Feeding your cat or kitten

 

The domestic cat (Felis catus) is descended from the North African wildcat (Felis sylvestris lybica), and remains extremely closely related and very similar to this species in size, shape, behaviour and physiology.

Like all cats, the domestic cat is a carnivore (primarily a meat eater) and is adapted to a hunting lifestyle. In fact, cats are extremely well adapted predators and they not only eat meat, but in fact have become dependent on a meat diet (they are obligate carnivores) and actually cannot thrive or survive without meat in their diet.

This is a simple and understandable adaptation for a hunting animal like the cat – there is no need for them to have special enzymes or metabolic pathways to digest and convert nutrients in plants to what they need, when it is present already in the animals they prey on!

However, this adaptation to become strict carnivores means that cats have a number of special dietary requirements that do not apply to many other animals (humans and dogs for example), and it means that feeding a proper balanced diet to a cat can be much more challenging.

Frequency of feeding

Cats are naturally specialised solitary hunters, just like their wild ancestor. Since they hunt alone, their prey are generally small in size as this is all then can manage to capture on their own. The most common prey types are small mammals. Since the average mouse only contains about 30 kilocalories, cats must hunt, kill and eat around ten mice a day in order to meet their daily energy and nutrient requirements. Therefore, under natural circumstances, cats consume frequent small meals (in the form of prey) throughout both the day and night (when their nocturnal prey are active). Feral cats can spend 12 out of every 24 hours looking for and obtaining food.

Being reliant on food fed by owners means that most cats no longer follow their natural meal pattern of eating several small meals throughout the day and night, but are instead restricted to a feeding schedule that is convenient for the owner: often this means being fed two larger meals during the day – something that is both behaviourally and physiologically unnatural for cats.

Even if cats are given ad libitum access to food (meaning food is unrestricted and available at all times), which would allow them to eat little and often, their modern lifestyle may lead them to overeat for several reasons (see 'Energy needs in cats and obesity' below).

Overeating can lead to obesity, which is detrimental to the health of cats (see obesity in cats). Furthermore, most cats are fed their food in a bowl in the same location day in, day out, meaning little or no exertion is needed in order to obtain food. Gone are the opportunities to search for, capture and kill their food – all of which involve mental and physical exertion. A lack of mental stimulation can lead to boredom, apathy, anxiety, frustration and stress in cats.

In order to tackle these problems, it is best to feed cats little and often, dividing a cat's daily food ration into at least five portions, and feeding this throughout the 24-hour period using puzzle feeders and timed feeders. Puzzle feeders are objects which hold food and must be manipulated to release this food. These help meals last longer, increase physical exertion needed to obtain food, and provide a fun 'brain-teaser' for your cat!

Feline experts in veterinary medicine, behaviour and health here at International Cat Care have put together a feeding plan for cats (the 'Five-a-Day Felix' plan) which involves making a few simple changes to the way owners feed their cats: namely feeding cats little and often, using puzzle feeders, varying the location in which a cat is fed, and feeding both during the day and the night. This plan, based on scientific evidence, can help improve the health and welfare of cats by helping cat owners to mimic the conditions cats would usually contend with to get their food, thus providing both physical and mental stimulation.

For the full report behind the development of the feeding plan and a more detailed version of the feeding plan, click here

For a short version of this feeding plan, click here

Other factors may also affect the feeding pattern of cats, including what they become used to, lighting and noise levels, presence of other cats etc. Cats prefer to eat from shallow bowls so that they can see around them at the same time as eating and so their whiskers are not brushing against the sides of the bowl. Also, it is better to feed cats from a glass or ceramic bowl rather than a plastic bowl as plastic bowls can pick up odours (which may be unpleasant and become tainted).

Stress can have a profound effect on feeding – cats will be much less likely to eat when stressed and will be much less willing to try any new or different foods. This can be of significance, for example, when a cat is hospitalised in a veterinary clinic – this is inevitably associated with some stress and offering the cat’s normal food rather than something new or different is likely to be more successful.

Energy needs in cats and obesity

A cat's ability to regulate their calorie intake is often interfered with in a number of ways. Modern pet food is usually developed to be highly palatable (very tasty), which may lead to excessive food intake. Commercial cat food is also very easy to eat as it is presented in small chunks or bite-sized biscuits, meaning that cats can eat the food very quickly, which may result in overeating. Cats without sufficient enrichment or outdoor access may show increased attention to food through boredom. Competition for food due to the presence of other cats may lead to overeating. For cats who only need to walk to their bowl for food, it is more likely that the calories they take in through eating will outweigh the calories they use up through exercise, resulting in weight gain. Additionally, most pet cats are neutered, and while this has many health and welfare benefits for the cat and reduces the number of unwanted cats, it does interfere with their natural ability to regulate calorie intake and they will tend to consume more than is required.

For these reasons, it is important to try to control your cat's food intake and so prevent them from becoming overweight. As in humans, all cats are individuals and have differing requirements to maintain their normal weight. Follow the instruction on the food packet/sachet/tin as an initial starting point, but adjust the daily amount up or down as necessary to keep your cat in peak condition. If using a dry food, weigh the food each day rather than using a measuring cup – this is a much more accurate way of making sure you are feeding the right amount. Weighing the food will only add a couple of minutes to your feeding routine, but could add years to your cat’s life by preventing weight gain. Dry food is very energy dense, so the correct amount may look small, but provides all the calories a cat needs to stay fit and healthy.

Follow International Cat Care's feeding plan of feeding little and often, using puzzle feeders and varying feeding locations, to help prevent cats from gaining weight and so allowing them to live longer, healthier and happier lives.

For the full report behind the development of the feeding plan and a more detailed version of the feeding plan, click here

For a short version of this feeding plan, click here

See obesity in cats.

