Cat: Know the Basics of Feline Nutrition
Lisa A. Pierson, DVM
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Diet is the brick and mortar of
health. This web page lays out some often-ignored principles of feline
nutrition and explains why cats have a better chance at optimal health
if they are fed a canned food diet instead of dry kibble.
Putting a little thought into what you feed your cat(s) can pay big
dividends over their lifetime and very possibly help them avoid serious,
painful, and costly illnesses. An increasing number of
nutrition-savvy veterinarians, including board-certified
veterinary internists, are now strongly recommending the
feeding of canned food instead of dry kibble.
The three key
negative issues associated with dry food are:
water content is too low
carbohydrate load is too high
type of protein - too high in
plant-based versus animal-based proteins
Please click on the links below to read
more about optimal nutrition for cats.
But my cat is "fine" on dry food!
The importance of animal
proteins, versus plant proteins
Fresh vs highly
processed with synthetic supplements
carbohydrates in dry cat foods
Cats need water with their food
Reading a pet food
medical problems associated with dry food
The safety of
Tips for Transitioning -
food addicts to eat canned
prepared raw/semi-cooked and commercial raw meat diets
What I feed to my
My Cat is Doing Just
"Fine" on Dry Food!
Every living creature is “fine” until outward signs of a disease
process are exhibited. That may sound like a very obvious and basic
statement but if you think about it……
Every cat with a
blocked urinary tract was “fine” until they started
strain to urinate and either died from a ruptured bladder or had
to be rushed to the hospital for emergency catheterization.
Every cat on the Feline Diabetes Message Board was “fine” until
their owners started to recognize the signs of
Every cat with an
inflamed bladder (cystitis) was “fine” until they
ended up in pain, passing blood in their urine, and missing their
Every cat was
"fine" until the feeding of species-inappropriate, hyperallergenic ingredients caught up with him and he started to
show signs of food intolerance/IBD (inflammatory bowel disease).
Every cat was "fine" until that kidney or bladder stone got big
enough to cause clinical signs.
Every cancer patient was “fine” until their tumor grew large enough
or spread far enough so that clinical signs were observed by the
The point is that diseases 'brew' long before being noticed by the
This is why the statement “but my cat is healthy/fine on dry food”
means very little to me because I believe in preventative
nutrition - not locking the barn door after the horse is gone.
I don’t want to end up saying “oops……I guess he is not so fine
now!!" when a patient presents to me with a medical problem that
could have been avoided if he would have been feed a
species-appropriate diet to begin with.
course, in order to be on board with the preventative nutrition
argument, a person has to understand the following facts:
1) All urinary tract
systems are much healthier with an appropriate amount of water flowing
Dietary water and
urinary tract health
wreak havoc on cats' blood sugar/insulin balance.
3) Cats inherently have a low thirst drive and need
water *with* their food. (A cat's normal prey is ~70 - 75%
water - not the very low 5-10% found in dry food.)
4) Cats are strict
carnivores which means they are designed to get
their protein from meat/organs – not plants.
The Carnivore Connection to
Nutrition in Cats
Cats are obligate (strict) carnivores and are very
different from dogs in their nutritional needs. What does it mean to be
an ‘obligate carnivore’? It means that your cat was built by Mother
Nature to get her nutritional needs met by the consumption of a large
amount of animal-based proteins (meat/organs)
and derives much less nutritional support from
plant-based proteins (grains/vegetables).
It means that cats lack specific metabolic (enzymatic) pathways and
cannot utilize plant proteins as efficiently as animal proteins.
It is very important to remember that not all
proteins are created equal.
Proteins derived from animal
tissues have a complete amino acid profile. (Amino acids are the
building blocks of proteins. Think of them as pieces of a puzzle.) Plant-based proteins do not contain
the full complement (puzzle pieces) of the critical amino acids required by an obligate
carnivore. The quality and composition of a protein (are all
puzzle pieces present?) is also
referred to as its biological value.
Humans and dogs can take the
pieces of the puzzle in the plant protein and, from those, make the
missing pieces. Cats cannot do this. This is why humans and
dogs can live on a vegetarian diet but cats cannot. (Note that I
do not recommend vegetarian diets for dogs.)
Taurine is one of the most important
nutrients present in meat but it is
missing from plants. Taurine deficiency will cause blindness and heart problems
The protein in dry
food, which is often heavily plant-based, is not equal in quality to
the protein in canned food, which is meat-based.
The protein in dry food, therefore, earns a lower biological value
Because plant proteins are
cheaper than meat proteins, pet food companies will have a higher profit
margin when using corn, wheat, soy, rice, etc.
Andy - 16
years ago as a kitten
Veterinary nutritionists and
pet food company representatives will argue that they are smart enough
to know *exactly* what is missing from a plant in terms of nutrient forms and
amounts - nutrients that would otherwise be
in a meat-based diet. They will then claim that these missing
elements are added to their diets to make it complete and balanced to
sustain life in an obligate carnivore.
The problem with this way of thinking is
that Man is simply not that smart and has made fatal errors in
the past when trying to guess how to compensate for such a drastic
deviation from nature. Not all that long ago (1980s) cats were
going blind and dying from heart problems due to Man's arrogance.
It was discovered in the late 1980s that cats are exquisitely sensitive
to taurine deficiency and our cats were paying dearly for Man straying
so far from nature in order to increase the profit margin of the pet
There are several situations
that can lead to a diet being deficient in taurine but one of them is
using a diet that relies heavily on plants (grains, etc.) as its source of protein.
Instead of lowering their profit margin and going back to nature by
adding more meat to the diets, the pet food companies simple started
supplementing their diets with synthetic taurine.
may be all well and good for this particular problem, but how do we know that Man is not blindly
going along unaware of other critical nutrients that are missing from a
Why is Man so arrogant that he thinks he can
stray so far from what a cat is designed by nature to eat?
Also note that
synthetic taurine is manufactured from a
chemical reaction and all taurine (at least
that I know of) comes out of China.
With regard to the overall protein amounts
contained in dry versus canned food, do not be confused by the listing of the protein
percentages on the packaging. At first glance, it
might appear that the dry food has a higher amount of protein than the
canned food—but this is not true on a
dry matter basis
which considers the food minus the water. Most canned foods, when figured
on a dry matter basis, have more protein
than dry food. And remember, even if
this was not the case, the percentage
numbers do not tell the whole story. It is
the protein’s biological value that is
Let's ask ourselves the
following question: How
many cats become ill or die from these species-inappropriate diets yet
the patient's diet is never even questioned as a possible cause of the
illness or death? We cannot answer that question definitively but
I have no doubt that the answer would be "many".
Do cats survive on these
(synthetically) supplemented plant-based diets? Yes, many of them do.
Do cats thrive on these
diets? No, they do not.
Please pay special attention
to the words *survive* versus *thrive* as there is a very
big difference between the two states of health.
Robbie - hunting his dinner
Fresh vs Highly Processed with Synthetic
There are two
basic ways to meet our nutrient needs:
fresh food with a short ingredient
list - or at least one that does not
resemble a science experiment full of
long names that are hard to pronounce.
highly processed foods that have had
much of their nutrient content destroyed
or altered, with food chemists 'fixing'
the deficit with synthetic supplements.
This type of unhealthy diet is
consumed under the assumption that
humans know exactly what was destroyed
or altered during processing and what needs to be added
back and in what form and amount.
Again, Man is simply not that smart.
food is not 'fresh', per se, dry food
undergoes a harsher processing. It
has been cooked at very high temperatures
for a long period of time. The
extensive cooking required to remove most of
the water from the food (70% moisture ->
5-10% moisture) significantly alters
the biological value of the protein sources and damages other vital
then have to guess which nutrients – in what form and amounts – were
destroyed by this cooking process and then try to add them back into the
diet. Occasionally 'real food' is used instead of synthetic
supplements but those long and
hard-to-pronounce names on the ingredient
list describe chemically synthesized
Given that Man will never be
as smart as nature – we will never know every detail of a cat’s normal
prey - it is obvious that there is a risk when arrogance and greed cause
humans to stray so far from a cat’s natural diet.
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In their natural setting,
cats—whose unique biology makes them true carnivores--would not consume
the high level of carbohydrates (grains, potatoes, peas, etc.) that are
in the dry foods (and some canned foods)
that we routinely feed them. You would never
see a wild cat chasing down a herd of
biscuits running across the plains of Africa
or dehydrating her mouse and topping it off
with corn meal souffle.
In the wild,
your cat would be eating a high protein, high-moisture,
meat/organ-based diet, with a moderate level of fat and with only
approximately 1-2 percent of
her diet consisting of carbohydrates. The average dry food contains
35-50 percent carbohydrate calories. Some of the cheaper dry foods contain even higher
This is NOT the diet that Mother Nature intended for your cat
Many canned foods, on the other hand, contain
approximately less than 10 percent
Please note that not all
canned foods are suitably low in carbohydrates. For instance, most
of the Hill's Science Diet (over-the-counter) and the Hill's 'prescription diets' are very high in carbohydrates and are not foods that
I would ever choose to feed.
Cats have a physiological decrease in the ability to
utilize carbohydrates due to the lack of specific enzymatic pathways
that are present in other mammals, and they lack a salivary enzyme called
Cats have no dietary need for carbohydrates and, more worrisome is the
fact that a diet that is high in carbohydrates can be detrimental to
their health as is explained below.
