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Cat food is one of the most important aspects of cat care... but too often taken for granted



Cat Food... Your Cat is What She Eats
So, you'd better make it good.
It seems so simple. You go to your favorite food mart to do a little grocery shopping and, as you pass down the pet supplies aisle, you instinctively reach for the cat food that you have always bought for your feline friend. After all, she seems to enjoy it. But, is it really that simple? Are you actually providing the best product for what arguably is the most important aspect of being a cat caregiver? Here are a few things to think about:

  • Cats are descended from carnivorous hunters. Even today in the wild their diet is almost 100% meat. If, for example, your cat is eating her store bought food that you have so diligently prepared, and a small prey catches her eye, she might very well leave her cat food bowl and give chase... following the instincts of thousands of years of natural evolution.
  • Cats also evolved as desert animals. Therefore, they tend to not need as much water as other mammals. Of course, a ready water supply, preferably near her cat food dish, is still important. They aren't camels, you know.
  • Fido just doesn't get it. You put his dinner down in front of him and he inhales it in 10 seconds flat! Then he turns to the cat food bowl and viola! It's gone, too. After that, he's even eyeing your plate. At about that time your patience has run out and out the door he goes. Cat's, on the other hand, tend to eat only what they need in order to replenish their nutrient requirements at any given sitting. They'll eat up to 20 meals in a 24 hour period. They rarely end up with food all over their face.
    Nutrient needs for a cat will be closely related to your cat's general health. If she is pregnant, nervous about some impending move, or a change in her environment, upset or physically ill, her dietary needs will change accordingly.
  • A pregnant cat's body weight will increase by 40% to 50% by the end of her pregnancy. She'll need ample food to accommodate such a large increase of waist-line.
  • Kittens will need supplemental food as early as 2-1/2 weeks after birth and certainly by 4 weeks because mom's milk is not going to be an adequate nutrient food source. Also, kitten nutrient needs are greater than an adult cat's because they are growing soooo fast. And, they do a lot of moving around. Leaping, stalking, pouncing and wrestling with their siblings.
  • Exposure to certain types of foods, textures, flavors and temperatures (of food) early in a cat's life will strongly develop preferences when she gets older. If you are going to change a cat food diet, it will most likely need to be done over a period of time. Usually by mixing a little of the new food in with the old and then increasing the ratio of new to old until the old is finally omitted from her cat food bowl.
  • Finally, the pet food industry is not as closely regulated as foods for human consumption is. When you read the label and see the words "chicken by-products" you might wonder what the by-product of a chicken is. And though some grains aren't necessarily bad for your cat, corn meal fillers as a major component of your cat's meal can't be doing her any good and may actually be harming her by depriving her of the necessary nutrients she needs. Of course, the more she eats, the more weight she will put on as she tries to get those good vitamins and minerals embedded in all that corn.

Reading cat food labels is half the answer to deciding what to buy for your cat, or kitten. The other half is knowing what the basic nutrient needs for your cat are. Here are two things to understand that will help you decide what the best cat food buy is for you and your cat or kitten:

  • You should become familiar with the nutritional needs of cats, and, your cat in particular.
  • After becoming familiar with the nutritional needs of your cat, your will want to know how to interpret cat food labels for both dry and canned cat foods.
    Let's look at the easy part first... number 2.


Interpreting Food Labels
There is a simple formulae which you can use to analyze cat food labels. You need to use the formulae because each cat food label describes the unique nutritional properties of the product it is identifying. If you put two cans of cat food side by side and read their labels, it would be like comparing apples to oranges. There are mitigating factors such as water content, volume by weight and filler amounts that affect the real nutritional value of the contents in the cat food can... or bag of kibbles. For our purposes here, it is the "dry matter" content that we will focus on.
Basically, the formulae works like this: Ingredients listed on a cat food label are usually expressed as an "as fed" percentage, that is, how it comes out of the can or bag . We want to look at ingredients as a "dry matter" percentage and then compare the results to a list of "dry matter" nutrient needs. In other words, let's take out the moisture and see what the nutrient percentage is before it gets 'watered down'.

So, look at your cat food label and see what the moisture content is. If it is 10%, take one ingredient such as protein and you will know that 10% is water and 90% is dry matter content. If the protein content on the label is 20%, then the math looks like this:

  • % Protein content ÷ % Dry Matter content = % Dry Matter Protein
    20% ÷ 90% = 22 % dry matter protein

Do this for all the ingredients and then compare different cans. You will notice that different products will have different percentages of dry matter for any one nutrient.

