counterfeedingyourcat

Feeding Your 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 American Veterinary Medical Association members, 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:

1) type of protein - too high in plant-based versus animal-based proteins

2) carbohydrate load is too high

3) water content is too low

Please click on the links below to read more about the key issues associated with optimal nutrition for cats.

But my cat is "fine" on dry food!

The importance of animal proteins, versus plant proteins

Problems with carbohydrates in dry cat foods

Cats need water with their food

Reading a pet food ingredient label

Common medical problems associated with dry food

The safety of dry food

Tips for Transitioning - Getting dry food addicts to eat canned food

Home prepared and commercial raw meat diets

What I feed to my cats

Some final thoughts


 

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 on the Feline Diabetes Message Board was “fine” until their owners started to recognize the signs of diabetes.

Every cat with a blocked urinary tract was “fine” until they started to strain to urinate and either died from a ruptured bladder or had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency catheterization.

Every cat with an inflammed bladder (cystitis) was “fine” until they ended up in pain, passing blood in their urine, and missing their litter box.

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 patient.

The point is that diseases 'brew' long before being noticed by the living being.

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.

Of course, in order to be on board with the 'preventative nutrition' argument, a person has to understand the following facts:

1)  Carbohydrates wreak havoc on many cats' blood sugar/insulin balance.

2) All urinary tract systems are much healthier with an appropriate amount of water flowing through them.

3) Cats inherently have a low thirst drive and need to consume water *with* their food.  (A cat's normal prey is ~70 - 75% water.)

4) Cats are strict carnivores which means they are designed to get their protein from meat – not plants.

 

Cats Need Animal-Based Protein 

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 of the 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 amino acids that is present in meat but is missing from plants.  Taurine deficiency will cause blindness and heart problems in cats.

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 score.

Because plant proteins are cheaper than meat proteins, pet food companies will have a higher profit margin when using corn, wheat, soy, rice, etc.

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 just 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 food manufacturers. 

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 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 taurine.

This is all well and good - for this particular problem - but how do we know that Man is not blindly going along unaware of another critical nutrient that is missing from a plant-based diet?  Why is Man so arrogant that he thinks he can stray so far from what a cat is designed by nature to eat?

Let's also 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 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 - my little carnivore hunting his dinner

Robbie - hunting his dinner

Another important issue with regard to the protein contained in a dry food is that 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 can significantly decrease the biological value of the protein sources.

Harsh cooking also destroys other nutrients.  Man then has 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. 

Given that Man will never be as ‘smart’ as nature – he 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.

With regard to the overall protein amounts contained in a food, do not be confused by the listing of the protein percentages in dry food compared to canned food.  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 is the accurate way to compare the two foods.  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 critical.

 

We Are Feeding Cats Too Many Carbohydrates

In their natural setting, cats—whose unique biology makes them true carnivores--would not consume the high level of carbohydrates (grains) that are in the dry 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 gluten souffle. 

In the wild, your cat would be eating a high protein, high-moisture, meat-based diet, with a moderate level of fat and with only  approximately 3-5 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 levels. 

This is NOT the diet that Mother Nature intended for your cat to eat. 

Many canned foods, on the other hand, contain approximately 3-5 percent carbohydrates.

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 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 the lack a salivary enzyme called amylase.

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 I explain 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 are cheap.  Dry food is convenient.  Affordability and convenience sells. 

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 – not grains - and they need to consume water with their food as explained below.

Cats Need Plenty of Water With Their Food

The first paragraph on the Feline Urinary Tract Health 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 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 leads to low-level, chronic dehydration when dry food makes up the bulk of their diet

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 he must be getting enough!" 

A cat 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.  This is a crucial point when one considers how common kidney and bladder problems are in the cat.

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 bladder health.  Think of canned food as 'hosing out' down your cat's bladder several times each day. 

Therefore, litter boxes need to be scooped more frequently or more boxes need to be added to the home.  Please see 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.  