With this in mind, it is as illogical
to feed a carnivore a steady diet of meat-flavored cereals as it would
be to feed meat to a vegetarian like a horse or a cow, right? So why
are we continuing to feed our carnivores like herbivores? Why are we
feeding such a species-inappropriate diet? The answers are simple.
Grains/potatoes are cheap. Dry food is convenient. Affordability and
However, is a carbohydrate-laden, plant-based,
water-depleted dry food the best diet for our cats? Absolutely not.
Obligate carnivores are designed to eat meat/organs –
- and they need to consume water with their food as explained below.
Need Plenty of Water
Feline Urinary Tract Health
is a 'must see' for any cat caregiver who
insists on feeding dry food.
paragraph of that page is as follows:
If I could have the reader
of this webpage take away just one word from this discussion, it would
be "water". If your cat is
on a properly hydrated diet of 100% canned (or homemade) food - and no dry food - you
stand a very good chance of never needing to read this webpage.
Water is an extremely important nutrient
that contributes to overall health in every living creature.
Couple this with the fact that cats
do not have a very strong thirst drive
when compared to other species,
and you will understand why it is critical for them to ingest a
water-rich diet. The cat's lack of a
strong thirst drive can lead to low-level, chronic dehydration when dry food makes up the bulk of their
A cat's normal prey contains approximately 70 - 75 percent water. Dry foods only
contain 7-10 percent water whereas canned foods contain approximately 78
percent water. Canned
foods therefore more closely approximate the natural diet of the cat and
are better suited to meet the cat’s water needs.
I hear the reader saying: "But my cat
drinks a lot of water so dry food is just fine for him!"
consuming a predominantly dry food diet does
drink more water than a cat consuming a
canned food diet, but in the end, when water
from all sources is added together (what’s
in their diet plus what they drink),
the cat on
dry food consumes approximately half
the amount of water compared with a cat
eating canned food.
Water intake of cats on dry vs canned food
way, a cat on a canned food diet consumes
approximately double the amount of
water consumed by a cat eating dry food.
This is a crucial point when one
considers how common kidney and bladder problems are in the cat.
Think of canned food as 'flushing
cat's bladder several times each day.
Please keep in mind that when your cat starts eating a more
appropriately hydrated diet of canned food, his urine output will
increase significantly - often doubling - which is a very good thing for
this increase in urine production, litter boxes need to be scooped more
frequently or more boxes need to be added to the home.
The Litter Box From Your Cat’s Point of View
for reasons why I strongly feel that clumping litter is the only
sanitary choice of litter to use for cats. Non-clumping litters do not
allow you to remove all of the urine and are not sanitary litters.
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- very lean, energetic and athletic on a proper diet. He is 16
years old and still runs around like a kitten.
Learn How To Read a Pet Food Ingredient
details regarding pet food ingredient
get too confused and frustrated when reading this section, I will say at the outset:
I would much rather see a cat eat any canned food versus any
dry food -
regardless of quality level of the canned or dry food. This includes Friskies, 9-Lives,
Fancy Feast, etc., canned options. I am so tired of seeing cats
suffering tremendously from blocked urethras
and other urinary tract diseases because of
Man's love affair with dry food.
Try not to drive yourself
nuts when picking out a canned cat food. The fact that you are
feeding canned food and not dry food is 90%
of the battle so just do the best that you
can - given the information below and on the
Commercial Foods page.
after becoming increasingly frustrated with
the commercial pet food industry in 2003, I
started making my cats' food. See
Food for more information.
When reading this section, two words need
to be firmly in your mind:
composition (the percentage of
protein, fat, and carbohydrate in the food)
Unfortunately, pet food labels are not
held to the same standard as human food labels. This means that
pet food labels are seriously lacking in usable information when
compared to a package of food for a human.
The "guaranteed analysis" numbers that you
find on a can of food for protein, fat, and water (moisture) are listed
as "minimums" and "maximums" which, by definition, are inaccurate.
Plus, the labels never list the carbohydrate amount which is very
frustrating because we are trying to stay under 10% carbohydrate
This makes it impossible to accurately
evaluate the food in terms of composition.
Cat Food Composition chart for
information on many cat food options.
ingredient list can help us out - but
only in some ways. For instance, if
you do *not* see high carbohydrate ingredients
such as grains, potatoes, peas, etc., listed on the label, it is a safe bet that the food is low in
these high carbohydrate ingredients are listed, you have no
idea of the amount in the food and, therefore, no
knowledge of the carbohydrate level.
knowing the actual amount of each
ingredient, we have no indication of the impact of
the ingredient on the nutritional profile of
the food. Only the composition value will answer that question.
This is why it is important to not just consider the list of ingredients
but to also look at the protein/fat/carbohydrate profile of the food.
A good example of the above issue is a
food like canned Wellness. At first glance, this food may be dismissed
as inappropriate for a carnivore because it contains several high
carbohydrate ingredients in the form of fruits and vegetables, including
potatoes which are very high in starch
the low carbohydrate level (3-5%) tells us that the amount of fruits and
vegetables is very low.
potatoes should be absent from a cat's diet
but, unfortunately, they are cheap so they are included in many
commercial cat foods. Think 'profit margin'. Grains/potatoes are cheaper than
Stay away from
food with gravy and sauces
because they usually use high carbohydrate
Soy contains phytoestrogens and soy also
negatively influences the thyroid gland. Given how common
hyperthyroidism is in the cat, soy has no business being in cat food.
Unfortunately, soy is a common ingredient used by many pet food manufacturers
- especially Purina -
because it enhances their profit margin.
ingredient list is useful since we don't care how much of the offending
ingredient is in the food. The bottom line is that we don't want
any of the ingredient to be present. Fish/seafood, beef, lamb,
corn, wheat, and soy tend to be the most hyperallergenic ingredients for
the cat - especially fish/seafood.
By-products are always a controversial subject but
it makes much more sense
to feed animal-based by-products to a cat than it does to feed
grains or potatoes. Therefore, do not shy away from the more economical
foods like Friskies or 9-Lives if you cannot afford the more expensive
canned foods without by-products.
I would much rather see a cat
eating an all-by-product canned food than any dry food. This
is because even the cheaper canned foods have the 'Big Three' covered:
1) high in water
2) usually low in carbohydrates
3) the protein is from animals - not
By-products are not
necessarily low quality protein sources. In fact, they can be extremely
nutritious. However, there is more variability when quality is
being considered when compared to muscle meat.
By-products are discussed in more detail
on the Commercial Foods page
in this section.
The higher priced canned foods that I
referenced above, have a muscle meat listed as the first ingredient. A
muscle meat will be listed as “chicken,” or “turkey,” etc., not “chicken
by-products” or “chicken by-product meal,” or “chicken broth” or
"liver". “Chicken meal” is technically a muscle meat but the term “meal”
denotes that it has been rendered (cooked for a long time at very high
temperatures) and is lower in quality than meat that has not been as
heavily processed. A "meal" product is more commonly found in dry foods.
By-products can include feet, intestines, feathers, egg shells, etc.,
which are less nutritious (less biologically
valuable/digestible) than meat.
Avoid foods listing "liver" as a first
ingredient. (Example: Purina's prescription diet DM canned for
feline diabetic patients. There are
far better options available that are
healthier and not as expensive.)
Liver is a very nutritious organ meat - and should be
present in small amounts - but it should never be the first ingredient
as it is very high in vitamin A and possibly D and you don't want to feed too
much of those vitamins. Liver is cheaper than muscle meat so it will
increase a company's profit margin when used in high amounts.
Preservatives are important
ingredients that we need to pay attention to. BHA, BHT, and
ethoxyquin are extremely questionable in terms of safety.
BHT, and ethoxyquin in many of their products although recently
I have noticed that these chemicals have been removed from some of their
foods. Be sure to check the current labels. Other companies
abandoned the practice of using these chemicals as
preservatives long ago – opting for more natural and safer methods.
Also, please take note of a recent deceptive
move by Hill's whereby they have
incorporated into their labeling the word "maize"
as a substitute for the word "corn". Maize IS corn and
since this company is well aware of the fact that consumers are
becoming more savvy about pet food ingredients, they have decided to
try to disguise the corn in their diets by calling it "maize".
Hill's is hoping that consumers stay ignorant regarding the fact
that maize is corn.
I do not use products made by Hill's
(including their over-the-counter and
"Prescription Diets") since
there are always better options available.
Marketing labels such as "natural",
or "premium", or "veterinarian recommended" are not necessarily
indicative of high quality so please be careful not to fall into that
"Indoor only" is another meaningless
marketing label that is nothing more than an enticing gimmick. This label originally started out in the dry food
market but it has now made its way to canned food labels. Cats did not stop being obligate carnivores just because we
put a roof over their heads.
If you are thinking about feeding
any 'breed-specific' food, please see this
link for some straight-forward comments about the utterly absurd
claims that these companies make regarding these diets. A Siamese is no
different from Persian or a Maine Coon - or an 'alley cat' - when
considering optimal dietary composition. No matter the breed, the cat is
still an obligate carnivore.
was one of the first companies to come out
with these breed specific diets as a
labels on Hill's over-the-counter products
contain a statement that says "Veterinarian
many of my colleagues do, indeed, recommend
products made by Hill’s (as well as Purina,
Iams, and Royal Canin) and
this is a testament to the fact that most
veterinarians are not well-versed in proper
feline nutrition and simply defer to these
companies that have huge
marketing budgets. These
large budgets include substantial sums of
money dedicated to sponsoring - including
very heavy advertising - our professional
meetings and infiltrating veterinary schools
to get students ‘married’ to their products.
