Cat Food: March 2009 Archives

By Jean Hofve, DVM

pictures_cats_eating.jpgCats are true carnivores, requiring a meat-based diet for optimal health. Their natural diet is prey such as rodents, lizards, insects, and birds. These prey consist primarily of water, protein and fat, with less than 10% carbohydrate (starch, sugar and fiber) content. Cats are exquisitely adapted to utilize fat and protein for energy. They are not at all like dogs and people, who are adapted to use carbohydrates for energy.

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When feeding our companion cats, the most logical strategy is to feed the diet that most closely mimics the natural prey diet. A homemade diet is an excellent way to accomplish this. Feeding more (or only) canned food is another way--one that is often easier for people to deal with. Canned foods are higher in fat and protein, and lower in carbohydrates, than dry foods. Their high water content increases the cat's overall fluid intake, which keeps the kidneys and bladder healthy. The higher fat contributes to skin and coat health. Because the ingredients are more easily digested and utilized by the cat's body, canned foods produce less solid waste in the litterbox.

Another feature of the cat's natural diet is variety. A hunting cat doesn't one day decide to eat only purple finches! He will eat any small prey he can catch: chickadees, mice, grasshoppers, robins, or rabbits. Likewise, we should feed our cats a variety of foods. Variety keeps cats from becoming finicky and food-addicted, lessens the chance of dietary excess or deficiency of any single nutrient, and may prevent the development of food intolerances, allergies, and inflammatory bowel disease. Feeding the same dry food year after year greatly increases the risk of these problems. With canned food, it is easy to vary the flavors and protein sources.

Pictures_cats_canned_food.jpgDry food typically contains 35-50% carbohydrates, mostly as starch. (The new "grain-free" foods may be as little as 20% carbohydrate). This is necessary because the equipment that makes dry food requires a high-starch, low-fat dough for proper processing. Cereal grains provide an inexpensive and plentiful source of calories, which allows manufacturers to produce foods containing adequate calories at an affordable price. A few dry foods provide less carbohydrates, in some cases substituting starchy vegetables and soy for cereal grains; but they are still heavily processed and just as dehydrating (if not more so) than regular dry food.

Adult cats need 2-3 times more protein than dogs. Yet dry cat foods generally supply only about 1/3 more protein than dry dog foods—about 30-35% in dry cat food compared to 20-26% for the average dry dog food. "Kidney" diets for cats in renal failure are even more restrictive with 26-28% protein (such diets should never be fed to normal cats; they will cause muscle wasting as the cat breaks down its own body for protein). Canned cat foods contain 45-50% protein, and canned kitten foods may contain up to 55% protein. (All percentages calculated on a dry matter basis.)

Cats are attracted to food that has a strong meat or fat flavor. Pet food manufacturers go to great lengths to make their starch-based dry foods palatable to cats. They may coat the kibbles with fat or with "animal digest," a powder made of chemically or enzymatically digested animal by-products. The result may be a cat who overeats, not because he's hungry, but because he loves the taste of the food and doesn't want to stop. (I think we've all been there!)

pictures_cats_dry_food.jpgDry food is very dehydrating. Our feline friends descend from desert-dwelling wild cats who are well adapted to limited water resources. Their ultra-efficient kidneys are able to extract most of their moisture needs from their prey. However, the end result is that cats have a very low thirst drive, and will not drink water until they are 3-5% dehydrated (a level at which, clinically, a veterinarian would administer fluid therapy). Cats eating only dry food take in only half the moisture of a cat eating only canned food. This chronic dehydration may be a factor in kidney disease, and is known to be a major contributor to bladder disease (crystals, stones, FUS, FLUTD, cystitis). Caution: adding water or milk to dry food does not solve the problem; and the fact that there are always bacteria on the surface of dry food means that adding moisture can result in massive bacterial growth--and a very upset tummy.

The high heat used in processing dry food damages (denatures) the proteins in the food. The resulting unnatural proteins may trigger an immune response that can lead to food allergies and inflammatory bowel disease.

There is increasing evidence that carbohydrates (starches and sugars) in dry food are simply not metabolized well by many, if not most cats. While obesity is caused by many factors, the free-choice feeding of dry food to a relatively inactive cat is a major player. Obese cats are prone to joint problems, liver and kidney disease, and diabetes.