 

Toby - very lean, energetic and athletic on a proper diet.  He is 15 years old and still runs around like a kitten.

 

Learn How To Read a Pet Food Ingredient Label

When reading this section, two words need to be firmly in your mind:

1) composition (the percentage of protein, fat, and carbohydrate in the food)

2) ingredients

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 since we are trying to stay under 10% carbohydrates.

This makes it impossible to accurately evaluate the food in terms of composition.

In order to get reasonably accurate information on the composition of the food, you need to either call the company (see this section on the Commercial Food page for the dialog you need to use) or see if it is listed on Janet and Binky's chart.

That said, the ingredient list can help us out - but only in some ways.  For instance, if you don't see grains listed on the label, it is a safe bet that the food is low in carbohydrates.

However, if grains are listed, you have no idea of the amount of the grains in the food and, therefore, no idea of the carbohydrate level.  There could be a small amount of grains in the diet....or a high level of grains could be present.

Without knowing the actual amount of each ingredient, we have no idea of the impact of the ingredient on the nutritional profile of the food. For instance, when we see a high carbohydrate ingredient like rice on the label, we know that this food item has no business being in cat food but how do we really know the quantity of rice that is in the food? Is it present in a small amount or a large amount? 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. However, the low carbohydrate level (3-5%) tells us that the amount of fruits and vegetables is very low.  (Carbohydrates come from grains, fruits, and vegetables but grains are the biggest contributor.)

Grains should be absent from a cat's diet but, unfortunately, grains are cheap so they are included in many commercial cat foods. Think 'profit margin'. Grains are cheaper than meat. If grains are present, they should be minimal in amount as they can be hyperallergenic and will also cause a rise in blood sugar in many cats - especially if the grains come in the form of flour.

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 pet food manufacturers because it enhances their profit margin.

When considering allergies, the 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, beef, lamb, corn, wheat, and soy tend to be the most hyperallergenic ingredients for the cat.)  

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.  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 plants

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 may be 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. and can be less nutritious than meat.

Avoid foods listing "liver" as a first ingredient.  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 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.

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 trap.

"Indoor only" is another meaningless marketing gimmick. This label originally started out in the dry food market but it has now made its way to canned food labels.  Keep in mind that cats did not stop being obligate carnivores just because we put a roof over their heads. 

Another marketing ploy that Hill's is now incorporating into their labeling is the substituting of the word "corn" with "maize".  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".  Sadly, Hill's is hoping that consumers stay ignorant regarding the fact that maize is corn.

Also, 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.

Preservatives are important ingredients that we need to pay attention to.  BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin are extremely questionable in terms of safety.  Please note that Hill’s continues to use BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin in many of their products although recently I have noticed that these chemicals have been removed from some of their foods.  Other companies abandoned the practice of using these chemicals as preservatives long ago – opting for more natural and safer methods.

Contrary to what is often believed, many, if not all, of the so-called prescription diets sold in veterinary hospitals are not formulated for optimal health of a carnivore.  Many of these products contain corn, wheat, and soy which have no logical place in your cat's diet and these diets are often very high in carbohydrates.  Many of them also contain by-products as the main - and often only - source of protein. 

By-products are cheaper than muscle meat so one would think that as much as the prescription diets cost, these companies could use a more consistent source of high quality protein.  These diets do not give the client much 'bang for their buck'.  It would be a very rare occasion for me to use any of these prescription diets as there are much better choices on the 'over-the-counter' market that leave more money in the client's wallet and much better nutrition in the cat's food bowl.

Unfortunately, most veterinarians are very poorly educated in the area of nutrition. This field of study is not emphasized in veterinary school. Also, if you consider the fact that many of the people teaching this subject in our veterinary schools, and advising general practitioners, have a monetary tie to the pet food industry, you will see an obvious conflict of interest.