Keep in mind that a large marketing budget
does not equate with the manufacturing of
high quality or healthy products.
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Let's move on
to the veterinarian 'prescribed' diets which
are also known as "therapeutic" or
diet" is another label that is certainly
not indicative of a high quality diet or one
that is necessary.
These diets represent an area of the
commercial cat food industry that is very misleading.
Many of these very expensive
products contain corn, wheat, and soy which have no logical place in your
cat's diet. These diets are often very high in carbohydrates
and, of course, all of the dry versions are
water-depleted. Many of them also contain
by-products as the main
- and often only - source of protein.
While by-products can be very nutritious
(and this really is the least of my concerns
regarding these diets),
they are cheaper than muscle meat so one
would think that as much as these diets
cost, the companies could use a more
consistent source of high quality protein.
by-products on the Commercial Food page
for more details.)
ingredient list for Hill's
dry i/d while keeping in mind that cats are
This dry food
is 29% carbohydrates on a dry matter basis
and is, of course, water-depleted. The
ingredients are as follows:
Chicken By-Product Meal, Brewers Rice, Corn
Gluten Meal, Whole Grain Corn, Pork Fat
(preserved with mixed tocopherols and citric
acid), Powdered Cellulose, Dried Chicken,
Chicken Liver Flavor
base ingredients and composition mirror
those of many dry foods found in pet stores
and supermarkets. Also, this is a very
good example of the 'ingredient splitting'
rule. This rule states that
ingredients have to be listed very
specifically which works in the pet food
manufacturers' favor. It allows the
grain fractions to be broken up into smaller
components which places them lower on the
list since ingredients are listed by weight.
However, when all of the grain fractions
are added up, their contribution to the diet
(including the protein content) often
greatly outweighs the first ingredient.
asked many times on VIN (Veterinary
Information Network - the 'who's who' of
veterinary specialists from all over the
world) just what makes this diet worthy of
being called a "Prescription Diet for Feline
Gastrointestinal Health" or, for that
matter, what makes it an
optimal diet to feed to any cat? I have never received
an answer and the VIN threads have had
Hill's representatives participating.
My questions about the quality and
composition of their prescription diets are
always met with dead silence.
It is important to note that
most of these diets do not have robust
clinical feeding studies supporting their
safety for long-term feeding or even for use
in treating the various diseases they
contrary, we have plenty of evidence to show
that feeding water-depleted, high
carbohydrate, plant-based diets to
carnivores does not honor their carnivorous
make-up but, instead, promotes disease in
It is also
critical to understand that there is no
independent agency overseeing these diets'
medical claims. None. Zero.
Including the FDA.
The fox is
definitely guarding the henhouse and the FDA
shows no interest in remedying the
The FDA has
'punted' the responsibility of scrutinizing
these diets for efficacy, safety, and
suitability to the veterinarian but most
poorly educated in the area of nutrition. This field of study is not
emphasized in veterinary schools and the minimal course work that is
required, is often taught by people who have
strong ties to the pet food industry.
These are also
usually the same people who are advising general practitioners
on all matters of nutrition. After
recognizing this situation, you will see an obvious
and very significant conflict of interest.
In the end, the members of my
Purina, Iams, and Royal Canin to dictate
what ends up in our patients' food bowls.
Here is an
excerpt from the "Veterinarian-Prescribed
Diets/OTC Options" paper that I am
'Prescription Diet’ trademark - marketing
tool creates false perception
As an example of the serious lack of
regulatory oversight, Hill’s secured
trademark status for the term “prescription
diet” in 1990 thus reinforcing the
perception that, like prescription
medications, their diets are subject to
intense scrutiny and testing. However,
nothing could be further from the
There is a strong argument to be made that
no trademark protection should be granted
for any marketing label containing the word
“prescription” given the strong potential to
seduce the buyers of these products into a
false sense of security growing out of the
assumption that anything labeled
“prescription” has been put through multiple
layers of regulatory and testing
If any product - including food - is allowed
to carry a “prescription” label, it needs to
be held to the same standards as a
prescription medication. Otherwise, the
word “prescription” becomes no more than a
marketing label, and as such, should hold no
more credibility than any other marketing
To quote the FDA/CVM Communications Staff
“‘Prescription diet’ is an industry-coined
term and holds no legal
In other words, these diets contain no
ingredient that actually requires a
prescription. The trademarked term
“prescription diet” is simply a clever
marketing tool between Hill’s and
veterinarians. The sale of these diets
is restricted (by Hill’s, not by law) to
veterinarians only. In return, Hill’s
enjoys a boost in perception of quality
brought about by this profession’s
endorsement of their products. However,
this perception of quality is undeserved and
this incestuous relationship jeopardizes the
integrity of our profession.
I want to make
it clear that probably 99% of all
veterinarians who 'prescribe' these diets
truly feel that they are doing the best for
their patients. The companies (Hill's,
Purina, Iams, Royal Canin) that manufacture
the 'alphabet' diets have done a wonderful
job marketing their products to
veterinarians, making it difficult to
refrain from falling into the trap of using
companies make it very easy for us. If
a cat comes in with kidney disease? We
can just grab k/d, or NF, or LP without any
critical thought. If a cat comes in
with a urinary tract problem? Easy -
take some c/d off the shelf. Given a
veterinarian's busy schedule and stressful
life, one can see just how seductive the use
of the 'alphabet' diets are.
contrary to what is often believed by both the veterinarian and the
client, the 'therapeutic/prescription' diets sold in veterinary hospitals are
not formulated for optimal health of a carnivore
and, in many cases, are actually detrimental
to the patient's health. In addition,
they are simply not necessary in most cases
and do not optimally address the problems
they claim to treat.
Add to this
the very high price tag on these
diets and we have what I consider to be a
very big 'black eye' for the profession.
The only time
I ever use a
prescription diet (canned s/d) is discussed
here on the Urinary Tract Health page.
Canned s/d is occasionally used but only temporarily (~3-4
re-evaluation of the patient.
defaulting to the 'alphabet' diets,
I can always find an 'over-the-counter' diet
or formulate a homemade recipe for my
patients that leaves more money in the
client's wallet and much better nutrition in the cat's food bowl.
making cat food: People often
overestimate what it takes to make a
nutritious meal for their cat and assume
that it means slaving away in the kitchen
every day. I can assure you, it is
much easier than that. For the past 10
years, I have spent a few hours
in the kitchen 4-6 times a year
making food for my cats which is a very
small price to pay for the control that I
have over what goes into their food bowls.
I do not feed any commercial cat food.
I would love to see veterinarians
stop being so 'married' to the diets they
reach for every day and learn the basics of optimal feline
nutrition and start considering the use of higher quality, lower cost,
over-the-counter - or homemade - diets. Their patients - and their
clients' bank account - will be a lot better
off for it.
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Common Feline Health Problems and Their
Ties to Diet
There is a very strong and extremely
logical connection between the way that we are currently feeding our
obligate carnivores and many of the life-threatening diseases that
Given this fact, and
given what we know about how the cat processes carbohydrates, it is not
a stretch to say that high carbohydrate diets could very well be a
significant factor in causing diabetes in some cats.
this paper discussing the elevated blood
glucose in cats after eating a high
There are countless cases of successful
diabetic remission when cat caregivers
remove all dry food and all high
carbohydrate canned food from their cat's diet.
In addition to the issue of
carbohydrates and how they affect the blood sugar level of some cats, dry food is very calorie dense,
is very palatable, and is usually
free-fed. This often leads to obesity.
Fat cells produce a substance
that makes the other cells in the body resistant to insulin. This
promotes the diabetic state.
It is very important to understand the impact
that a low carbohydrate diet has on the insulin needs of a diabetic cat.
If you have
decided to start feeding your diabetic cat a low carbohydrate diet,
please do not change the diet until you review my
Feline Diabetes page
- especially the STOP sign section -
otherwise you will be putting your cat in danger.
Please also be aware that many
veterinarians underestimate the favorable impact that a low carbohydrate
diet has on the insulin needs of the patient and they do not lower the
insulin dose enough. If the insulin is
not lowered accordingly, an overdose of insulin will occur which can be
I strongly suggest that all caretakers of
to monitor blood glucose levels using a standard glucometer as a matter
of routine. Careful monitoring is especially important when
implementing a diet change.
veterinarians prescribe expensive diets such as Purina DM (Diabetes Management) and
m/d but you can do
much better for your cat (and your pocketbook) by feeding other more nutritious - and lower
carbohydrate - canned foods such as Merrick, Wellness, Nature's Variety, EVO, etc.
See the Cat Food
Composition chart. You should aim for a diet that
derives less than 10% of its calories from carbohydrates.
expensive foods like Friskies, 9-Lives, and
Fancy Feast are also fine to feed.
Kidney Disease (CKD - formerly called
Chronic kidney disease is probably the leading cause of mortality in the cat. It is
troubling to think about the role that chronic dehydration may play in
causing or exacerbating
feline kidney disease. And remember, cats are chronically
dehydrated - especially CKD cats - when
they are on a diet of predominantly dry
food. The prescription dry 'renal
diets' such as Hill's k/d - which
are commonly prescribed by veterinarians - contain only a small
amount of moisture (~10% versus 78% for canned food) leaving your cat in a less than optimal state of
I must say
that I find it truly amazing when I hear
about the very large numbers of cats
receiving subcutaneous fluids while being
maintained on a diet of dry food.
This is an
extremely illogical and unhealthy practice
and every attempt should be made to get
these cats on a diet that contains a higher
also note the following list of the first four ingredients of Hill's
dry k/d after reviewing
section on reading a pet food label - and bearing in mind that
your cat is a carnivore.
