Cat Nutrition 101

The questions we asked of Dr. Valdez are intended to help cat owners figure out optimal nutrition for their feline family members.

Adopting a new cat or kitten is a very exciting thing to do for many families. It involves a lot of decision making. Will the cat be allowed in the bed? On the kitchen counter? What type of interactive cat toys will we buy? Are we using cardboard scratchers on the floor, or will we get a big cat tree, or both? And: what will the cat eat?

That last question can take a lot of time to answer. Information on the Internet varies widely, and separating the science from the marketing can sometimes be a real struggle. With that in mind, we decided to consult an expert: Berkeley Humane’s Medical Director Jena Valdez, DVM. She is a highly experienced veterinarian who worked at the San Francisco SPCA before coming to Berkeley Humane. She also renders her services to the Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS) that provides free vet care in Native American communities and serves on the Veterinary Medical Advisory Board for Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) in San Francisco. She is a member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners and is very interested in the dietary needs of cats. She also has three wonderful pets: cats Simon and Mietze, and dog Oscar. 

The questions we asked of Dr. Valdez are intended to help cat owners figure out optimal nutrition for their feline family members. However, it is good to keep in mind that all cats are a little different. If your choice of food does not agree with your cat, please consult your veterinarian. In the mean time, settle in for some tasty morsels of high quality information:

There are three main types of cat food:
  1. Dry food is convenient to give (i.e. can be left in an auto feeder), but it can be difficult to control portions and is typically higher in carbs than other types of food
  2. Wet food is higher in protein and moisture content, but some people are turned off by the smell and some cats won’t eat food once it’s dried out. It can also be more expensive than dry food
  3. Raw food is high in protein, but has potential for shedding Salmonella and other pathogens that can be passed to humans. This is why it is not recommended in households with immunocompromised people or children.  Because of these concerns both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the CDC recommend against feeding raw diets, and some pet insurance companies will not cover animals on raw food diets. 

Here’s a link to the AVMA’s statement. Some animals have benefitted from raw diets (specifically those with food allergies), but it is difficult to recommend these when other novel protein commercial diets exist and don’t pose the same health risks. 

For a healthy juvenile or adult cat, I typically recommend canned food because it’s high in protein and high in water content. As obligate carnivores, meaning that cats have to eat meat, cats are metabolically built to process proteins better than carbs, and higher protein diets usually help with weight management. The increased water content in wet cat food can help maintain kidney and urinary tract health.

Cats form their preferences about food early in life, and those who weren’t exposed to wet food as kittens may not like wet food as an adult. For those cats, I would recommend a high protein dry food with strict portion control. 

Obesity is a major concern for cats, and in many cases, wet food can help with weight loss. Again, the high protein content fits well with their metabolism, and the increased water content can help keep them feeling full longer. There are also dry prescription diets that can help with weight management. Typically, portion control is the most important part of weight management, regardless of the type of food you use.

Cats can develop issues similar to human type 2 diabetics: their bodies produce a certain amount of insulin, and when their size/weight exceeds what their body can produce, they can become diabetic. There are other causes of diabetes as well (i.e. pancreatitis), but obesity is a major risk factor for cats. That is why weight management is important. Other conditions such as arthritis and respiratory disease all also exacerbated by obesity.

When buying cat food, it pays to take a good look at the label. Most labels include info about protein, carbs, fiber and calorie content. Analyzing these four factors can help a guardian evaluate the nutritional content of foods. Here is a link to the AAFCO website, which provides the requirements for all pet food labels. The ingredients on a cat food label are listed in order of their predominance by weight, so a food with chicken listed first would have more chicken than other products. 

Cat food labels will provide caloric content. For cats, most nutritionists recommend approximately 180-200 kcal for per day. These needs can change based upon activity and other health conditions, but this is generally a good starting point. Guardians should consult with their veterinarian about what is ideal for their cat.

If you want to determine if your cat is at a healthy weight, you can check their body score. There are two types of body condition scores, one is based on a scale of 1-9, and the other is 1-5. Either can be useful for assessing body condition. 

There are not necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ingredients in cat food. For guardians who are trying to use wet food for weight management, I typically recommend staying away from foods with lots of gravy or sauce – these are usually thickened with starches (carbs), and can change the nutritional profile of a food. Pates are usually a better fit for these cases

Most veterinary nutritionists agree that terms like ‘grain-free’, ‘organic’, ‘human grade’ and ‘no by-products’ are more likely related to public relations and marketing, rather than based upon true science. No definitive research has emerged yet about the efficacy of these types of diets

Meal feeding is recommended over free feeding, as portion control can be difficult with free feeding. Feeding your cat twice each day is ideal. If your cat remains hungry or gets hungry between meals, you can try the following: if you’re feeding wet food, you can add additional water to help them feel full longer. With dry food, you can consider using an auto feeder to provide a small portion of the daily food allowance in between the morning and evening feedings, or really early in the morning (for instance if they wake you up 🙂 )

If your cat continues to chew on things, you could use puzzle feeders like the Tricky Treat (the kind that dispense food when rolled around). They can be a great enrichment option for cats. Cats typically aren’t “chewers” like dogs, so continued chewing on inappropriate objects can sometimes indicate an underlying GI problem or boredom. Environmental enrichment is a better option than chew toys. I don’t recommend bones for cats or dogs as they can splinter and get lodged in the esophagus or intestines. Cooked bones are more likely to splinter than raw bones. None of the veterinary dentists that I’ve consulted have been comfortable with rawhides for cats.

If you care about your cat’s dental health, wet food remains a good cat food option. Most veterinary dentists agree that cats’ teeth are adapted for shearing meat off of bones, and aren’t really designed for chewing – the theory that dry food helps keep teeth clean is mostly a myth. Most cats will swallow kibble in large chunks, rather than grind it down as dogs do. (If you have you ever seen cat puke, you’ll notice that it often mostly formed kibble).  Genetics play more of a role in dental health than anything else. A lot of dentists do recommend canned food over dry because of the carbohydrate content – the sticky stuff that starts plaque is full of carbs, so high protein diets provide fewer building blocks for plaque. There are some dental products which have been shown to have some efficacy, and I usually direct clients to the VOHC website [link] for a list of those products.

The other famous cat treat, milk, can actually cause diarrhea.

If your cat ever eats something that it shouldn’t, take him/her to a veterinarian immediately. There are no home remedies that are proven to effectively induce vomiting, and time can be of the essence when dealing with ingestion of toxins.

If you want to learn more, or get more in-depth information, this link has a ton of great info about nutrition. 

Dr. Valdez with Mietze – Jen C Photography

Thank you so much, Dr. Valdez! You’ve given us all something to think about. Next time we find ourselves in the cat food aisle, we’ll know what to look for! We thank you on behalf of our cats and kittens.

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