This leads general practitioners to often base their dietary recommendations on information obtained directly or indirectly from the pet food industry – an industry that does not always have your cat’s best interest in mind when formulating their products. In most instances, you will be paying far more money than you should be for the low quality, species-inappropriate ingredients that many of these prescription products contain.

It is also important to note that most of these prescription diets have no clinical studies behind them to support their use in treating the various diseases that they target.   

I would love to see veterinarians break out of the prescription diet ‘box’ and consider the use of higher quality, lower cost, over-the-counter diets.

In summary, 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 above.

That said, after becoming increasingly frustrated with the commercial pet food industry, in 2003 I started making my cats' food.  See Making Cat Food for more information.

If you want a more detailed discussion regarding pet food labels, see Commercial Foods.

 

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 afflict them.

  • Diabetes:  Diabetes is a very serious – and difficult to manage – disease that is not uncommon in cats.  We do  not know all of the causes of this complex disease but what we do know is that many diabetic cats cease needing insulin or have their insulin needs significantly decrease once their dietary carbohydrate level is decreased to a more species-appropriate level than that found in many commercial foods.

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.

Please see this thread on the Feline Diabetes Board to read about many caregivers' success with their diabetic cats once all dry food and all high carbohydrate canned food was removed from the 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 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 life-threatening.  I strongly suggest that all caretakers of diabetic cats home-test to monitor blood glucose levels using a standard glucometer as a matter of routine, but careful monitoring is especially important when implementing a diet change.

Many veterinarians prescribe expensive diets such as Purina DM (Diabetes Management) and Science Diet 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 Proteins/Fats/Carbs chart.  You should aim for a diet that derives less than 10% of its calories from carbohydrates.

  • Kidney Disease (CKD - formerly called "CRF"):  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 Prescription 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 water balance.

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 moisture content. 

Please also note the following list of the first four ingredients of Hill's Prescription dry k/d after reviewing this 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.

Brewers 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 kidney function. 

k/d restricts protein to the point that some cats - those that are not consuming enough of the diet to provide for their 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 which needs to be cleared by the kidneys. The rise in creatinine, 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.

  • Cystitis (bladder inflammation), Urethral Blockage, Bladder/Kidney Stones:

Please see Feline Urinary Tract Health for a more detailed discussion. The first paragraph on that webpage states:

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.

Cystitis is an extremely common and very painful problem in the cat. Stones are also somewhat common and can lead to a life-threatening urinary tract blockage.

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 IMMEDIATE medical attention!  This 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 normal 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 urine.

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, low quality diet.

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 system. 

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 of crystals 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 a 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 health.

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, as is using water fountains.  Make your own tuna water by taking one can of tuna and mixing the contents into 3 cups of water.  Mash it around 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 smelling fresh.

If you are still worrying about small amounts of crystals in your cat's urine, consider this analogy:

If leaves keep falling on your driveway (which is a normal situation) and you don’t regularly hose down or sweep your driveway, those leaves will build up and cause a problem.  If you picture crystals as the leaves in this analogy, it is easy to see how canned food does a better job of ‘hosing down’ your cat’s bladder than dry food does.

To repeat, 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 water-depleted diet.

Urine pH is also often considered when discussing urinary tract problems but we really need to stop focusing 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 kidney disease.

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 diet. 

With regard to dry food and urinary tract health, aside from the lack of water in this type of diet, there 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 and x/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 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

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.  This is 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.  Buprinex is a good choice for a pain medication.  This is superior to Torbugesic which has been used for pain management in the cat in the past.  (Burprinex 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 antibiotic usage in these cases:  Most cases of cystitis are sterile.  In other words, they are not the result of an infection and should not 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 growth.

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.

A urine 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 antibiotics. 

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 few 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, the bladder is usually full enough to obtain a urine sample via cystocentesis. This usually only takes 2-3 hours - sometimes even less time.

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 in 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.

  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): IBD can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and/or constipation in the cat.  IBD can also present with weight loss as the only clinical sign.   There are many unanswered questions with respect to this disease process, but it seems logical to start to “treat” a gastrointestinal problem in the cat with a species-appropriate diet.