This is a diet that would never find its
way into a food bowl owned by any cat in my care.
The first three ingredients are not
even a source of meat and the fourth ingredient is a by-product meal which is
not necessarily an unhealthy source of protein but it would be nice to
see some muscle meat ("chicken") in this product.
rice, corn gluten meal, pork fat (preserved
with mixed tocopherols and citric acid), chicken by-product meal
The purpose of this
'prescription' diet is to restrict protein which, unfortunately, it certainly does.
However, please understand that there are no studies showing that
restricting protein to this level will prevent further deterioration of
k/d restricts protein
to the point that some cats - those that are not consuming enough of the
diet to provide their daily protein calorie needs - will catabolize (use
for fuel) their own muscle mass which results in muscle wasting and
weight loss. This internal breakdown of the cat’s own muscle mass will
cause an increase in creatinine (and BUN) which needs to be cleared by the
kidneys. The rise in creatinine and BUN, and muscle wasting, can lead to an
often-erroneous conclusion that the patient’s CKD is worsening.
Of course, the same
deterioration can occur in any cat that is not consuming enough protein,
but the level of protein in this diet is not
only at an extremely low level, it is in an incomplete form for a
carnivore. Note that it is made up mainly of plant proteins - not
meat proteins. It is also water-depleted as is the very definition
of all dry foods.
Back to top
Feline Urinary Tract Health
for a more detailed discussion. The first paragraph on that webpage
If I could have the reader take away just one word from this
discussion, it would be "water". If your
cat is on a properly hydrated diet of 100% canned food - and no dry food
- you stand a very good chance of never needing to read this webpage.
is an extremely common and very painful
problem in the cat. Stones are also very common
and can lead to a life-threatening urinary tract blockage.
hope that these pictures of Opie make a huge
impact on anyone who is still not convinced
that dry food causes significant suffering
in many cats. Rest assured that
veterinarians deal with blocked cats
extremely frequently which is heartbreaking
considering how rarely cats block when on
all canned food - especially with added
Cystitis can lead
to inappropriate urination (urinating outside of the litter box) and
stones can cause a fatal rupture of the bladder by blocking the
outflow of urine.
Any cat that
is repeatedly entering the litter box but not voiding any urine is
in need of
is one reason why it is so important to use a clumping (scoopable) litter. Clumping
litter allows you to see just how much, if any, urine is being voided.
It is important to note, however, that
"crystals" are not the same thing as stones.
Crystals are often a
finding in a cat's urine and it is not necessarily appropriate to put
the cat on a "special urinary tract" formula when these are found in the
Important: I often see
too much clinical significance placed on the identification of crystals
in the urine without regard to how the urine sample was handled. It is very important to
understand that crystals will often form once outside of the body within a
very short (30-60 minutes)
period of time.
If the veterinarian does not
examine the urine right away and either sends it to an outside
laboratory or uses a free-catch sample that the owner brought from home,
an erroneous diagnosis of crystals may be made. This is called a
"false positive" report and results in unnecessary worry on the part of
the owner and often leads to the cat being placed on an inappropriate,
With regard to overall kidney
and bladder health, I cannot stress
strongly enough how important water
is in both the prevention and treatment of diseases involving this organ
When a cat is on a diet of
water-depleted dry food, they produce
a more highly concentrated urine (higher
urine specific gravity - USG)
and they produce a lower volume
of urine (often half of what a cat on canned food produces) which means that
a higher concentration
will be present in the urine. This increases the chance of
these crystals forming life-threatening stones. It is also thought
that the highly concentrated
urine may be very irritating to the bladder wall in some cats, predisposing them to painful cystitis.
Please keep in mind that
cat has a very low thirst drive and is designed to get water with
their food. A diet of canned food will keep a proper amount of
water flowing through the urinary tract system and help maintain its
Adding 1-2 TBS of
water (plain or flavored – such as tuna water, clam juice, chicken or
beef broth) per meal is also very beneficial. Make your own tuna
water by taking one can of tuna and mixing
the contents into 3 cups of water.
Mash it up and let it sit
for ~15 minutes. Pour the water into
covered ice cube trays. Freeze to
prolong the freshness. Use covered trays to keep the water tasting and
fountains may also help cats consume more
water but feeding a water-rich diet is much
more effective in increasing your cat's
water intake than water fountains or
multiple bowls of water sitting around your
If you are still worrying
about small amounts of crystals in your cat's urine, consider this analogy:
Crystals in cat urine are as normal as the leaves that fall on your
driveway. However, if you don’t
regularly hose down or sweep your driveway,
those leaves will build up and pretty soon
you will not be able to get your car out of
This is what
happened to Opie above. His 'driveway'
(urethra) got blocked and he was unable to
pass any urine resulting in a tremendous
amount of suffering and a life threatening
If you picture crystals as the leaves in this analogy, it is easy to see
how canned food does a better job of
flushing out your cat’s bladder - several
times each day - than dry food does.
crystals are not an abnormal finding in cat urine. However, they can
become a problem if Man continues to insist on feeding the cat a
Mindy and Mikie
Urine pH is also often
considered when discussing urinary tract problems but we really need to
stop focusing so heavily on pH. Again, a proper amount of water in the diet is
the important issue here - not urine pH.
Many of the often-prescribed
feline lower urinary tract diets are formulated to make the urine acidic
but it is thought that these low magnesium, acidifying diets may
actually exacerbate painful cystitis. Also, these acidifying diets often
end up promoting calcium oxylate stone formation and can also lead to
hypokalemia (low potassium in the blood) which can cause or exacerbate
It is also important to note
- for those people still stuck on worrying about the urine pH - that there are
many factors which determine the pH of urine and only one of them is
varies throughout the day and using one pH
measurement from a single urine sample is
very misleading and is not terribly helpful
With regard to dry food and
urinary tract health, aside from the lack of water in this type of diet,
is also a correlation between the consumption of a high carbohydrate diet and
the formation of struvite crystals as shown by this
study because carbohydrate diets promote an alkaline urine.
Veterinarians often prescribe
Hill's Prescription dry c/d for urinary tract problems but again, these diets
are only ten percent water and contain a high level of
species-inappropriate ingredients and questionable preservatives.
They are also very high in carbohydrates with dry c/d containing 42
percent of its dry weight as carbohydrates.
Please note the first few
ingredients in c/d while remembering that your cat is a carnivore:
Brewers rice, chicken by-product meal, corn gluten meal, pork fat
(preserved with mixed tocopherols and citric acid),chicken liver
flavor, taurine, preserved with BHT and BHA
corn gluten meal, chicken by-product meal,
pork fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols
and citric acid), chicken, chicken liver
flavor, fish oil,
Hill's removed the BHA and BHT but are now
using more corn gluten meal and less chicken
Diet is not the only issue involved with cystitis but it is an important
one and one that we can control. Stress is also thought to play a
very significant role in cystitis and even cats that are fed a 100
percent canned food diet may experience bouts of cystitis.
a very frustrating disease to deal with and one that the veterinary
community does not have all the answers for. What we do know is
that decreasing stress and increasing the water content of the
diet are the most important management issues to address. The
water content of the diet is easy to control - feed canned food with
added water. The stress issue is another matter and is not always easy to address
since cats can be very sensitive and are often 'silent' in their stress.
Cystitis can be
extremely painful and it is very important to address pain management
in these cats. Remember: pain = stress and we are trying to
minimize the stress in these patients.
Buprenex is a good choice
for a pain medication and I often dispense it for the client to have on
hand for chronic cystitis patients - as long
as the client understand the critical
importance of close monitoring of the
patient to make sure he is passing urine and
is not obstructed. (I say "he" because
males have a long, narrow urethra and are
much more apt to block than females.)
Buprenex is superior to Torbugesic which has
been used for pain management in the cat in the past. (Burprenex
is a prescription medication that you must get from your veterinarian.)
Unfortunately, many veterinarians overlook pain medications as a very
important part of the treatment of this common feline problem.
A very important note on
usage in these cases: Most cases of cystitis are sterile. In other words, they are
not the result of an infection and
be placed on antibiotics.
Only ~1% of cats with
cystitis that are under 10
years of age have a urinary tract infection, yet many veterinarians place these patients on
antibiotics when these drugs are not warranted. Most cats under 10 years
of age produce a very concentrated urine (USG greater than
1.035) and bacteria do not grow well in concentrated urine.
In cats over 10 years of age,
infections are more common but that still does not mean that older cats
with cystitis should automatically be put on antibiotics. The
reason that an older cat is more prone to urinary tract infections is
because kidney disease is more common in this age group and so these
cats will have a more dilute urine which is not as hostile to bacterial
Diabetes and hyperthyroidism
are also more common
in cats over 10 years of age and both disease render the patient more prone to
urinary tract infections.
only ~20% - or less - of all older cats that
present with lower urinary tract signs (see
Feline Urinary Tract Health - Cystitis)
actually have an infection so ~80% of this
age group exhibiting these clinical signs do
not need to be put on antibiotics.
culture and sensitivity (C & S) should be run to
check for an infection, especially if the patient has a low urine specific gravity
or is diabetic. It must be kept in mind that even with a
low USG, most cases of cystitis are not due to an infection. This
is why it is important to run a C & S before placing the patient on
are NOT harmless drugs and they need to be
used with more critical thought than is
currently happening in both human and
A C & S test
identifies the bacteria (if present) and tells the veterinarian which
antibiotic is appropriate. The urine for a C & S needs to be
obtained by way of cystocentesis which involves using a syringe and
needle to obtain urine directly from the bladder.
