Maintaining the Perfect Cat Diet
If cats ran the pet-food industry, the recipe for a good, nutritious meal would read as follows:
“Take one small mouse from the freezer. Thaw. Put in a blender and hit frappé. Serve at feline body temperature on a clean plate.”
Yuck, you say. That’s probably why you’re going to give your cat a dry food, where the label lists the first five ingredients as corn gluten meal, ground yellow corn, chicken, brewers rice, and wheat flour. Or you’re going to feed him a canned food that lists wheat gluten and brewers rice just a notch or two below turkey.
Rice? Wheat? Corn? What gives? Are cats carnivores or aren’t they?
Yes, but not all their needs must be met by animal-based food, as they would in the wild. The commercial pet-food industry has managed to provide a diet with a high percentage of plant material that, nonetheless, keeps an obligate carnivore well fed. This balance of convenience, nutrition, and aesthetics (appealing to both human and feline tastes) has to be considered one of the great marvels of living in a modern age — and it keeps getting better, as our knowledge of nutrition increases.
Fulfilling basic nutritional needs
A lot of different elements (about 60) go into keeping your pet healthy, all working together to keep his body working as it should be. These nutrients each play a role, and although some seem to have a bigger part than others, in keeping your cat’s body functioning.
As part of their animal-consuming design, cats naturally have high protein requirements — more than double the amount per pound of body weight than dogs or humans do. Kittens need even more — about quarter again as much to support their rapid growth into adults.
Protein comes from both animal and plant material, and varies in digestibility. Meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs are highly digestible to a cat and are therefore high-quality sources of protein; some other parts of animals, such as feathers, beaks, and bones, are not as highly digestible. Grains are somewhere in the middle in terms of digestibility.
Carbohydrates — sugars and starches — are a source of energy, but not one that cats need in their diets to survive. Of all the ingredients in prepared cat foods, carbohydrates are farthest from what they would acquire naturally.
This is not to say that cats don’t use the carbohydrates in commercial cat foods. Enzymes in cats’ bodies break down and convert the sugars and more-complex carbohydrates into products they can use. The fiber in commercial foods serves another function: It aids in keeping waste products moving through the digestive system and helps prevent constipation.
As people, we worry endlessly about the amount of fat in our diets, which experts say is too high. But again, we must realize that cats are not people, and their dietary needs are different concerning fats — commercial cat foods have a fairly high percentage of fat.
Fat from animal sources carries essential fatty acids that cats can’t derive from vegetable sources. Fat also is essential for the absorption and movement around the body of certain vitamins, and it also appeals to the feline nose and palate, thus stimulating his desire to eat.
Vitamins are divided into two categories — water-soluble and fat-soluble. Both are important to your cat’s health, and the lack of any of them in your cat’s diet can have dire effects. Water-soluble vitamins include the B vitamins, niacin, panthothenic acid, folic acid, biotin, choline, and vitamin C. Fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Oil-based hairball remedies can tie up the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, which is why you shouldn’t be giving them on a regular basis without talking to your veterinarian.
Your cat needs minerals, including potassium, magnesium, zinc, calcium, iron, phosphorus, sodium, chloride, and others. Like vitamins, they make up a small part of your cat’s diet, but in the correct amounts, they’re essential for good health.
In the past, people were concerned over excess ash (especially magnesium) in cat foods. This worry was unfounded, but it continues to be a marketing gimmick that cat owners and veterinarians respond to by opening their wallets.
The important thing to know about vitamins and minerals is that your cat needs the correct amount — but not more. “If a little is good, a lot must be better” simply doesn’t apply in the case of vitamins — or most other nutrients.
Don’t forget that what your cat drinks is just as important to her well being as what she eats. Water — clean, fresh, and ever-present — is essential to nearly every process of your cat’s body.
A cat can go without eating for weeks if need be (please don’t test this fact, though), but without water, she’ll die in days.
Always make sure to supply your cat with water and encourage her to drink by keeping the dish clean and the water fresh. Some cats prefer running water, and some owners oblige by opening taps to drip for their pets. Some manufacturers even sell pet fountains that constantly recycle water to make it seem fresh to a finicky feline.
Do cats need to drink cow’s milk? Not at all, although in most cases, a little dose of the white stuff is much appreciated — unless they are lactose-intolerant.