Cats have specific and complex nutritional requirements which are best met by complete and balanced commercial cat foods. ‘Complete and balanced’ means the food meets the standards published by the Feline Nutrition Expert Committee of the AAFCO- the Association of American Feed Control Officials. Through feeding trials or an analysis of ingredients, the certification ‘complete and balanced’ by the AAFCO on the cat food label means the food will give essential nutrition which meets the needs of the cat at the developmental level on the label — kitten, adult, or senior.
Looking at a label, the individual ingredients are listed by weight, with the highest weight ingredients first. But many times, there may be several different types of ingredients which look similar — corn gluten meal, whole grain corn, and corn flour, for instance. They are all corn or corn products, but weighing them and listing them separately suggests they are not as important an ingredient in the food. It’s hard to study a label, looking for marketing ploys and trickery; so many feel that sticking with professional standards, such as the complete and balanced standard of the AAFCO, is a measure of quality.
When looking at a cat food label, there are two areas to check. In addition to the ingredient list, with some type of animal protein as the first ingredient, the guaranteed analysis describes the minimum protein and fat content of the food, and the maximum fiber and moisture content.
Cats are obligate carnivores- meaning they have to eat meat to get the nutrients they need for good health. These nutrients cannot be met by supplements or other forms of non-animal protein. Animal protein should be the first ingredient in the ingredient list. Meat, meat by-products, such as organ meats, or seafood can be the source of this animal protein.
Not all protein and fat sources used in pet foods are equally palatable or digestible. Many times the food industry uses every part of a product. When cold water fish are used to process fish oil for human supplements, the remaining parts of the fish after the oil is extracted can be dried and ground into meal and used as a source of pet food protein. When corn oil is extracted, the remaining parts of the corn can be dried and used in various food products. Less expensive grains and carbs can be covered with fats and meat flavoring, to make them more palatable to cats. Cat foods that describe their meat sources and other ingredients in ways consumers can easily understand — chicken, liver, beef — are appreciated by people trying to navigate through the noise.
Animal feed standards of all types are based on the nutrients the specific animals need at different developmental ages. In the US, the FDA regulates this system. The guaranteed analysis is the way the percentage and amounts of essential nutrients are described on packaging.
Crude protein and crude fat are listed as minimums. Adult cat food, for instance, must have a minimum of 26% crude protein and kitten food 30%. This is the minimum to meet standards, not optimum nutrition. Many experts believe dry cat food should contain at least 30% protein; canned wet food should be 40-50% protein.
The term crude in this context does not reflect the quality of the protein, the way we would normally use the word as an adjective, but is a descriptor of measurement in the animal feed industry. Maximums are used for fiber and moisture. When comparing labels of two cat food products, it is important to directly compare food labels of products with a similar degree of moisture — Wet and dry ingredients weigh differently.
The FDA has provided a guide to calculating protein percentages between feeds with different moisture levels.
The majority of adult cats need around 200 calories a day, and they must meet all their nutritional requirements within those calories. Treats or snacks should usually not be more than 5-10% of daily calories. With a complete and balanced food, additional vitamins and supplements are not needed unless addressing a specific health challenge. They should always be prescribed by a vet.
To mimic natural patterns, feed cats around dusk and dawn, and take up the food bowls between meals. Some cats like to free-feed, having access to dry kibble or some similar crunchy food during the day. This is fine unless the cat develops a habit of snacking all day long, and begins to gain weight. Snacks and treats should be restricted. Cats get used to a new routine or pattern with a tasty snack very easily. Breaking that pattern later can be a problem. Cat food does not need to be salted.
If a cat is overweight, make changes to feeding patterns slowly to avoid behavior problems. Reduce snacks, then decrease the time of free-feeding. Begin taking up the food bowls between meals after the cat has adjusted to no snacks and less free-feeding. It is usually better to go with a low-calorie food, rather than restricting amounts of food.
Being overweight can bring on health problems like arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease, all of which can further decrease activity. The vast majority of challenges related to overweight in cats is directly related to eating too many calories.
Some senior cats can develop eating behaviors that are problematic. They may only like one type or flavor of food, and refuse to eat anything else. It may appear they do not have an appetite, or are refusing to eat as part of a pattern of altered behavior. To prevent the development of problem eating behaviors, some experts recommend rotating flavors of their food, so they do not develop an exclusive preference. If changes to patterns or brands or type of food need to be made, make then slowly. Pay attention to other changes or stresses in the cat’s environment for clues related to changed eating patterns.
Any time a cat is refusing to eat and is losing weight, a vet should be consulted and a detailed exam carried out.
While cats do not barbecue birds they catch during a back yard stake-out, the raw food diets for cats, both home prepared and commercially available, are considered risky for pets. Various studies have shown they do not provide complete nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, and the problems of bacteria and parasites remain significant. Certainly the benefits of good quality animal protein in the diet is beneficial; but these diets are considered limited nutrition for cats.
Many urinary tract problems, such as crystal formation in urine and infection, can be related to food and diet. Many vets recommend an increase in both the quality of meat protein in the diet and in the amount of wet food vs dry. For cats who seem disinclined to drink enough water from their water bowl, trying several different watering devices, or adding more water to the food bowl, can increase drinking behavior. There are some special food formulations specific for cats with frequent urinary tract problems.
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