Too often 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.

Taking it even one step further, there are many reports of cats with IBD that improved tremendously on a balanced, grain-free, homemade diet. (See catnutrition.org for more information on IBD and diet.  Also, see 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.

 

  Robbie had severe diarrhea for two years until put on a grain-free, vegetable-free, homemade diet.

 

  1. Hairballs: The 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.

  • Obesity:  Obesity is an extremely common and very serious health problem in cats.  For instance, overweight cats are four times more likely to develop diabetes than cats that are at an optimal weight.  Obese cats are also more prone to orthopedic problems and are often so overweight that they cannot even clean themselves properly.  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.

Since protein (meat) is more expensive than carbohydrates (grains), pet food manufacturers raise the carbohydrate levels in these foods making them very species-inappropriate and unhealthy.

An optimal weight loss diet should be high in protein (over 40% of calories), moderate in fat (under 50% of calories), and low in carbohydrates (under 10% of calories).  See the Merrick line of foods for examples of this type of profile.


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.

 

In 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 mass.


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 diet that contains 33 percent carbohydrates and the following - less than optimal - 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

There are much healthier - 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 their water-depletion.

  • Hepatic Lipidosis (Fatty Liver Disease): This is the most common metabolic liver disease of cats.  Cats that go longer than 48 hours 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 disease.  Feeding a 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.

  • Dental DiseaseLong-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 food whole.

There are many factors – known and unknown - that contribute to dental disease in the cat such as genetics, viruses, and 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 canned food.

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 – or parboiled - meat 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% 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 teeth?”

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.

Please pay close attention to the statement in the video regarding a thorough dental exam by your veterinarian before starting a brushing program.  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, all you will end up with is 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.

Please understand 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 teeth.  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.

  • 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 home-prepared 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.  Steroids 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.

 

 

 

    

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 Food page.

Fungal 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 their feed.

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.

 

Transitioning Dry Food Addicts to Canned Food

 

Printer Friendly - Tips for Transitioning section only.

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 weeks.

The average cat should eat 4-6 ounces of canned food per day split between 2-3 meals 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.

Now....for the stubborn cats......

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, (or a home-prepared diet) then you will have some work to do.  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. 

For '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 hunger.

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).

Hepatic 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 calories from canned food combined with the calories from 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 weight. 

If your cat weighs 18 pounds but really should weigh 12 pounds, please make sure that he is consuming at least ~180 calories per day.  (12 pounds lean body mass X 15 calories/pound/day = ~180 calories/day)

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 - preferably closer to 1%.

I highly suggest that all cat caregivers weigh their cats periodically.  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 twice yearly.

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.

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 this Feline Obesity page.

Resign 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.  Binky's dry food chart (the same one linked above) can help you pick one.  There are three grain-free/low carbohydrate dry foods currently on the market. Natura/Innova's EVO, Wellness CORE, and Nature's Variety Instinct.

The 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 according to the information on the bag.  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 kidney function.

And, of course, these low-carb dry foods are water-depleted just like all dry foods are and are cooked at very high temperatures in order to dry them out.

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 since those types of foods are very high in carbohydrates.

Here are some various tricks for the stubborn ones. 

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 two - three 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 three 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 check to see if it is listed on the dry food chart linked above.

    Leave the 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 proper mealtimes and will be much more inclined to try something new.  

  • 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 seeing/smelling it.  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 really help stimulate his appetite.

  • Cats' noses 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 tuna – or any other favorite treat (some cats do not like fish and would prefer cooked chicken) - on the 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.

  • Make sure that any refrigerated canned food is warmed up a bit.  Cats prefer their food at 'mouse body temperature'. 

  • Try offering some cooked (or raw - whole meats, rinsed well or parboiled) 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.

  • Try sprinkling some parmesan cheese on the canned food.  Most cats love parmesan cheese and this trick has been very successful for me.