Use the chart below to develop a list of cat food dry matter percentages for ingredients of a particular commercial product and compare to the needs of your cat, which are listed on the chart:

AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Recommendations ª


Calculate The Product
Dry Matter

Kitten Growth and Pregnancy


Adult Maintenance

Maximum (Too Much)



30.0 26.0 -
Arginine % 1.25 1.04 -
Histidine % 0.31 0.31 -
Isoleucine % 0.52 0.52 -
Leucine % 1.25 1.25 -
Lysine % 1.20 0.83 -
Methionine-cystine % 1.10 1.10 -
Methionine % 0.62 0.62 1.50
Phenylalanine-tyrosine % 0.88 0.88 -
Phenylalanine % 0.42 0.42 -
Threonine % 0.73 0.73 -
Tryptophan % 0.25 0.16 -
Valine % 0.62 0.62 -
Taurine (extruded) % 0.10 0.10 -
Taurine (canned) % 0.20 0.20 -
Fat b % 9.0 9.0 -
Linoleic acid % 0.5 0.5 -
Arachidonic acid % 0.02 0.02 -
Calcium % 1.0 0.6 -
Phosphorous % 0.8 0.5 -
Potassium % 0.6 0.6 -
Sodium % 0.2 0.2 -
Chloride % 0.3 0.3 -
Magnesium c % 0.08 0.04 -
Iron d mg/kg 80.0 80.0 -
(Dry Food) e
mg/kg 15.0 5.0 -
(Canned Food) e
mg/kg 5.0 5.0 -
Manganese mg/kg 7.5 7.5 -
Zinc mg/kg 75.0 75.0 2,000.0
Iodine mg/kg 0.35 0.35 -
Selenium mg/kg 0.1 0.1 -
Vitamin A IU/kg 9,000.0 5,000.0 750,000.0
Vitamin D IU/kg 750.0 500.0 10,000.0
Vitamin E f IU/kg 30.0 30.0 -
Vitamin K g mg/kg 0.1 0.1 -
Vitamin B1 (thiamin) h mg/kg 5.0 5.0 -
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) mg/kg 4.0 4.0 -
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) mg/kg 5.0 5.0 -
Vitamin B3 (niacin) mg/kg 60.0 60.0 -
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) mg/kg 4.0 4.0 -
Folic Acid mg/kg 0.8 0.8 -
Biotini mg/kg 0.07 0.07 -
Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin) µg/kg 20.0 20.0 -
Choline j g/kg 2.4 2.4 -
a: Presumes an energy density of 3.5 kcal ME/g DM (metabolizable energy/gram dry matter), as determined in accordance with Regulation PF9, which is based on the 'modified Atwater' values of 3.5, 8.5, and 3.5 kcal/g for protein, fat, and carbohydrate (nitrogen-free extract, NFE), respectively.

Rations greater than 4.0 kcal/g should be corrected for energy density; rations less than 3.5 kcal/g should not be corrected for energy.

Rations of low-energy density should not be considered adequate for growth or reproductive needs based on comparison to the Profiles alone.

b: Although a true requirement for fat per se has not been established, the minimum level was based on recognition of fat as a source of essential fatty acids, as a carrier of fat-soluble vitamins, to enhance palatability, and to supply an adequate caloric density.
c: If the mean urine pH of cats fed ad libitum is not below 6.4, the risk of struvite urolithiasis increases as the magnesium content of the diet increases.
d: Because of very poor bioavailability, iron from carbonate or oxide sources that are added to the diet should not be considered as components in meeting the minimum nutrient level.
e: Because of very poor bioavailability, copper from oxide sources that are added to the diet should not be considered as components in meeting the minimum nutrient level.
f: Add 10 IU vitamin E above minimum level per gram of fish oil per kilogram of diet.
g: Vitamin K does not need to be added unless diet contains greater than 25 percent fish on a dry matter basis.
h: Because processing may destroy up to 90 percent of the thiamin in the diet, allowance in formulation should be made to ensure the minimum nutrient level is met after processing.
i: Biotin does not need to be added unless diet contains antimicrobial or antivitamin compounds.
j: Methionine may be used to substitute for choline as a methyl donor at a rate of 3.75 parts for 1 part choline by weight when methionine exceeds 0.62 percent.

Once you are able to re-interpret cat food labels to an easy-to-understand, universal form you can compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. It's a little tedious, but worth the effort.