This is not a
painful procedure for the cat and this method is the only way to obtain
a sample for accurate information in order to properly treat with
antibiotics. One problem, however, is that a sample may be
difficult to obtain without waiting a couple of hours since cats with cystitis
urinate frequently and often do not have enough urine in their bladder
to get a good sample.
To get around this problem,
some veterinarians will give the patient a dose of subcutaneous (just
under the skin) fluids. The cat is then put into a cage without a
litter box. Within a couple of hours (or less), the bladder is usually full enough
to obtain a urine sample via cystocentesis.
We have to stop treating all cases of cystitis with antibiotics without
supporting evidence of an infection!
Cystitis will often recur in
these patients and this painful health problem can be very frustrating to deal with. On a good
note, most cats will have their clinical signs spontaneously resolve
even without any treatment. In fact, it has often been said,
jokingly, that a cat with cystitis will often stop exhibiting
clinical signs within seven days
with antibiotics and in one week without antibiotics.
Unfortunately, when people
don’t understand this issue, antibiotics often get the credit when they
had nothing to do with the patient’s improvement. When this happens, the
abuse of antibiotics continues.
Bowel Disease (IBD): IBD can cause vomiting,
diarrhea, and/or constipation in the cat.
can also present with weight loss as the
only clinical sign.
There are many unanswered
questions with respect to this disease process, but it is logical
to start to “treat” a gastrointestinal problem in the cat with a
species-appropriate diet considering that it is food that 'bathes'
the problem area.
these cats are treated with a high level of
steroids and a prescription grain-laden dry food diet. I feel very
strongly that this common therapeutic regimen dismisses the very
significant role that a proper diet plays in
our IBD patients.
There are an impressive number of anecdotal reports of cats that were
terribly ill with IBD that exhibit dramatic improvement when all dry food
was removed from their diet and a grain-free/low-carb canned food was fed
Taking it even one step further,
many reports of cats with IBD that improved tremendously on a balanced, grain-free,
Making Cat Food for a balanced recipe.)
Some cats do need
steroids (temporary or long-term) but
we need to focus
more heavily on feeding these patients an appropriate diet rather than
simply relying on immunosuppressive medications.
Back to top
Robbie had severe diarrhea for two years until put
on a grain-free, vegetable-free, homemade diet.
frequent vomiting of hairballs can be a
symptom of IBD. "Frequent" is hard
to define, in this case, but if your cat
is vomiting hairballs on a weekly basis
do not just assume that this is simply
normal feline behavior.
receive emails asking what the best diet is
to feed to cats suffering from hairballs.
The bottom line is that as much hair as
possible should be prevented from getting
into the cat in the first place. This
is accomplished with daily brushing or, in
some cases, shaving the cat if hairballs are
creating serious problems.
Amber loves going naked in the summertime
that shaving cats is not an easy task and
is, therefore, not a 'quick fix' for this
problem but it is an option for serious
Amber can only
be shaved when she is under general
anesthesia. Therefore, almost every
summer she gets a dental cleaning and body
shave to keep her comfortable during the hot
summer months. She never had a problem with hairballs
even with a full coat but she is a lot
happier without her long hair when the
weather is hot.
problems are not just associated with long
hair coats. Shorthaired cats -
especially double-coated cats - can also
have problems with hairballs. However, a
healthy intestinal tract should be able to
deal with hair normally ingested by the cat.
That said, if
we want to help our cats out in this area,
we need to brush them daily.
'chase' hair after it has gained entrance
into the cat's intestinal tract is futile.
Diet is not the answer and neither
are any of the 'hairball remedies' on the
market. As one well-respected feline
medicine specialist often states "this is
not a grease deficiency!"
Bennie before being rescued
Obese cats cannot clean themselves properly
resulting in painful skin inflammation in
their perineal area
Just after I broke Bennie out of jail
suffer from painful orthopedic problems
Mindy and Molly - just after Molly
discovered how good canned food is for her
obese but carnivorous body
Obligate carnivores are
designed to meet their energy needs with a high protein, moderate fat
diet with little to no carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are minimally used for energy and those that are not
used are converted to and stored as fat. The so-called “light” diets
that are on the market have targeted the fat content as the nutrient to
be decreased. The choice is then to raise either the protein or
carbohydrate content of the diet, or both.
animal-based protein (meat and organs) is more expensive than carbohydrates (grains/potatoes/peas), pet
food manufacturers raise the carbohydrate levels in these foods
making them very species-inappropriate and unhealthy.
An optimal weight loss diet should be:
When looking at the
Cat Food Composition chart, you will
note that there are not many examples of
this profile. Why? Because fat
is cheaper than protein. The calories
from protein + fat + carbs must = 100%.
If the carbs are kept below 10%, that leaves
90-95% of the calories to be divided between
protein and fat.
expensive. Fat is cheap.
Therefore, low carb diets are usually high
nice profiles include, Merrick, Friskies
Classic Pates, Tiki Puka Puka Luau, and Tiki
notice that many of the higher protein diets
are fish-based but it is not a good idea to
feed fish to cats. Or, at least not as
their main diet. Fish can be high in
mercury, high in PBDEs (fire retardant
chemicals linked to hyperthyroidism), high
in phosphorus (not good for older cats'
kidneys) and can be very addicting. It
is best to feed poultry-based diets to cats.
of the diet is very important. Studies
have shown that cats lose weight much
easier on canned food versus dry.
Dry food is very calorically dense and is
high in carbohydrates which are not as
satisfying to a cat as protein is.
Many cats on the commercial 'light' or 'less active' diets either do not lose
weight or do lose weight but also lose muscle mass along with the
loss of fat. This is not our goal. The goal is to lose fat while
maintaining muscle mass.
several studies, cats fed a high protein/low carbohydrate diet lost
weight but maintained their lean body mass in comparison to cats fed
a high carbohydrate/low fat diet.
Many caretakers feed very small amounts of these
"light" diets hoping that
their cat will lose weight. However, feeding a small
amount of a diet that is inappropriate for the species is not
the answer! The caretaker often ends up with either a crabby,
overweight cat or a thinner cat that may have lost too much muscle
See Molly’s and Bennie’s story of weight loss on this site's
Feline Obesity page to read about
how these sweet cats went from inactive obese cats that could barely
walk or clean themselves to healthier, happier felines.
Molly had great difficulty walking and cleaning herself due to her
obese condition which was brought on by the consumption of dry
food. Kittens, however, loved using her for a pillow.
Molly’s veterinarian had prescribed Hill's Prescription dry r/d for
her and instructed her caretaker to feed Molly only very small
portions - and to put a shock collar on her to keep her away from
her housemates' food. This is obviously not sound - or humane - obesity management advice.
Hill's Prescription r/d is a poor quality, high carbohydrate (35%)
diet that contains the following inappropriate and unhealthy
ingredients including a high level of fiber which a feline intestinal
tract is not designed to process:
Chicken by-product meal, corn meal,
powdered cellulose 18.5% (a source of fiber),corn gluten meal,
chicken liver flavor, vegetable oil, taurine, L-carnitine, preserved
with BHT, BHA and ethoxyquin
Rice, Chicken By-Product Meal, Corn
Gluten Meal, Powdered Cellulose, Chicken
Liver Flavor, Soybean Oil
Hill's removed the BHA and BHT but a
plant-based protein is now the predominant
protein source instead of an animal-based
protein. This diet is even more unhealthy
than it used to be.
There are much more species appropriate
- and less expensive - ways to address feline obesity.
However, if you are contemplating the use of the grain-free, high
protein/low carb dry foods, please understand that these
diets are very calorie-dense and often lead to weight gain,
in addition to being detrimental to urinary tract health because of
Lipidosis (Fatty Liver Disease):
This is the most common metabolic liver
disease of cats. Cats that go
longer than ~3 days without eating, for any reason, are in
danger of developing this serious, and often fatal, disease. Even
though thin cats can end up with hepatic lipidosis,
overweight cats are much more prone to experiencing this
high-protein, low-carbohydrate canned diet helps keep cats at an optimal,
healthy body weight and, in turn, makes them less likely to end up with
fatty liver disease.
Disease: Long-standing claims that cats have less dental disease when they
are fed dry food versus canned food are grossly overrated,
inaccurate, and are not supported by recent studies. This
frequently stated (among veterinarians and lay people) myth
continues to harm cats by perpetuating the idea that their food
bowls need to be filled up with an unhealthy diet in order to keep
their teeth clean.
The idea that dry food promotes dental health
makes about as much sense as the idea that crunchy cookies would
promote dental health in a human.
First, dry food is hard, but brittle, and merely
shatters with little to no abrasive effect on the teeth. Second, a
cat's jaws and teeth are designed for shearing and tearing meat -
not biting down on dry kibble. Third, many cats swallow the majority of their dry
There are many factors –
known and unknown - that contribute to dental disease in the cat
such as genetics, viruses, diet, and the fact that cats do not
brush their teeth like humans do. There remain many unanswered
questions concerning the fact that cats often suffer from poor
dental health but one very obvious answer lies in the fact that Man
feeds the cat a diet that does not even come close to what they
would eat in their natural state.