  • Try a product called FortiFlora.  Most cats LOVE FortiFlora and this has recently become my favorite trick.  This is a probiotic made by Purina but you are not going to use it for its probiotic properties.  You are just going to use it as a flavor enhancer.  The base ingredient in FortiFlora is animal digest - the very substance that makes dry food so very enticing to cats.  The directions say to use 1 package/day - and you can use this much if you want to - but this amount is not usually necessary.  You may only need ~1/4 of a package - or less - with part mixed into the food and part sprinkled on top of the food just as you would use salt and pepper on your own food.

  • There are numerous freeze dried meat treats on the market that you can also sprinkle on top of the canned food.  Halo's Liv A Littles is a popular choice.

  • 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 high bacterial content.  Mold is also often found in dry food. 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.  Bacteria and mold thrive in moisture.

  • 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.

  • Going one step further, try adding a few small pieces of the canned food to the small portion of dry food.  Your cat may pick around the canned food but will get used to the smell - and texture - even if he does not eat any pieces of the new food.

  • Crush some dry food and sprinkle it on the top of the canned food.

  • 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 'higher end' diets like Wellness, etc. You can worry about feeding a higher quality canned food later 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 lower quality canned food 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 that went directly to her stomach.  This took the stress off of both of us.  After two 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.  That was a few years ago and she is now a playful, animated cat.  Before the 7 lbs weight loss, she could barely walk, could not clean herself, and was quite possibly headed for diabetes.

  • 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 switch.

These 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.   

 

Calvin and Andy - great friends

Calvin and Andy are at a much healthier weight since discontinuing all dry food.

 

Homemade Diets and Commercial Raw Meat Products

Many 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.

Cats are very different from humans with respect to their susceptibility to ‘food poisoning’. Cats have a 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 intestinal upset.

That said, 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. 

A 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.

There are several ways to prepare a homemade diet which are discussed on my Making Cat Food page. My cats have been thriving for the past 8 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

 

People 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.   

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 ensure that a safe calcium-to-phosphorus ratio is achieved. 

Always remember that calcium is not an optional 'supplement' but is a very critical component of the diet.  

The bones must be ground with the meat (preferable), or bone meal must be added to the recipe.  (I am a stickler for using real bone - not bone meal.)

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 ingredients.   Many of these products 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.  My favorite commercial raw diet is Feline's Pride.  It is grain-free and vegetable-free.  Nature's Variety raw food is another quality product.  NV contains 95% meat/bones/organs and only 5% vegetable/fruit matter.  This is a reasonable blend.

Many products do not list this value on the packaging so a call to the company will be necessary or ask your local raw pet food retailer for product literature which may, or may not, list the breakdown of ingredients on a percentage-basis.

Some commercial raw pet diets are prepared without any vegetable matter.  They are simply meat, bones and organs.  Be aware, however, that a diet prepared with a large amount of necks and backs (common ingredients in commercial products) does not have an optimal calcium-to-phosphorus ratio.  There is very little meat, when compared to the amount of bone, on this part of the animal.  This leads to a diet that is too high in calcium relative to the phosphorus which can cause constipation in addition to other medical problems.

 

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 optimal nutrition for an obligate carnivore in a home environment. 

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 carnivores and 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. 

Andrew - what a character

Who?  Me??  Crabby?

Surprisingly, one of my most stubborn dry food addicts is now happily eating a home-prepared raw or parboiled 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 parboiled meats (chicken and rabbit), finely ground bones, and organs using a properly balanced recipe.

Some people feed part homemade and part commercial canned for variety and convenience.  I rarely (2-3 times per year) feed any commercial canned food to my cats – preferring to stick with the food that I make for them.

I no longer feed any dry food and 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.

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 leave canned food out for up to 12 hours at a time for my foster cats and kittens.  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 vacation. 

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 3-4 ‘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 about 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.

 

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Updated September, 2011

Lisa A. Pierson, DVM

[email protected]


 

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.