Now that you have all those cat food labels interpreted into a standardized and comparative list, let's move to the more difficult part... what are your cat's particular nutritional needs?


Know the Nutrient Needs of Your Cat
On the chart above you will notice two columns for nutrient needs based on activity level as either kittens in a growing stage, an expectant mother cat, or needs for healthy adult maintenance. There are minimum nutrient needs for each category and there is even a column for some maximum needs since for cats, sometimes a little can go a long way.

If you are looking for some heavy reading on the subject of cat nutrition and the role it plays in feline health, The National Academy of Sciences produced an in-depth study of nutritional requirements for both cats and dogs. In it you will find extensive charts explaining the role of various vitamins and minerals in a cat food diet with definitions of the symptoms of deficiencies and excess amounts that may show up in your cat or kitten through their diet. If you want the full report from this agency, it will cost $265.50. You can order it from:

Nutrient Requirements Cats

Now, this is where you are challenged to be the best cat food purchaser you can be. In the end, only you can make the best cat food decision possible. There's plenty of information for you to research. But, most importantly, don't forget your veterinarian. She should know your cat from an empirical standpoint. That means she should know your cat's basic physical health. You should know her emotional health, and, you are most familiar with her routines and habits... that is, her lifestyle. So if you take all of these:

  • Her physical state of health (Is she pregnant or nursing an injury)
  • Her emotional state (Is she nervous about something? Are you moving to a new house? Is there a new pet in your home?)
  • Her lifestyle habits (Is she active? What is the range of her activities? Is she sensitive to heat or cold?)

After taking these into consideration and consulting with your veterinarian, you make an assumption as to what her nutritional needs are.

Going back to:

  • You should become familiar with the nutritional needs of cats, and, your cat in particular.
  • After becoming familiar with the nutritional needs of your cat, your will want to know how to interpret cat food labels for both dry and canned cat foods.

You now have the tools to make an intelligent decision on the particular brand of cat food to buy since you know how to interpret cat food labels and have determined what your cat's nutritional needs are.

BUT, you're not done yet!!!

Now you have to observe your cat for a few days and look for any signs of nutrient deficiencies or excesses. Most likely you will get it right the first time, especially if there are specific needs your vet has pointed out. Changing a cat's diet and food eating habits can be traumatic. You'll most likely need to hold her hand... I mean paw through this period.

How does one change their cat's food diet?

Most cat's aren't real crazy about change. It seems to disturb their sense of control of their feline world. Cats are most comfortable with the food they were raised on as kittens. If they had a varied diet as a kitten, changing food for them when they are older is much easier.

So, getting her to change her food can be a bit of a task. There are some ways to accomplish this. One way is to slowly introduce her new cat food as a small percentage of her regular meal. Then, over time, increase the new cat food percentage and decrease the old food until the old is fazed out. Also, making the new cat food the only option for a meal will encourage her to give the new cat food a try. Cat's can sometimes be stubborn, but they are not stupid.


Interesting Specialized Concepts Concerning the Feeding of Your Cat
Human foods that are toxic to cats. These foods should always be avoided:

  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Tomatoes
  • Raw potatoes
  • Grapes
  • Raisons
  • Chocolate
  • Milk (Though not necessarily toxic, many cats become lactose intolerant as they age)

Raw or natural cat food in a diet:

  • As already stated, cats are descended from desert carnivores. They like their meat fresh and aren't really concerned with amenities like an interesting side of vegetables and a nice sauce. Consequently, there are companies who produce raw cat food products. If you choose to purchase a raw product, be sure that it's manufactured in a USDA inspected facility, and is handled and stored at proper temperatures. When it's shipped to you it should be frozen from start to finish... they should ship it frozen and it should be frozen when you get it. This will reduce the possibility of food borne disease problems. To read more about Raw Cat Food...
  • There are a number of companies now that tout the benefits of holistic/organic/natural pet foods. And the reasoning for doing so is sound. But, the advertising for their products is really aimed at you, the consumer since your cat has not learned to read yet, and, you still hold the purse strings. Their intention is good, but you should make a decision based on what you believe to be in the best interest of your cat. That means education is all important on your part and remember... human philosophy does not always bode well for our animal friends. Think of their needs from their standpoint when deciding a course of action for their well-being. Especially when purchasing cat food.

