Help – I’ve got a normal cat and I don’t know how to feed it!
It seems to be a pretty complex problem feeding a normal cat – and it shouldn’t be! Cats have existed on table scraps and mice for generations, so what has changed? Why so many choices? What is PURR-fect for MY cat?
Although not a complex problem, it isn’t something that can be explained in soundbites, so please do read all the content of this page.
We’ve Changed Our Cats
Well, the reality is that cats are biologically adaptable, within certain parameters. The modern difference is, though, that many cats can no longer supplement their diets with the PURR-fectly packaged mouse. Also, since we neuter them, we have changed their metabolism to the equivalent of post-menopause in women – VERY efficient use of calories (up to 30% fewer calories required for maintenance) for a start. Then we keep many of them indoors, or they sensibly choose not to patrol their neighbourhood and get into fights or meet cats / dogs / cars that they don’t want to. So, a more efficient metabolism, and lower maintenance calorie requirement, no hunting, and you can see our cat companions are now totally dependent on what we feed them.
So what about all the styles of feeding? Dry vs wet, BARF, RAW, grain-free, paleo, low carb, natural / processed, even vegan! – the list goes on! AND there are very few publically available studies, since most of the information is generated in-house by the various manufacturers and they are not obliged to publish, and all the alternative sources just maintain that ‘this is the only diet that works for cats’. Nevertheless, Dr Kim has some insights that seem to work for most cats. There will always be some cats and some owners that these recommendations don’t suit, but then there are ‘specialist diets’ available for them.
It’s Never Too Early
Start at the beginning – feed pregnant mothers properly (dried kitten food, premium for preference) as we know that underfed mothers produce TWO GENERATIONS of cats who have learning difficulties (yes it IS quite complex being a “compleat cat”) and are more reactive or fearful.
Then, feed the kittens properly – avoid a large amount of meat (tempting though it is) as kittens have a lot of growing to do, and straight meat is VERY calcium deficient (drinking milk WON’T make up the difference) and leads to bone breakages and deformities. So, 1 tsp per day of meat is fine, ‘kitten’ dried food ad lib -premium (or the best you can afford) sets them up for life, and many cat breeders have preferences for their specific breed. Ad lib means just keep topping up the bowl so there is no fighting in a litter, no hunger to endure, no point in being fussy. Mum and the kits can feed when they want, and this moves onto post-weaning and once going to their new home. The more a kitten eats, the faster it runs. In Australia and New Zealand there is an interesting product called ‘Ziwipeak’ dried that is pretty perfect for slightly older cats – it does need to be introduced at the kitten stage for them to get used to the texture (it is kind of like jerky), but it is worth the effort if you can get them to eat it – very low carb, high protein and with everything a cat needs. Just weird presentation.
Once a kitten reaches 6 -7 months old (for the moggie cat, 12 – 15 months for some of the big breeds), they can often move to premium adult food. Otherwise, stay with kitten dried until 10 months old. Check for fat over the ribs – if that appears, then change to adult as the kittens are not growing but storing calories…
If you want to feed wet food to kittens, then they can have 1 tablespoon of kitten tinned (higher calcium) or adult if they are over 6 months. Wet food is 80% water anyway so is not going to be where they get most of their nutrition from. This is the time to introduce (skinned) chicken neck, drumsticks or wings for them to crunch on. Most kittens will have a go, but many won’t bother (especially if they already have gum problems). The pieces should be skinned because that is where most of the salmonella and contaminants are, and of course it should be fresh (though most cats won’t touch meat that is going off anyway).
Milk – is not required, but if there is no diarrhoea, they can have ‘low lactose’ milk (which is all that ‘cat milk’ is – no one is out there milking cats…). Dr Kim says cream is better for cats anyway, as it is lower in lactose and high in the fat kittens need for energy. Goats milk is great.
The “Follow-On” Months
So, now your kitten is an adolescent (6 – 12 months old), preferably neutered (or the girls will be pregnant – many well-fed kittens are pregnant at 4 ½ months (a huge strain on their system) and nearly all are pregnant by 6 months old! They may be going outside, or they might not. At this point, your little feline friend might just be starting to get chubby – check out this handy guide
Body Condition System
If she (or more likely he ..) is getting too round, substituting more tinned food and measuring the dried food (usually LESS than the recommended amount – after all, the manufacturers want to sell you more of their product if they can!) can stop the fat deposition and let your chubby kitten grow into a lean cat. As a ‘purr-spective’ – less than 10% of adolescent cats are fat. The problem creeps up on the genetically ‘prone to obesity’ breeds and individuals over the next 1 – 2 years. So monitoring the amount of dried food does become part of the dietary recommendation for many cats as they approach 3 years old. It is a good idea to weigh the dried food, or be strict with the cup measurement (get a ¼ cup and a 1/3 cup and use one of those, rather than ‘eyeball’ the amount in a 250 ml cup while your cat is staring at you expectantly!).
