition, as well as a market saturated with healthy food offerings. Our understanding continues to grow steadily, with new diets and nutritional strategies entering our cultural consciousness on what feels like a daily basis.
What we sometimes overlook, however, is that proper nutrition is just as important for our pets. Without realizing it, we might subscribe to the idea that our pets will function just as well no matter what they eat—that as long as they’re fed, and protected from allergens and poisons, they’ll be healthy. This simply isn’t true. Animals are complex organisms just as we are. Their age, sex, genetic makeup and evolutionary habits dictate the specific combination of nutrients that are optimal for their health. A pet might be exceptionally well-fed, and cared for in every aspect, and yet be lacking vital sources of nutrition, simply because the owner doesn’t know what they should be providing.
Luckily, we’re increasingly recalibrating our knowledge of human nutrition to meet the specific needs of our pets, acknowledging that every organism has different requirements, and that what works for us might not work for our furry friends. Gone are the days when pets were expected to eat whatever surplus scraps their owners had left after a meal. Now, pet parents are eager to feed their beloved animals well, and to give to significant consideration to their nutritional intake. For this reason, pet health food is a growing market with both big brands and smaller companies diversifying their offerings to appeal to a variety of species, ages and body types. Of course, dogs and cats remain the most catered to demographics in the pet food market, which gives us even more reason to understand their diet; when faced with an abundance of options, we need at least a minimum amount of knowledge to ensure that we make the right choice.
Throughout a continuing series of posts, we’ll be digging into all the available information, and exploring various aspect of your pet’s dietary needs. In this article specifically, we consider the unique nutritional requirements of cats, and cover some of the ways in which you can ensure your favorite feline stays fit and happy. Many of the following tips, however, could apply to any animal you care for. Look out for more posts about pet nutrition, including information specific to our canine companions.
Understanding Your Cat's Dietary Needs
Cats are obligate carnivores, which means their bodies are designed to thrive on a diet primarily consisting of animal-based proteins. Cats cannot be vegetarian, and need fatty acids, vitamins and minerals found only in natural tissue. Their nutritional requirements differ significantly from humans and even other pets. Consult your veterinarian to understand the specific dietary needs of your cat based on its breed, age, weight, and any medical conditions they might have. Remember, one of the most dominant myths in the pet care world is that cats love cow's milk. Neither kittens nor adult cats require significant amounts of milk or cream. These dairy products have no useful place within a cat’s nutritional system and often cause digestion problems.
High-Quality Protein is Key
Protein is the foundation of your cat's diet. Look for cat foods with meat or fish listed as the primary ingredient. These proteins provide essential amino acids that support muscle maintenance, organ function, and overall energy levels. Unlike humans, who enjoy variety in what they eat, pets in general can find it difficult digesting foods they aren’t accustomed to. Sticking with a single kind of protein can help avoid gastrointestinal problems.
Balance the Nutrients
A balanced diet includes not only protein but also fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Too much or too little of any nutrient can lead to health issues. Consult with your vet to determine the optimal nutrient ratio for your cat's age and activity level. These days, you may come across “prescription foods”, dishes that are specifically tailored to help treat a specific condition. While, these foods can only be purchased through a veterinarian, they rarely contain any actual medicine and are not prescriptions in the usual sense of the word. There is some debate over prescription pet food, as it is often considerably more expensive than normal pet food, and its overall benefits have been contested by a number of studies. Make sure you’re working with a veterinarian you trust, and always check the label before you shell out cash for a product that may well be no better than what you usually buy from your local pet store.
Cats often have a low thirst drive, which can lead to dehydration, especially if they're on a dry kibble diet. Always provide fresh water and consider incorporating wet cat food into their diet. The moisture content helps maintain their hydration levels. This becomes especially important when you live in a hot climate, or during unexpected heat waves. It also pays to learn the signs of dehydration in your cat, so that you can catch the problem early on and hydrate accordingly.
Obesity is a growing concern among cats, leading to various health problems like diabetes and joint issues. Follow feeding guidelines on the cat food packaging and adjust portions based on your cat's activity level and weight. Regularly monitor their weight and consult the vet if necessary. Generally, an adult domestic cat eats little and often, anywhere from 12 – 24 small meals over the course of a 24-hour period, which they spread relatively evenly across both daylight and night time hours. If your cat is free to roam and visit other houses, consider politely asking you neighbors to refrain from giving out treats.
Avoid Toxic Foods
Some human foods are toxic to cats and should be strictly avoided. These include chocolate, grapes, onions, garlic, alcohol, and artificial sweeteners. Make sure to keep these substances out of your cat's reach. A less obvious danger can come from the kinds of trendy “raw diets” that have popped up over the past few years. As with prescription food, there is some debate over the safety and effectiveness of such diets, but whatever your final opinion, you should be careful any time you provide raw meat, as the risk for bacterial infection is considerably higher. Make sure any raw products you provide for your pet have been safely stored in a freezer.
Consider Age-Appropriate Diets
Kittens, adult cats, and senior cats have different nutritional requirements. Kittens need more calories and nutrients to support their growth, while senior cats might need diets that support joint health and manage age-related issues. Again, this is a case of doing a little research and consulting your vet. Remember, nobody knows your cat like you.
While treats can be a way to bond with your cat, excessive treats can lead to nutritional imbalances. Choose high-quality cat treats and use them sparingly, preferably as rewards for training or special occasions. Try to resist feeding your pet from your dinner plate. It is difficult to resist pleading kitty-cat eyes, but encouraging random feeding can have a detrimental effect on your portion control strategy.
Monitor for Food Allergies
Some cats may develop food allergies or sensitivities over time. If you notice signs like gastrointestinal upset, skin problems, or excessive scratching, consult your vet to explore potential allergies and adjust their diet accordingly.
Gradual Diet Changes
If you're switching your cat's diet, do it gradually to avoid digestive upset. Mix the new food with the old one over several days until your cat is fully accustomed to the change.
Caring for your cat's diet is a cornerstone of responsible pet ownership. Each cat has unique needs, and so careful research, observation and the professional expertise of your veterinarian should be your primary tools. Don’t assume your cat is like every other. Be attentive to how they react to certain foods, and make sure that they’re getting the right amount of each specific nutrient--protein, carbs, fats, and vitamins. Consider keeping a notebook or planner in which to track the foods you provide, and record any observations you make about your cat's responses to various dishes. Remember to share your nutritional strategy with your cat's other caretakers, so that they can maintain the consistency of your approach. A good diet will not completely protect your beloved pet from sickness and injury, but by making an effort, you ensure you have done everything possible to give your cat the life it deserves.
Our blog is managed by Ryan Hilary with additional contributions from the PAWS/LA team. Are you a member of our community and have a great idea for a post (or maybe want to write one yourself?). Reach out to Rhilary@pawsla.org.