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Cat Nutrition - Cat Nutrition Facts Every Pet Owner Should Know


How does nutrition impact the health and wellbeing of my cat?

That's a pretty simple answer. If you think about how, when you eat less nutritional foods for yourself, how do you feel? It's the same for your cat. We want high-quality nutrition as the foundation for overall good health. And just like we probably shouldn't be drinking soda and eating potato chips all day, your cat probably should have a balanced diet that has some treats and fresh foods, but otherwise, it's composed of high-quality commercial cat food.


Dr. Menolly Cote
Freeport Veterinary Hospital

What are the nutritional requirements for a cat?

I don't worry about specific percentages in terms of proteins, or fats, or things like that. One thing that is specific to cats is that they are considered obligate carnivores, meaning that they don't need a lot of vegetables or something like that in their diet. They primarily eat meat, and if you think about it evolutionarily, that is how they developed. And so we want a diet that includes a specific amino acid called taurine because they can't produce that on their own. But beyond that, I rely on the pet food manufacturers and AAFCO, the overseeing professional association for food manufacturers, to make sure that they're making the best quality cat food. And the best way to determine that is to follow the AAFCO standards. Ensure that the company you're looking at follows those standards and employs a veterinary nutritionist—not just an animal nutritionist but somebody who is a veterinarian and has gone on to get a Ph.D. in nutrition. You want to make sure that they're doing feeding trials with those particular diets to make sure that they're keeping pets healthy.

Will my cat's nutritional requirements change throughout their life, as a kitten, adult, and senior cat?

They do change somewhat. Kittens need higher protein and just more calories overall because they are growing. Unlike dogs, we don't need to have a kitten-specific formula in most cases, as kittens can eat adult cat food—they just typically need to eat more. And then certainly, as cats get older and could potentially develop some health problems, their nutritional needs may change. For example, as cats get older, we want to limit phosphorus in their diet and keep their diet to high-quality proteins if they get kidney disease. With other health conditions like pancreatitis, we may want to adjust certain nutrients, but those are things that your veterinarian will go over with you. And it's not something that you need to particularly look out for if your cat's otherwise healthy.

What are some signs and symptoms of poor cat nutrition in your pet?

Some signs of poor nutrition in cats are if they're generally not feeling well, if they have a dry coat, or if they're not grooming well. Things like vomiting or diarrhea could indicate that your cat's not tolerating that specific food well, but really anything that concerns you and that lasts more than a day or so, check in with your vet. It could be food-related, or it may not be, but that's always a good place to start.

What are some common food allergies in cats, and how can I tell if my cat is suffering from them?

The first thing to remember is that food allergies in cats and dogs are not super common. We're talking about maybe 25 to 30% of pets have food allergies. It's perhaps slightly higher in cats than dogs, but the vast majority of animals don't have food allergies. The most common allergen that we see is probably fish, believe it or not. Those cartoons were lying to us when you always see the cat going after the fish, as that's not always the best choice for them. But beyond that, the best way for us to determine if your cat is allergic to something is to do a food trial with what's called a hydrolyzed diet. A hydrolyzed diet is a special diet designed to be hypoallergenic and something we would talk more about if your cat has evidence of food allergies. Food allergies in cats can look like stomach upset, vomiting, or diarrhea, but it can also look like skin allergies—itching, hair loss, those sorts of things.

When it comes to cat food, what and how much should I be feeding them?

There are many cat food options out there. I think all cats should have some amount of canned food in their diet from day one. Canned food has a much higher moisture content and helps to keep cats hydrated. Cats evolved from desert creatures, and so they don't have a great thirst drive. And they don't drink as much as they should much of the time. Cats are also prone to kidney disease, and so dehydration can certainly worsen those sorts of things, so keeping canned food in their diet can be helpful. I don't think there's anything wrong with feeding some dry food, but I recommend at least having some wet food in the mix.