When cats consume their
prey in the wild, they are tearing at flesh, hide, bones, tendons,
and ligaments. This is a far cry from the consistency of dry or
Neither dry kibble nor
canned food comes close to mimicking a cat’s normal diet of mice,
birds, rabbits, etc. Given what a cat does eat in nature, it makes
much more sense to be feeding part of the diet in the form of large
chunks of meat (as large as you can get your cat to chew on) or
gizzards (tough and fibrous) which a cat’s teeth are designed to
chew. Raw meat is ‘tougher’ to chew than cooked meat so I prefer to
use raw meat – or lightly baked to kill the surface bacteria - to promote dental health.
See Making Cat
Food - Dental Health.
Notice the phrase “part of the diet” in the above
sentence. It is very important to understand that plain meat (ie
- without bones or another source of calcium) is very unbalanced since there is minimal calcium in meat. Remember that when a cat
eats his normal prey, he is consuming the bones along with the meat.
When fed as a supplement to most commercial
canned foods, it is safe to feed ~15 - 20% of the daily calories in the
form of plain meat. For example, if a cat is eating 6 ounces of
canned food per day, you could feed him 5 ounces of canned food plus
1 ounce of chunked muscle meat per day.
When people ask me “how often should my cats be
fed chunks of meat?”, I reply “how often do you brush your own
And speaking of
brushing teeth, this is, by far,
the best way to promote your cat's dental health. See this
video for more information.
close attention to the statement in the video regarding a thorough
dental exam by your veterinarian before starting a brushing
Many cats have very painful mouths but show no
outward signs of this pain. If you try to brush your cat's
teeth in the face of a painful mouth, you will end up with a
cat that is scared - along with developing a strong aversion to
toothbrushes. If this aversion occurs, you may never get him
to accept tooth brushing once you have addressed the painful mouth
with your vet.
With regard to frequency, once-daily is optimal. By
the time 72 hours have passed, the film on
the teeth becomes permanent so shoot for at
least every other day.
that I am not saying that canned food is necessarily better for
teeth than dry food. For optimal dental health, a cat should
not be eating either canned or dry food since neither food type
promotes a healthy oral cavity but we have to work with what is practical in
a typical home setting and feeding a cat a 'whole carcass prey' diet
is not terribly practical - even if it would be great for their
The compromise is to at least give them some muscle
meat to chew on, in addition to brushing their teeth if possible, and to
stop fooling ourselves into thinking that dry
food promotes dental health in our cats.
I am often
asked about 'dental' diets such as Hill's
t/d but if someone has read to this point on
this webpage, it will be understood that
these diets represent the epitome of 'tunnel
vision' nutrition. All 'dental' diets are all dry
(water-depleted), all are all high in
carbohydrates, and all contain
species-inappropriate ingredients, and as
such, even if they do impart any measurable
effect on dental health, they wreak havoc on
the rest of the body.
It is wise to
feed for the health of the *whole* cat, not just one part of
By-Product Meal, Brewers Rice, Corn Gluten
Meal, Powdered Cellulose, Whole Grain Corn,
Pork Fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols
and citric acid), Chicken Liver Flavor
Saint Molly never met a kitten she didn't
treat as her own
Feline Asthma/Allergic Airway Disease:
Many cats have had their respiratory symptoms
(coughing/difficulty breathing) subside considerably, or disappear
completely, once they were placed on a grain-free canned food diet, or a
meat-based homemade diet. Some of
these struggling cats may have been reacting to storage mites or
cockroach antigens that are present in dry foods, or they may have
been reacting to the gluten (protein fraction) part of the grains
that are present in dry foods.
Sadly, many cats exhibiting
debilitating lung disease are simply put on an immunosuppressive
dose of steroids - while still being fed an inappropriate diet.
While steroids are necessary in many cases of airway disease,
they are not addressing the root of the problem which can, in many
cases, be an allergy to proteins in the form of
species-inappropriate grains, and insect antigens.
can cause diabetes in cats and also render them vulnerable to
infections from viruses, bacteria, and fungal agents so it is very
important to make sure you have ruled out diet as a cause of the
cat's respiratory symptoms.
Back to top
Robbie and Calvin flexing their muscles
The Safety of Dry Food
Dry food is far from a clean, safe, and pathogen-free source of food for
your cat. Please see this
section on my
Making Cat Food page which details just a few of the
many pet food recalls due to contamination of commercial pet food with deadly chemicals,
bacteria (salmonella, etc.), fungal mycotoxins, and storage mites.
The issue of rancid fats in dry food is also discussed on
the Making Cat
mycotoxins are deadly chemicals produced by
molds. Molds are very common contaminants of
grains but molds can be found in many
different food sources. In mid
January, 2011, 200 cows died from eating
moldy sweet potatoes that were mixed into
There is no
doubt in my mind that many cats and dogs
have become ill from the contaminants that
are often present in dry pet foods yet
nobody (including the veterinarian and pet
owner) puts 2 + 2 together and realizes that
the diet is the source of the pet's illness.
Keep in mind
that dry foods are not refrigerated and they
sit in warm warehouses, on pet store
shelves, and in your cupboards for weeks or
months before your pets consume them.
At the very
least, dry food should be kept in the
refrigerator but it is better to just
refrain from feeding this type of food
Back to top
Dry Food Addicts to Canned Food
Tips for Transitioning
This is the hard part.
Cats, like children, often resist what is best for them. The two
most frequent comments that I hear from people when trying to convince
them to feed their cats a healthier diet are "my cat won't eat canned
food" and "but my cat really likes his dry food."
Children really like potato chips and ice cream but that certainly does
not mean those food items constitute optimal nutrition.
The transition process often involves much more than just plunking down
a new food item. Time, patience and tricks are often required.
One reason that cats like dry food so much is because the pet food
companies do not play fair when manufacturing this sub-optimal
food source. They coat the kibble with extremely enticing animal
digest sprays which are very pleasing to a cat - making a poor quality
diet very desirable to the target animal.
In addition to the
aforementioned coating of dry food with animal digests, another
issue is one of a crunchy texture which is very different
from canned food. Cats are very resistant to such a drastic change
in the texture of their food.
If you are convinced that
getting your cat off of dry food is the way to go, read on for some tips
on how to accomplish this.
The key is to
do it slowly and with patience
and incorporate various tricks for the stubborn cats.
The most important issue is actually
making the change, not how
fast you accomplish it.
I must say
that my cats tested every ounce of patience I had over a 3 + month
period of time during their transition from dry to canned food.
They had been on dry food their entire lives and did not recognize
canned food as food. My cats ranged in age from 2 years to
10 years at the time of the transition.
The single biggest mistake I see
people make time and again is to say that their cat "won't touch" the
new food and then panic and fill up the bowl with dry food. In many cases, it is simply not that easy to get
cats off of dry food. (See
Molly's Story for a look at one
very stubborn cat.)
There are two categories of cats - those
that will eat canned food and
those that will be extremely resistant to eating anything other
than dry food. If your cat falls into the first category,
lucky you. These cats will
take to it with the attitude of “finally – an appropriate diet for my
species.” In this case, if your cat has been on all dry food, or
only receives canned food as an occasional 'treat', start by
feeding canned food in increasing amounts. Gradually decrease the
dry, taking about a
week to fully switch the cat over to 100 percent canned food.
Some cats may experience
softer stools during the transition. I do not worry if this
happens and tend to 'ride it out'. If diarrhea results from the
diet change you will either need to experiment with different canned
foods or slow the transition down and do it over a period of several
Note that in
over 35 years spent in this profession, I
have never met a cat that needed dry food to
stay healthy but some need to be
transitioned more slowly than others.
The average cat should eat
of canned food per day split between 3-4 meals/day (or just free-fed
if they are not overweight) but this is just a
general guideline. When determining how much you should be feeding
your cat once transitioned to canned food, keep it simple. Too
fat? Feed less. Too thin? Feed more.
Andy and Calvin
Now....for the stubborn
If you are unlucky like I
was, and your cat does not recognize the fact that he is a carnivore and
would live a healthier life if eating canned food,
then you will have some work
Some cats that have been on dry food for their entire life will be quite
resistant to the diet change and may take several weeks or longer to
make the transition to a healthier diet.
'resistant-to-change' cats, you will need to use the
normal sensation of hunger
to help with the transition. For this reason, it is very
important to stop free-feeding dry food.
This is the first, and very critical, step. You need to establish
set mealtimes. They are not going
to try anything new if their bowl of junk food is in front of them 24/7.
Cats do not need food available at all times. It really is okay for them
to experience a hunger pain! That said, it was very hard
for me to listen to my cats begging for food even though I was strong in
my conviction that I was heading them in the best direction for optimal
health. It truly was a stressful time for me and them. Actually,
I think it was harder on me!
This is where many people fail and just give in and fill
up the dry food bowl. There were a few times when I had to call my
'sponsor' and was instructed to "just leave the house if you can't take
looking into those eyes!" I left the house. Those pitiful
little cries of "I have not had food for two WHOLE hours!" were hard to take.
But, lo and behold, they were just fine when I returned. Not one cat had died from
On the other hand,
do not attempt to withhold food for long
periods of time
(greater than 24 hours) with the hope that your cat will
choose the new food. You need to ‘convince’ them that a high quality
canned food really is good for them, rather than to try starving them into
it - which does not work anyway. Allowing a cat to go without food
- especially an overweight cat -
for a long period of time (greater than 48 hours) can be quite dangerous
and may result in hepatic lipidosis
(fatty liver disease).
lipidosis can also develop when a cat consumes 50% or less of his daily
caloric requirements over a period of many days. The definition of
"many" varies from cat-to-cat. For this reason it is important to
understand that you need to have some idea of the
canned food combined with the
dry food that your cat is consuming on a daily basis while you are
implementing the transition to canned food.