The role of dry food versus canned food in your cat's diet:

  • Generally speaking, canned premium cat food is going to be more nutritious than dry cat food. The reason is because dry cat food contains LOTS of fillers such as corn meal, etc. Canned premium cat food is going to provide more nutrition for the development of bones and muscles and head off potential problems resulting from poor nutrition. Stay ahead of the game by thinking "down the road". Ask "what are the ramifications of cutting corners?". Higher vet bills. Long periods of suffering and recuperation for your cat. Needless anxiety on your part. Guilt has righted many a ship.

Weight control through diet & exercise:

  • Simply speaking, the best way to keep your cat healthy is to provide her with lots of exercise and watch how much you feed her given her known characteristics. If she is gaining a little too much around the waist, you will need to reduce her food intake relative to how much she exercises, her age and overall health. Any diet should be undertaken with the advise of your veterinarian. And, when she pleads for more... be strong of heart. Cat's are creatures of habit and the good habits you create for her will be greatly rewarded by her being a healthy kitty.

Food for your kitten:

  • Growing kittens need more nutrition for their development than mature or senior cats. Kitten foods developed for the raucous growth activities of kittens will not only provide the nutrients needed for this fast growing period in their life, when their body size and physiological development changes daily. But, will also help prevent any conditions in their adulthood that might result from any kind of malnutrition when they were young. Kitten-hood is a wondrous period for both you and your kitten. And the kitten food she has to grow on is probably the most important part of that period.

Water for the urinary tract:

  • Water helps keep the urinary tract clean and functional. But, a cat's keen sense of smell may lead her to reject tap water or any water that doesn't smell like a fresh mountain stream. This is usually due to the chemicals and additives that are used to "purify" urban supplies. Even the dish you provide for her may be offensive with underlying odors of detergents. Short of moving to the mountains, make sure her dish is well rinsed and let her water stand for a while before giving it to her. She'll probably still go for the water plate under your potted plants. Or for gathered pools after a rain fall. But above all, always keep a supply on hand for her.

Dental care:

  • The best way to keep your cat's teeth clean is with a good dental hygiene plan. Yep!! That means she will have to learn to have her teeth brushed. The best bet is to start when she is a kitten. Get her used to the practice when she is young and she will be more accepting of it when she is older. With older cats you will need a bit more patience... as will she.
  • Many articles include a comment about using kibbles or special treats to help maintain proper dental hygiene. As always, there is an up side and a down side to everything. If you use kibbles as her primary diet, she could suffer from nutrition loss. If you plan on going this route... do so with care. Again, don't forget your vet. She will check your cat's teeth and help you devise a good dental maintenance plan. A good philosophy? As the Buddhists say, "The middle road is the way to enlightenment". In other words, use moderation in your judgments. A little treat will help, and so will a regular tooth brushing schedule.


What's on Alexander's Plate Today?:
Alexander, our epicurean extraordinaire, was feeling like he could use a bite to eat. He heard the familiar rustling noises from the kitchen and his precise internal time clock told him that it was just about dinner time. As he made his way to his familiar feeding spot, he felt an old urge, deja vu some would say... something calling to him from a far off place in a far off time. He was used to the feeling now, having felt it so many times before. But, it still bothered him. "What is it that sends my senses to such an exotic high?", he murmured to himself. As he entered the kitchen he could see his food dish, still damp from its thorough cleaning, being placed where he could sit comfortably and dine. "Ahhh... this is one of my favorites. Fresh lamb. Its nice how it is served still warm. And, I can just smell all those good nutrients, which I will need if I am going to keep my date with Ling-Ling tonight". He noted his water dish was full and waiting. He liked water with his meals... just like a fine wine.

As he ate, his mind wandered to Africa and his far away brother. He knew that the pride had left early in the morning to shop for their evening meal. Gnu were not just going to jump onto their plates. Lazily chewing, he pictured his brother dragging his meal home through the dirt and brush. "Well, I think I can do without that part", he sneezed. Suddenly, Alexander paused to a still-life pose, that millenniums old passion persisted and he felt a bitter-sweet longing to run with his brother and feel the exaltation of providing for his own well-being. All that noise... all that roaring... all that adrenaline.

After dinner he knew there would be a small kibbles treat which he enjoyed because of their refreshing qualities. His mouth just seemed cleaner, which he knew Ling-Ling appreciated. His brother's bad breath lingered just a little too long for his liking. "Well, whatever that feeling is, it seems to pass. And, as always, right after dinner". With that he went to his favorite window perch, leaped easily up to his favorite view, and proceeded to clean his face... where he would wait for the evening to turn into dusk. And then what ages old urge will he feel?

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