We also need to think about how cats evolved and what their behavior is like around food. When cats are feral or in the wild, they tend to eat anywhere from 10 to 20 small meals throughout the day. That's going to be pretty hard for us to manage in our pets unless your entire day is wrapped around being a cat mom or dad. And so some things that we can do is limit the amount of food that we're feeding at meals and feeding the rest through enrichment tools like hunter or feeder toys, food puzzles, and anything that requires the cat to think a little bit or hunt for their food. I always recommend parsing out meals versus just having food available at all times.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (207) 865-3673, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Cat Nutrition - FAQs


Dr. Menolly Cote
Freeport Veterinary Hospital

Can my cat live on a vegetarian diet?

Sadly, no. Cats are what are considered obligate carnivores, meaning that they need to have a meat-based diet. That's different from dogs that are considered omnivorous, so they have a lot more variety in their diet. Cats need to eat a primarily meat-based diet. That being said, we also need to keep in mind that it needs to be a balanced diet, so just throwing some meat chunks at your cat every day is not going to work out. And we'll talk about that more later, but we want to look for a meat-based diet balanced by a veterinary nutritionist and comes from high-quality commercial pet food.

Is wet food more nutritious than dry cat food?

I wouldn't say it's more nutritious. There are some advantages to it. Wet food has a higher moisture content. It is also often higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates, which is more similar in makeup to small rodents and other things cats might eat in a more natural environment. I think that many kitties can maintain weight better on wet food diets, and they also get higher moisture and therefore stay better hydrated. But in terms of just baseline nutrition, a cat should be able to maintain a dry food diet if that's what is best for your lifestyle or your cat's lifestyle.

Are prescription diets better for my cat?

If your cat has a health problem that your vet recommended a prescription diet for, then yes. Otherwise, prescription diets are suited for specific medical conditions. And so there's no health benefit to your average, young, healthy cat to eat, say, a kidney diet or liver diet. They may become unhealthy in those circumstances because certain nutrients are limited in those diets. And so we wouldn't want to feed them without a true recommendation from your veterinarian.

If my outdoor cat hunts, does that mean they're missing something in their diet?

He's not missing something in his diet, but he may be missing something in his mental stimulation or enrichment. It's a very natural behavior for cats to hunt—that's really what they're built for. And when you think about cats in feral situations or in the wild, most cats will eat anywhere from 10 to 20 tiny meals a day. And they spend almost their entire waking time hunting because some of those hunting adventures are not always successful. When we think about cats getting some enrichment, if you have a cat that goes outdoors and can do so safely, then hunting is an excellent opportunity for them—provided they're not significantly affecting our local wildlife populations, especially songbirds. That's something to keep in mind. But we can also mimic this sort of enrichment with certain toys and puzzle feeders and things like that in the house or other safe environments.

Will human food make my cat overweight?

Weight comes down to calories in versus calories out, so if we're feeding a full calorie count with cat food and then adding human foods on top, we will end up with an overweight kitty. However, if we're being aware of how many calories are going into our kitty each day, and maybe reducing some of the kibble when we want to give a little treat with some boiled chicken or something like that, that's fine. You just want to be aware that some foods are maybe not the best for cats. Limit the amount of dairy they take in because sometimes they're not tolerant of dairy. I would also not feed anything that's high salt or high fat, as that could cause stomach upset.

Will free-choice feeding make my cat overweight?

Most of the time. There are very few cats that can handle the open buffet at all times, but just like the rest of us, having food out in front of you all the time is a recipe for becoming overweight. So it's best to meal feed, not only to keep them at a healthy weight but also because meal feeding allows us to add enrichment to their diet as we chatted about before.

What are some other myths about cat nutrition that you hear as a veterinarian?

The most common one is that wet food will actually cause harm to the cat's teeth or isn't good for their dental health. However, there's really no difference between your average dry food and your average canned food in terms of dental health effects. The only foods that are going to help with dental health in cats are specifically designed to help with dental health. Otherwise, most aspects of dental health are affected by genetics, so feeding canned food won't necessarily make things worse. It may not make things better, but it's not something to worry about. Another myth related to this is that cats need to have dry food in their diet. And that's absolutely not true. Cats can live on a canned food diet only. And in some cats, that's an excellent option for maintaining weight and health.

If clients have more questions regarding cat nutrition and myths, what should they do?

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (207) 865-3673, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

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