I have never seen a cat
develop hepatic lipidosis when consuming at least 15 calories per pound
per day. This number is figured on
lean body weight, not fat
If your cat weighs 18 pounds but really should weigh 12
pounds, please make sure that he is consuming
~180 calories per
day. (12 pounds lean body mass X 15 calories/pound/day = ~180
the cat in the above example would probably
be completely safe at only 150 calories per
If you have a small female cat that should only weigh 9 pounds, please
make sure that she is consuming at least 135 calories per day.
Canned foods never list the
calorie content on the can but many dry foods do list this information
on the bag. A rough guideline for the calorie content of
most canned foods that are 78% moisture is ~30 calories/ounce but can
range from 20 to 40 calories/ounce as shown by the chart linked above.
Most cats will lose some
weight during the transition to canned food. Given that a very
high percentage of cats are overweight to begin with, this is a favorable result of
the diet change - as long as they do not lose too much weight too
fast. A cat should never lose more than 1-2% of his body
weight per week.
I highly suggest that all cat
caregivers weigh their cats periodically especially if they are over 10
years of age. This will help ensure a
safe transition to a healthier diet and, in general, weight loss is
often the first sign of ill health for any reason. I make it a
point to weigh my cats at least every 2 months especially since they are
now over 10 years of age.
Here is a
scale that is reasonably priced:
Salter Baby and Toddler scale.
It weighs to the nearest
1/2 ounce and has a 'hold' button on it that helps obtain an
accurate weight even for a cat that is moving around a bit.
another scale that may be even better
because its base is as long as the scale.
Red Cross Baby Scale. This is important
for cats that are trained to walk onto it
otherwise, scales like the Salter one linked
above may tip. This would scare the
cat and harm the scale.
All of my cats lost weight during the three
months that it took to switch them to canned but none of them became too
thin. They slimmed down to a nice lean body weight - losing fat
while maintaining their muscle mass. They also became
much more active.
If your cat is overweight, please see the
Feline Obesity page.
yourself to the fact that you will be very frustrated at times
and you will be wasting canned food as they turn up their nose at
it. Also, you may want to
immediately switch your cat to a dry food that has fewer calories from
carbohydrates than most dry foods. (e.g., EVO)
low-carb dry foods are very high in fat and therefore are very calorie
dense. These foods must be portion-controlled otherwise,
your cat may end up gaining weight. Note that dry Innova EVO has
612 calories per cup. One
quarter of a cup contains 153 calories so
be very careful to pay attention to how much of these high calorie dry
foods you feed.
The caloric needs of an average cat
can range between 150 - 250 calories/day depending on their lean body
weight and activity level.
The low-carb dry foods are also very high in
phosphorus. This is especially detrimental for cats with compromised
of course, these low-carb dry foods are water-depleted - just like all dry
foods - putting your cat at risk for serious urinary tract problems.
They are also cooked at very high temperatures in order to dry them
I do not recommend these dry foods for
long-term feeding for all of the reasons stated above.
Please use them only as transition diets.
Be sure to stay away from any "light" varieties
those types of foods are very high in carbohydrates.
Here are some various tricks for the
Keep in mind that different
tricks work on different cats:
If your cat has been eating dry food
on a free-choice basis, take up
the food and establish a schedule of 2 -
3 times per day feedings.
I really do prefer just twice-daily feedings when trying to
transition them. A normal, healthy hunger response after 12
hours goes a long way to convince them to try something new.
Once the cat has
transitioned to canned food, I prefer to either free-feed them (if
they are not too fat) or to put out a meal 3-4 times per day.
Small cats in the wild eat 8-10 small meals per day. I do not worry
about leaving canned food out for up to 12 hours at a time. Keep in
mind that a lion is not going to eat his entire prey immediately.
If you want to take the transition
very slowly, you can feed the amount that your cat normally consumes
in a 24 hour period - split up into two feedings to get him used to
meal feeding. Many people, however, are unsure as to how much
their free-fed cat really eats so I would start off by figuring out
the calories that your cat needs to maintain his weight if he does
not need to lose any weight.
Again, most cats only
need 150-250 calories/day. The dry food bag should tell you
how many calories are in a cup of food but if it does not, you can
call the company.
dry food down
for 20 minutes, and then remove any uneaten portion. Repeat in 8-12
hours depending on if you are feeding 2 or 3 times per day.
During the first few days of transitioning to a
set schedule, you can offer canned food during the dry food meals,
or in-between meals. The stubborn ones, however, will not
touch it. Do not despair - all cats will eventually eat canned
food if their caregiver is determined, methodical, and patient enough.
Once your cat is on a schedule you will notice that he is more
enthusiastic about food during his
will be much more inclined to try
Once you have established
scheduled mealtimes, you will most likely need to start feeding a
bit less at each mealtime in order to get the normal sensation
of hunger to work in your favor.
Again, we are trying to use the
normal sensation of hunger to help us out. We are not
trying to starve the cat into the diet change.
Once your cat is on a
schedule of meal-feeding instead of free-feeding, try feeding a meal of canned food
only. If he will not eat it - and the very stubborn ones won't
- try not to get frustrated - and do not put down dry food. Try
some of the other tips listed below. If he still will
not eat the canned food, let
him get a bit hungrier. Offer the canned again in a couple of hours
- or just leave it out. Some cats
will be more apt to try something new if
they keep walking by it and
Try a different brand/flavor or a different 'trick'.
Once it has been ~18 hours since he has eaten anything, give him
just a small amount (1/4 of a cup - or less if it is EVO) of his dry food
- keeping track of his daily caloric intake.
Remember to be patient.
Exercising your cat with
a tassel toy before feeding can also help stimulate his
are much more sensitive than ours are. They can smell the dry
food in the cupboards. I suggest either putting it in the
refrigerator or putting it in a tightly sealed container. If
they can smell it, they will hold out for it. Some people
recommend getting it out of your house completely, but this is not
possible when you are dealing with a very stubborn cat that needs a
bit of time and patience to make the transition happen.
The following worked for my cats:
Sprinkle a very small amount of
– or any other favorite treat (some cats
do not like fish and would prefer cooked
chicken) - on top of the canned food and then once
they are eating this, start pressing it into the top of the new
food. (The “light” tuna is better than the fancy white tuna because
it has a stronger smell. Or, Trader Joe’s makes a Cat Tuna
that is very stinky.) Be careful to decrease the amount of
fish as soon as possible. Health problems can occur with a
predominantly fish-based diet. Plus, you do not want to create
a situation where your cat will only eat very fishy foods.
Try offering some
(or raw - whole meats, rinsed well or partially baked)
chicken or meat baby food. One of the goals is to get your cat used to eating
food that does not crunch. He needs to get used to a different
texture. Also, chicken is a great source of protein to
point him in the proper direction toward a high protein, low
carbohydrate diet. If he eats the chicken, he may head
right into eating canned food. Then again....he may not.
be purchased online but an easier product to
find is Temptations treats. I
trap a lot of feral cats for
spaying/neutering purposes and this is one
of the best baits that I can use.
These tasty treats can be found at most pet
stores. Put a few in a baggie and
crush them with a hammer. Use the
crushed treats as described for the
Speaking of texture, a
common question is "can I just soak the dry food in water?" I
hedge more than just a bit at this question. Dry food often has a
very high bacterial
content. Mold is also often found in dry food. Both
organisms flourish in moist
environments. There have been many deaths of dogs and
cats secondary to eating mold mycotoxins, vomitoxins and aflatoxins which often
contaminate the grains found in dry food. If you want
to try the trick of wetting down the dry food to alter the texture,
please leave it out for only 20-30 minutes then discard it.
Try dipping some
dry food pieces in the juice from the canned food. Some cats
may refuse to eat it if the dry food even touches the canned food.
But if he will eat it with a bit of canned juice on it, try the
'chip and dip' trick. Scoop up a tiny bit of canned food onto
the piece of dry food. Put them on a separate plate from his small
portion of dry food. Some cats will eat their small
portion of dry and then go investigate the dry food with a tiny bit
of canned on it.
If you do not think it
will upset your cat, try gently rubbing
a bit of canned food or juice on the cat's gums This may
get him interested in the taste and texture of the new food - but do it
gently. You do not want to
make this a stressful situation and create a food aversion.
(This trick is commonly used to get just-weaned kittens used to
eating canned food.)
If you do not think it
will upset your cat, use your finger to put a tiny
bit of canned food or juice on his paw for him to lick off.
This has not worked for me in the two cats I have tried it on but it
is another idea. Make sure you do it without stressing your
cat. Again, you do not want to create a food aversion.
If you have a multiple
cat household, some cats like to eat alone in a less stressful
environment, so you may need to take these
cats into a separate, quiet room to think about the error of their ways - their
carbohydrate/dry food addiction. Once in a quiet setting, away from
the other cats, two of my cats would eat canned food/tuna ‘meatballs’ by
hand. Not from a bowl, mind you, but only from my hand. I’m
not sure who was being trained. They did eventually start eating
from a bowl after a few hand feedings.
Try various brands and
flavors of canned foods. Try Friskies, 9-Lives, Fancy Feast,
etc. Many cats prefer the foods that are all by-products and
turn their noses up when offered the by-product-free diets like
Wellness, etc. You can worry about feeding a a different
later if you want to and you can always mix different types of food together. The initial goal is just to get your cat used to eating canned
food and not dry kibble. And remember what I said above. I
would much rather see a cat eating a canned food like Friskies,
9-Lives, or Fancy Feast
rather than any dry food.
