Is There a Best Way to Feed a Cat?

Each time I walk into a pet store or walk down the pet food aisle in a grocery store, I am amazed at the variety and number of brands of pet foods on the market.  Additionally, there are many therapeutic diet products that are sold only at veterinary clinics and raw and organic diets sold through specialty markets and on the Internet.  The choices are overwhelming.  Many owners think all they need to do is fill up a bowl with dry food and all will be well, but this is seldom the case.

If you speak to breeders, veterinarians, and pet food manufacturers, no one will agree on the best diet to feed a pet.  Everyone who deals with pet nutrition has opinions on diets based on research, experience feeding the product, and reading promotional materials from the manufacturers. I am not going to recommend any specific products in this column, but I do want to share some of my opinions on feeding cats.

Kittens should be fed a combination of canned and dry food.  If a kitten does not have a delicate digestive tract, I think it is a good idea to also vary brands.  Kittens are like human children, if they are exposed to various textures, tastes, and sizes of food, they will be less picky as adults.  Once a kitten has been sterilized, their metabolic rate drops dramatically and their caloric needs decline significantly.   Sterilized kittens 6 months and older can be switched to adult maintenance diets.  Healthy adult cats also do well on a combination of dry and canned food.

The time between 6 and 18 months is critical for a kitten to reach full size, and full size often becomes oversized even at these young ages.  I think that only about 25% of cats eat appropriate amounts of food if given unlimited access to dry food.  This means that 75% of cats will overeat if too much food is available to them.

An average adult cat needs between 200-250 calories daily, and this would include dry food, canned food, and any treats or snacks.  You will be surprised to find out that: Iams Indoor Cat Hairball Care diet has 365 calories per cup, Science Diet Nature’s Best Chicken diet has 420 calories per cup, Purina ONE Chicken and Rice has 452 calories per cup, and Wellness CORE has 536 calories per cup.  One 3 ounce can of Fancy Feast has about 95 calories and one 5.5 ounce can of Friskies has about 140 calories.

Forget about reading the feeding guide on a cat food bag.  All of them suggest feeding much larger portions than a housecat needs.  If you look at the above examples, you see that you could only feed your cat ½ measured cup of dry food daily (if all he or she eats is dry food), and even this is too much for the highly caloric foods.  If you feed 3 oz canned, then you can only feed ¼ measured cup of dry food daily if you want to keep your cat fit.  If you have an overweight cat or extremely sedentary cat, portioning food and using lower calorie products is more critical.

Cats in the wild spend a large part of their day hunting and catching food, so it is rare for a wild or feral cat to be overweight.  Our housecats have easy lives and usually just need to meow or look at us to be fed.  Feeding a cat, or giving treats, is one of the few things we can do that elicits pleasant feedback from our cat.  You know your housecat really needs you to provide food, and it creates a bond.

In my last column I suggested appropriate feeding portions for cats, but my clients often tell me their cat is driving them crazy by demanding more food than what I tell them to feed.  Do you break your bond, or do you give in and make your cat fat and happy?  I am going to urge you to be strong and retrain your cat’s eating habits.  Just like overweight humans, overweight cats are at risk for arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, fatty liver disease, urinary tract infections, and skin problems.  They cannot keep themselves clean and they are messy around the house.

If your cat overeats, you need to feed two to three small portions throughout the day that add up to a proper caloric intake.  One way to achieve this and to remove “you” from the feeding process is by installing an automatic feeder.  Believe it or not, if a machine starts feeding your cat, your cat will stop bothering you for more food.  There are many types of automatic feeders, and some designed to feed canned food.  Pet feeders can be found in pet stores and on the Internet.  One local business, Smart Home (16542 Millikan Avenue
Irvine, CA 92606), has a large variety of feeders (http://www.smarthome.com/_/Pet_Care_Pest_Control/Feeding/_/x/1On/nav.aspx).

Reducing a cat’s food portion should occur over several weeks, so that the stomach can shrink slowly.

Most overweight cats are not playful, so increasing exercise to help with weight loss is tough.  Try to find toys that will motivate your cat to move.  Another strategy is using part of your cat’s food portion for exercise.  Many cats will chase around after individual kibbles of food.  Throw pieces of food around the floor and make your cat go after it.  Consider putting small amounts of your cat’s food portion in different places around the house, so the cat actually has to get up and exercise to find food.  If you have a young or thin cat you want to supplement with food, try feeding this cat at a high location the overweight one cannot reach or in a separate area.

Controlling food portions in a multi-cat household is even more important.  In most households with more than one cat, one cat is thin and another one is heavy.  There is no doubt that certain cats have faster metabolisms than others and can eat more, but eating and dominating the food bowl are ways that certain cats express their territoriality.  I assure you that if you control portions for the total number of cats, your trim cats will maintain and your heavy cats will lose weight.

There are different feeding strategies for weight loss.  The most common ones are: feeding all canned food, feeding high protein/low carbohydrate foods (The CATkins Diet), and feeding lower calorie/high fiber foods.  I will tell you that I have had success with each of these as long as the owner has been willing to control portions.  The idea behind feeding all canned food is that most canned food is high in protein and water, and these nutrients provide more satiation for a cat.  When a cat eats a high protein/low carbohydrate diet, the theory is that it takes more time and energy to digest protein than carbs, so the cat is not getting the quick sugar fix.  Lastly, if the cat eats a lower calorie/high fiber diet, he can eat a larger portion and get filled up better.  Consider discussing which diet strategy would work best with your cat with your veterinarian.

I urge owners of young cats to start out with good feeding practices.  Feed good foods in controlled portions.  Free feeding unlimited dry food doesn’t work for most cats, and definitely doesn’t work in a multi-cat household.  Dieting a cat is hard work and can be frustrating, but trim cats are more active and healthier, so it is worth it!

Written by Dr. Wexler-Mitchell of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
Copyright © 2011 The Cat Care Clinic

About Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell

Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell is the owner of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA

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