Studies show that cats on the cheaper dried foods tend to be slimmer (as do smokers among people). Whether that is a function of the digestibility of the food (the cat has to eat a greater volume of low digestibility food) or the quantity offered (?due to finances?) is unclear, and is definitely NOT Dr Kim’s recommended method of having a slim cat, and up to 70% of cats do OK on the lower end products (though those ARE the ones most often recalled and that have problems with nutrient availability etc).
So, your cat has reached metabolic maturity (10 months) and social maturity (2 years) and is neither fat nor skinny, has no allergies and is not vomiting furballs (early sign of IBD). Now what to feed. This is the age at which the plethora of ‘must do’ recommendations that are so contradictory. Dr Kim still reckons high quality dried food (may have to be a measured quantity – the amount depending on your cat’s activity level and propensity to turn carbs to fat) and some chewy meat or some tinned food. Meat and tinned food, again, are 80% water, so mainly provide entertainment (chewing / hunting the meat) for the cat and a method of training you to open the fridge (also for your cat’s entertainment). The key to an existence without Kitty Blackmail is to feed these very tasty items at defined times of the day, and not be coerced into feeding them whenever the cat decides they want it!
By the time a cat is a ‘senior’ – sometime between 8 and18 years, really depending on renal function and any other medical issues that have arisen! – the recommendations will be specific. However, for healthy older cats, just carry on as adult until something crops up!
So, what about all the variations we hear about for feeding cats. Here are Dr Kim’s ‘purr-sonal’ insights.
Dried food is not the demon it is made out to be – and the internal research of the ‘premium brand’ companies means it CAN be fed, as the sole diet, for at least 85% of cats. The only problem is hyper-palatability (a bit high for SOME cats so THEY will overeat it and get fat). Even at face value, if 40% of cats are overweight (and I would dispute the significance and the %), that means 60% are just fine. Of the many versions available, your cat will usually tell you which one they pre-FUR given a choice. Just check that the FURst ingredient is a real animal (unless you are going the vegan option of course!) and not a plant or by-product, and that it is a ‘complete and balanced diet’, not just a ‘supplement’.
For ‘feline oral entertainment’ nothing beats fresh meat chunks (any meat, and even fish). The problems that crop up are calcium balance (in young cats), allergies (in about 30% of cats), messiness (for many owners) and parasitic (toxoplasma, tapeworms) / bacterial contamination / toxins (most cats can contain the problems of salmonella and won’t eat food that is off, but it is possible to have problems from fresh meat). Meat treated with preservatives (most ‘pet’ packets, and chicken or beef that is minced) can cause a taurine deficiency, especially if large amounts of highly preserved meat is fed without any other foodstuffs. Freezing is not always the answer (although that does kill off toxoplasma). In fact, feeding frozen, or ground up rabbit or boiled meat has the same problem (taurine is a tricky amino acid that is easily lost in processing including grinding, and is something that cats need a lot of). Feed it if you want to, be aware of the problems, check out the BARF and RAW concepts to balance it. And be aware that it is the cause of most pet food recalls.
Tinned (same for food in pouches or sachets) food – again, too many to mention, the best advice I’ve heard is make sure the product inside resemble the animal it is meant to be – not blended up. Can be addictive (apparently the ‘agar gel’ is the tasty bit) and be aware that vomiting can be due to allergies to the ‘unmentioned’ ingredients (no, it not required to list all the ingredients, and DNA tests have shown there are LOTS of things in tinned cat food that are not on the label).
Your Other Options
RAW – aka paleo for cats – is mimicking mice (but you still do the hunting) no freezing or grinding
BARF – is frozen, and not every cat will eat it (Dr Kim has tried it out on the Café Cats)
Some cats are going to react to whatever you feed them (it is probably a genetic immune system instability, often triggered by a viral event in kittenhood)
Vegan (yes, cats can be vegans – the supplements added are the same as those added to dried, tinned and other processed foods)
Grain free – a fairly modern trend, some cats may do better on it. The usual ‘meat source’ is beef or tuna (both are high on the ‘allergen risk’ scale). Probably a taste variation mainly, and better for some cats who can’t tolerate gluten.
And then there are ‘treats’ and ‘supplements’ – and that is way too complex to going into! And hopefully your vet can tell you the how and the why of a prescription diet recommended for your cat!
Keep a purr-spective – – today’s ‘old’ cats were fed on much lower quality foods than available today. Make of it what you will, some cats will have problems, but the great majority won’t (especially if there is a mouse or two available). Consider your circumstances, offer to the cat and monitor.