Cats need specialized feeding to survive and thrive, just like humans do. There are many differences between cat and dog food and the different types required by cats.
We take a look at your options for feeding your pet feline, from finding the right diet to understanding whether or not you should be concerned about ‘grain free’ or ‘preservative free’ diets.
If you have a cat, you may have probably spent some time and energy considering what food to feed them. This is because cats are carnivores, which means that they need meat-based protein to survive.
Dogs can happily survive on plant-based proteins and fats, but cats cannot because they cannot produce essential amino acids.
Amino acids build protein in the body. Cats need specific ones from meat sources, while dogs can get their amino by scavenging/eating, whatever plant matter is available.
So, you must make sure your cat gets a diet that provides enough of the essential amino acids they need to survive.
Cats can get their aminos from other meats, but cats are very picky and often prefer chicken protein. So if you’re going to feed your cat a mixed meat diet that doesn’t focus on chicken (as most of them do), you will have to supplement it with L-carnitine to ensure that your kitty gets all the essential aminos they require.
(In this article we refer to ‘cats’ but if you have a ‘kitten’, or baby cat, then you will need to get special kitten food so that they can develop properly and achieve their adult size.)
Humans are omnivorous, and we can get our aminos from plants, so that’s why it’s very easy for us to have both plant-based AND animal protein in our diet.
This is not the case for cats, which means you need to take special care to ensure they are getting enough of the essential amino acids they need to survive.
Basic cat nutrition science is simple, but it’s also easy to get wrong and an improper diet can lead to serious health issues for your pet.
So where do you start? Well, there are several things you have to consider before narrowing down the best diet for your feline friend:
Cats can get their aminos from a variety of meats. The most popular ones are chicken, turkey and lamb because they have higher concentrations than any other meats (especially compared to beef which contains less aminos).
You still need to make sure your cat is getting the right amount of each one though.
So the first step to finding a good diet is to find one that gets as much chicken protein into every can.
There is an argument for using lamb or turkey in place of chicken, but it’s not as potent, so additional L-carnitine supplements will be needed if you’re going to do that. If you’re using a supplement anyway then it’s not a big deal.
The same goes for fish but fish is the second most potent source of aminos and is more easily bioavailable so you don’t need as much if you’re going to use it. It’s also less likely to upset your cat’s stomach, so you should consider using fish if you have an animal with digestive issues.
Also bear in mind that a diet that has chicken as its primary source of aminos is more palatable and will be eaten more readily than one with other meats as its main ingredient, so it’s important to take this into consideration if you’re planning on switching your cat over to a new food.
And of course, a diet with any kind of meat in it should always be the first choice for an obligate carnivore such as a cat.
2) Carbohydrates and other nutrients
Cats also need carbs (starches), but because they are an obligate carnivore (meaning they will not eat plants or other plant matter), they can digest and process only a few carbohydrates properly.
A cat’s body is equipped to handle carbs from other animals (including us).
You might think that all carbohydrate sources are the same since carbs themselves aren’t ‘living’ things, but it depends on how your feline friend digests them. A diet that uses many grains as its main source of carbs will cause digestive issues for cats because their bodies aren’t properly processed.
Another issue is that there are certain nutrients in meats and fish which can be detrimental to your cat’s health, so if you do decide on a diet with animal protein (and we hope you will), then you should make sure that these meats have been raised in an environment which is free of harmful chemicals and antibiotics.
Getting most of your pet’s aminos from animal protein sources like chicken, turkey, lamb or fish will ensure that they get a complete amino acid profile: all the essential ones. These make up their body structures and the ones they can’t get from plants.
But because not all amino acids are created equally, it’s also important to have a diet with nutrients that help your pet digest them and protect their organs.
3) Taurine in particular (because of heart problems)
Taurine is one, in particular, you need to be careful with. Cats can’t process it properly on their own, so they need to ingest it in large amounts from the diet (or supplements) if they’re going to get optimal health and avoid heart problems.
It’s found mainly in meats like fish, chicken and turkey but less obviously in things like eggs as well. So meat-based diets are the best choice.
4) A really important one: fat sources
Fat is an essential part of any diet, but fat from grains and junk food can screw up your cat’s metabolism in big ways. This is even worse for cats because their bodies aren’t set up to deal with more than a very tiny amount of bad fat. This means that cats get really sick if they eat a lot of the wrong kind of carbohydrates (like grains) and fats (like vegetable oil).
Fat from meat is healthy in moderate amounts, but it’s best to get your pet’s diet as high in protein as possible because this helps detoxifies their bodies. Fat carries vitamins A, D, E and K, which are critical for optimum health.
Look out for healthy fats like EPA and DHA, which are also found in fish oils and fish-based diets
5) Alternative proteins
Fish is usually the best source of proteins aside from meat. Don’t buy into the hype about ‘fish oil’ because fish are high in the actual meat itself.
You can also try eggs, chicken and turkey if your cat is willing to try that (many cats will only eat red meat like beef and lamb). And of course there’s rabbit!
But we’ll get into more detail on these later.
6) Carbohydrates from fruits and veggies
Any diet that uses a lot of plant-based foods like grains or vegetables will not only cause digestive problems and weight gain, but it also deprives your pet of the essential nutrients they need to function at their peak.
Vegetables are particularly toxic because cats can’t digest them properly (they aren’t meant to be carnivores).
Vitamin K is critical for the clotting of blood, and a deficiency in this can cause major organ problems.
If your cat eats mainly vegetables or grains, they’ll have to resort to using body protein to process the carbs (and this will make them sick).
Certain vegetables aren’t harmful for cats because of their protein content, but they should only be fed in small amounts, not as a main part of the diet.
7) As far as carbs go: wheat is bad
Aside from tomatoes and some other fruits or vegetables, you really don’t want to give your cat grain-based foods or things with gluten because it will cause issues like weight gain, gas and digestive problems.
This is because cats just aren’t designed to process wheat – it causes them a lot of problems. Grains like wheat are the backbone of most commercial cat foods because they’re cheaper than meat but pack more calories, so you should avoid these kinds of foods at all costs.
The same thing goes for corn because of its high starch content.
8) Variety, variety, variety!
One of the most important things to remember is that you should be giving your cat a mixture of proteins and vitamins in whatever diet they eat. One source is not going to cut it – cats need plenty of different foods to stay healthy.
Meat sources alone aren’t enough, so make sure you get a good balance between plant-based protein (eggs) and meat-based protein (meat). This is true for every diet out there no matter what the ingredients are.
If your cat eats real food on a daily basis, they’ll learn how to eat a proper diet and they’ll live out their lives in good health. However, you should gradually introduce new foods to your pet in case it causes an allergic reaction or upset stomach.
Most importantly, get them to try everything we mention here first because not all cats will take to the taste of rabbit or turkey (although if they are carnivores, they should be willing to try them).
9) Get real food for your cat
Your pet doesn’t get sick from eating a healthy diet because their bodies are designed to eat meat and process nutrients.
Use this principle as a reference guide when deciding what foods you’re going to feed your cat. You want them in the best health possible and real food is the only way to do that.
If your cat has any allergies or wants them on a raw diet, then opt for rabbit or turkey as their meat source because they are natural protein sources that cats can easily process and digest.
10) Don’t starve your pet
A lot of people think that if they go hungry, then their cat will too. This isn’t the case!
Cats are very resourceful animals and typically can stay alive without being fed for up to a month (if no other food is available) so don’t be afraid to take your time before trying something new – it could save your cat’s life.
Remember, you have to get a variety of foods for your cat or they’ll suffer from malnutrition.
Always, read the labels of your commercial cat food products.