Syringe-feeding is also
another option but has to be done with finesse and patience
so as to avoid a food aversion. If you choose to syringe-feed,
your goal is not to feed him a full meal. Sometimes just
syringing a 1-2 cc's can 'jump-start' your cat into eating the
canned food - maybe not the first time but it will at least get him
to taste the new food and experience a foreign texture. The best way
to syringe-feed is to kneel on the floor with your cat between your
legs so he is facing the same way as you are. Then, using a
small (1cc/TB) syringe, slip it in the side of his mouth and give
about 1/2 cc at a time. He may spit it out but you are just
trying to get him used to the taste and texture, not stress him.
Few canned foods will make it
through the tip of a syringe but
human meat baby food works well for
this trick. You can also water it
down a bit if you need to.
If you want to use canned cat
food instead of baby food, you will need to cut the end off of the syringe
so that the opening is as big as the barrel. Make sure that
the tip is smooth. If you do not want to cut the tip of the
syringe off, you will need to puree a pate (versus chunks) type of
food. I puree Wellness for this. I
run it through the blender with a small amount of water (~3-4
tablespoons/5.5 ounce can). Then I strain it to remove
anything big enough to clog the small tip of the syringe. Wellness is also a balanced diet - unlike human baby food.
Even though human baby food
is not a balanced diet for long-term use, it is a great tool that can be used
to help transition a cat to a texture that he is not used to.
I did have to take
drastic measures for a foster cat named Molly. She was
dangerously obese (20 lbs - double what she should have weighed) and would
not eat canned food even after two weeks of syringe-feeding her.
She needed to go in for a dental so while she was under general
anesthesia, I put in a feeding tube. This took the stress off of both of us. After
weeks of feeding her via the tube she started licking the canned
food from my fingers then suddenly decided it was time to eat it.
She then started to finally lose weight. Before the 7 lbs weight loss, she could
barely walk, could not clean herself, and was quite possibly headed for
Don't give up. One
of my barn cats ate dry food for the first 12 years of her life.
She would never touch the canned food that the other cats ate. Then,
one day, she found her 'inner carnivore' and started eating canned
food out of the blue! I was shocked. That was 4 years
ago and she has been on a 100% canned food diet since she made the
are just a few tricks that you can try. Different tricks work on
different cats. The key is to be patient. Remember, it took
me three months to get my cats on 100% canned food. Most cats,
however, will not take this long.
Back to top
Calvin and Andy are at a much healthier weight since discontinuing
all dry food.
Commercial Raw Meat Products
people have a strong negative reaction to
the idea of feeding their cat raw meat
but this is
what a carnivore is designed to eat. Keep in mind that there are no
hibachis or stoves in the wild. Also, wild cats do not always
consume their prey in its entirety immediately upon killing it so the
meat that they eat is not always from a fresh kill.
humans with respect to their susceptibility to ‘food poisoning’. Cats
much shorter transit time through their intestinal tract
than humans do (about 12 - 16 hours for the cat versus 35-55 hours for the
human). This is a very important point because the more time bacteria
spend in the intestinal tract, the more they multiply, eventually leading to
not all sources of raw meat are created
equal. For instance, I will not
feed pre-ground supermarket meat in a raw
form. I buy only whole cuts of meat
which can be thoroughly rinsed prior to
grinding or they can be partially baked to
kill the surface bacteria.
Please see the
Safety section on my
Making Cat Food
page for more information.
properly handled and prepared raw or semi-cooked meat diet has much less bacteria in it than
many commercial dry foods. Commercial pet foods may also contain high
levels of mold toxins from grains which are never a danger in a grainless raw meat diet.
Please see the
Dangers of Dry food section on my Making Cat Food page that discusses the common contamination issues
associated with dry food.
several ways to prepare a homemade
diet which are discussed on my Making Cat Food page. My cats have been thriving for the past
10 years on a diet that I prepare using either
ground whole carcass rabbit (fed raw) from a reputable farm, or whole meats
(chicken thighs) from Whole Foods Market that I grind
myself after partially baking. I add just a few supplements and water to complete the diet.
Robbie waiting for dinner
Cat food headed for the freezer
are often overwhelmed or intimidated by the idea of making their cat's
food but, in reality, it's quite simple -
as long as you follow a balanced recipe.
I make cat food once every few months and freeze it. Making your own cat food doesn't
mean slaving in the kitchen every day--trust me, if it did, I
wouldn't be doing it.
A few hours in the kitchen
4-6 times a year is a very small price to
pay for having complete control over what
goes into your cat's food bowl.
If you are interested in preparing your own cat food, see
Making Cat Food.
Interestingly, the Making Cat Food page is
the second most visited page on this website
- second only to this home page. I am
very pleasantly surprised to see that so
many people are willing to make their cat's
One common mistake people make when
feeding a home-prepared diet is thinking that
a cat can live on meat alone - without bones as a source of calcium.
While meat must be the primary component of a feline diet, there
is not enough calcium in meat (without the bones) to provide a proper
Always remember that calcium is not an
optional 'supplement' but is a very critical component of the diet.
must be ground with the meat (preferable),
or bone meal must be added to the recipe.
(I am a stickler for using fresh bone - not
Another way to feed a raw meat diet is to
purchase ready-to-feed frozen commercial pet diets. Many people
feed these diets with great results.
Unfortunately, as is also true with canned
foods, these products vary a great deal with respect to quality and
Many of these products
use only poultry backs and necks which have
a very high bone:meat ratio and,
subsequently, a very high mineral load.
also contain items such as
vegetables in a much higher quantity than would be found in a
cat's natural diet. Plus, the vegetables in these diets are obviously not
predigested as they would be if consumed with the cat's prey. This
is a very important point that many people seem to forget when deciding
to feed vegetables to carnivores. Cats do not have a physiologic
requirement for vegetables and actually lack the enzymes needed to break
down this food source for efficient utilization.
If you choose to feed a commercially prepared raw pet food, you must do
some homework. One specific issue to look at is the percentage of
vegetables, and occasionally fruits, that the product contains. Commercial raw diet
options include Rad Cat, Primal, Bravo,
Nature's Variety, and Feline's Pride.
Back to top
Some Final Thoughts
Congratulations if you
have made it to this point in this article. You must really care about
feeding your cat a healthy diet and are open to new ideas regarding
their nutritional needs. This paper has outlined what constitutes
nutrition for an obligate carnivore in a home environment as well as
discussed some diseases that a poor diet can
The most common complaint that I
hear from people is that their cat will NOT eat canned food and will
ONLY eat dry food.
My cats fell into this category which was not
surprising since they had been on a 100 percent dry food diet their entire
lives and ranged in age from 2 -10 years at the time of the transition to
a healthier diet. It took me several months to convince
them that they are
need meat – and not in a
dry, overly processed form that also includes far too many
carbohydrates and too little water. It was a little rough, at times, since two of my cats get
very crabby with their housemates when they are hungry. These boys were
occasionally taken into a separate room during the transition period and
fed some dry food because I do not like unrest in my home.
Who? Me?? Crabby?
Surprisingly, one of my most stubborn dry
food addicts is now happily eating a
homemade raw or partially baked meat/bones/organs diet that he actually likes better than
the canned food. To be very honest, it does my heart good to see my
little carnivores gnawing on meat – eating a diet that was meant for
their species. My cats are now eating
a species-appropriate diet consisting of raw
or partially baked meats (chicken, turkey, and rabbit), finely ground bones, and organs using a properly
Some people feed part homemade and part
commercial canned for variety and convenience. However, I prefer
to stick to only what I make for them and do
not feed any commercial food.
I have not
fed any dry food to my cats for 10 years and
I can't imagine ever feeding my cats this type of diet again.
Cats do not need, or benefit from, any dry food in their diet. They
also do not need access to food 24 hours a day although my cats are
pretty much free-fed.
Many people who are at work all day worry that their
cat will suffer without access to food continuously.
A healthy cat will
not perish if she does not have food available at all times.
However, I routinely left canned food out for up to 12 hours at a time
for my foster cats and kittens when I was involved in rescue work.
Keep in mind that a cat's
gastrointestinal tract is much different from ours.
If you are worried about leaving canned food out, you can always leave
part of the food out at a normal (‘mouse body’) temperature and part of
it frozen. The frozen portion will thaw within a few hours and
will add some time to the 'freshness' of the food. This is also a great
trick if you need to be gone for 24 hours or if your pet
sitter can only come every 24 hours when you go on
There is never any reason to revert back to
sitting out a bowl of dry food since cats
should be checked on – including having
their litter box cleaned – at least once
every 24 hours anyway. Normally litter
boxes should be cleaned at least twice-daily
so if they are only going to be cleaned
once-daily, you should consider adding
another box or two….keeping mind that once
there are more than 2-3
‘items’ in a box, it is dirty and needs to be scooped in order to be
fair to your cat(s).
Everyone's lives are different and there are several ways to
successfully feed your cat high quality nutrition. The goal of this
paper is to arm you with knowledge regarding the special dietary needs of
your cat so you can make an informed decision on how and what to feed
while striking a balance that works for both of you.
Back to top
Updated September 2012
Lisa A. Pierson, DVM
Information on this site is for general informational purposes only
and is provided without warranty or guarantee of any kind. This
site is not intended to replace professional advice from your own
veterinarian and nothing on this site is intended as a medical diagnosis
or treatment. Any questions about your animal's health should be
directed to your veterinarian.