Important nutrients for cats

Because cats are obligate carnivores, their digestive system, physiology and biochemical pathways have become adapted to a meat-based diet. Therefore they have some very different dietary requirements compared with dogs and humans – some of these are outlined below.

Protein 

Proteins are large complex molecules consisting of chains of smaller building blocks called amino acids. Cats, like all animals, require protein in their diet as proteins are used for many different biological processes. However, while humans and dogs can adapt to diets that have a relatively low protein content (eg, plant-based diets), cats have a much higher protein requirement in their diet that would typically only be met by feeding a meat-based diet, because they have come to rely on protein as an energy source.

In addition to requiring a much higher level of protein in the diet, cats also require a number of specific amino acids to be present – these are taurine, arginine, methionine and cysteine. These amino acids are not found in plants – many animals (including dogs and humans) can convert and use other amino acids derived from plants, but cats have lost the ability to synthesiste these amino acids, as their natural diet (animal flesh) contains them in abundance. Without these amino acids in the diet, cats will simply die.

Fats

Fat in the diet is a good source of energy, but also supplies fat soluble vitamins (A, D and E), enhances the palatability of food, and is a source of a type of fat called essential fatty acids (EFAs). These EFAs play key roles in maintaining the health of animals, being vital in many metabolic pathways and for the integrity of the skin. Many animals like dogs and humans can convert EFAs found in plants into the EFAs that are needed in the body, but again cats require a source of animal fat with preformed animal-origin EFAs, as they cannot meet their needs from plant sources.

Carbohydrates

As obligate carnivores, cats also have a reduced ability to digest and utilise carbohydrates, as a carnivorous diet is naturally relatively low in carbohydrates. In contrast to many other animals, cats will derive most of their blood sugar (and so their energy) from the breakdown of protein in the diet rather than carbohydrates. However, this does not mean that cats cannot use carbohydrate or that it should not be present in the diet, but as they have a more limited capacity to digest and utilise carbohydrates, diets need to be formulated carefully.

Apart from kittens, most cats have low levels of the enzyme lactase in their intestine. This is the enzyme needed to digest the major carbohydrate (lactose) present in milk. For this reason, consumption of ordinary milk, and especially in high quantities, can often lead to diarrhoea in cats.

Other nutrients

Again, in keeping with their adaptation to a strict meat diet, cats require preformed vitamins in their diet that are present in animals but not in plants – these include vitamin A, vitamin D and vitamin B3. However, while cats require a source of these in their diet, conversely too much of some of these vitamins can also cause problems.

Although cats clearly need meat in their diet, it is also wrong to think that they only need a source of meat. Sometimes kittens are fed a meat-only diet as they grow up, using fresh cooked meat such as chicken. Although this meets many of their dietary requirements, some critical components are still missing. It is important to remember that in the wild cats would eat a whole animal carcase (meat, organs and bones) and if fed only the meat this, among other things, is highly deficient in minerals such as calcium and will not allow the bones to grow properly.

Choosing a cat food

Because of their unique and special dietary requirements, it is actually extremely difficult to provide a good balanced diet for cats with home-prepared foods.  Feeding a good quality commercial cat food (tins, sachets or dry food) is therefore preferable, at least as the major part of the diet. One of the most important things to look out for when choosing a food to feed your cat is that it is a ‘complete’ food (this will be stated on the packaging). This means that it has been developed to meet all of your cat’s nutritional needs. In addition, cats should never be fed dog food.

Offering different foods with different flavours and textures can be good for cats. Good quality dry and tinned/sachet foods are both suitable to be fed to cats. Both types of food are considered to have benefits. For example, dry food may help improve oral health in cats. Wet food has a much higher water content than dry food, and so can help ensure adequate water intake, especially as cats naturally obtain much of their water intake from their food (meat has a high water content). In some situations, especially some medical conditions, it may be important maximise a cat’s water intake, and therefore feeding a wet food is better.

International Cat Care generally recommends feeding healthy cats a variety of both wet and dry food so that cats can enjoy the benefits of both food types and so they do not become accustomed to only one type of food. Furthermore, feeding a mixed diet may reduce the risk of obesity developing, compared to feeding a dry only diet, according to research.

Palatability of foods

The factors that influence palatability of food for cats are complex, but include texture, odour, taste, and temperature.

The smell, or odour, of food is particularly important and cats have an extremely well developed sense of smell. This is also enhanced when food is slightly warmed, so cats actually prefer food that is around body temperature (around 35°C). The senses of taste and smell combine to give the perception of the flavour of a food, and for cats foods that have a high level of protein and fat in general are much more palatable. While cats can taste substances that are salty, sour or bitter, unlike humans and dogs they are not able to perceive sweet tastes. Again, this is a simple adaptation of an animal that is dependent on meat rather than plants for its survival. The texture of food is also important and in general cats prefer the texture of meat.

Although we know what type of foods cats generally find most palatable, there is considerable variation between individuals. Some of this is simply as a result of food experiences early in life – kittens will tend to eat and like the same foods that they see their mother eating and may develop a strong preference for this. Additionally, some cats will develop a strong preference for a particular type of food (eg, wet/tinned food or dry food) when fed over a prolonged period of time. Nevertheless, most cats are inherently 'neophilic', meaning that they like to explore and try new and different foods and enjoy variety. 

Feeding kittens

Because kittens are growing at such a fast rate, they have higher nutritional demands than adult cats. It is usually possible to start weaning kittens from around 3-4 weeks of age, at which time small amounts of a good quality kitten food can be offered. It is usually best to start with a wet kitten food, or to soak some dry kibbles designed for kittens in water to thoroughly moisten them. As kittens grow and develop they can be transitioned to dry food if preferred. Weaning is usually completed by around 8 weeks of age.

 

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