Recent research has shown that high-carbohydrate diets are to blame in most cases of feline diabetes. Many overweight cats are carbohydrate-intolerant, and should be fed low-carbohydrate diets (think "Catkins" diet!). This means canned food. Experts are now recommending canned kitten food as the primary treatment for diabetes. Many diabetic cats can decrease or even eliminate their need for insulin, simply by changing to a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet. Ultimately, canned food may be even more beneficial as a preventative for this devastating disease.

Overweight cats may greatly benefit from a switch to an all-canned diet. Stick to foods containing 10% or less carbohydrate. Many all life stages and kitten foods fit this requirement. Carbs are usually not listed on the label. However, all you have to do is subtract the other ingredients from 100% to get an estimate of the carb content. Most cats lose weight more efficiently on a canned food than dry food diet. Even though they're often eating more calories, these diets are much better suited to the unique feline metabolism.

If your cat is not used to eating canned food, add it to the diet slowly in small amounts. It is so different in composition from dry food that it may cause tummy upset at first.

If a cat won't eat canned food, it's usually because of a dry food addiction, or because he isn't hungry enough to try something new. Start by putting the cat on a meal-feeding schedule, leaving dry food out only an hour each, morning and night. Once he's accustomed to the schedule, put a little canned food down first. Most cats will be willing to try it at that point. (See "Switching Foods" for more information on why and how to make the change.)

pictures_cats_food.jpgQuality is just as important with canned cat food as any other type of food. See Selecting a Good Commercial Pet Food to learn how to read a label and assess a food's quality for yourself. If possible, buy the food in a larger can, and store leftovers in a glass jar in the refrigerator. Pop-top cans, by-products, and fish flavors of canned cat food have been linked to the development of thyroid disease in cats.

Dry food is a great convenience and may be necessary in some cases when the guardian is gone long hours or cannot feed on a regular schedule. But at least 50% of the diet (preferably 100% if you want to ensure optimum health!) should be a high-protein, high-moisture, low-carb diet such as canned or homemade food. Your cat will be healthier, and while you'll spend a little more on food up front, ultimately you'll save hundreds, if not thousands, on veterinary bills!

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By Jean Hofve, DVM

pictures_cat_big ears.jpgCats often develop "food allergies" or "food intolerances" to ingredients found in commercial cat food. The top allergens are: chicken, fish and corn (very common cat food ingredients), beef (often referred to as "meat by-products" or "meat and bone meal" on pet food labels), wheat, and dairy products. However, an allergy can develop to any protein to which the cat is repeatedly or constantly exposed.

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The symptoms of food allergy are typically either skin-related or digestion-related.

* Skin symptoms include rashes (particularly around the face and ears), excessive licking (typically paws, legs or tummy), and red, itchy ears.

* Digestive symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea. These are similar to the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, which you can read more about here.

The conventional treatments for food allergies are steroids (also called "corticosteroids" and "glucocorticoids" to distinguish them from the anabolic steroids that bodybuilders and athletes sometimes use), hyposensitization, and diet therapy.

Steroids can be given by long-lasting injection ("Depo-Medrol" or other injectable cortisone) or by mouth in the form of a tablet. The two most common oral steroids are prednisone and prednisolone. Prednisone is hard for cats to metabolize and must be converted to prednisolone in the liver before it will work. Therefore, it is simpler and less stressful to give prednisolone itself.

White_Cat_grooming.jpgHowever, steroids have many dangerous side effects. The injectable forms can cause diabetes. Steroids can also damage the kidneys. The primary action of steroids is to suppress the immune system, so that the inflammatory reaction to the allergen does not occur. This makes the cat more prone to infections. Steroids can also cause ulcers in the stomach and intestines. Cats receiving steroids should not be vaccinated because the steroid prevents the immune system from responding to the vaccine.

Hyposensitization is not often used in cats, and requires knowing precisely what the cat is allergic to. Once this is determined, then the substance is diluted and injected to signal to the immune system that the substance is not harmful and it doesn't need to over-react. The skin test is considered the "gold standard"; there is also a blood test for allergies (sometimes called a "Rast" test). While both work well in dogs, they are notoriously inaccurate in cats.

Diet trials use "novel" ingredients that are not commonly found in pet food. Novel protein sources include kangaroo, emu, venison, rabbit, and duck. Novel carbohydrate sources include green peas, potatoes, and barley. Lamb and rice used to be novel, but since the introduction of lamb and rice foods years ago, many animals have (predictably) become allergic to those, too. The prescription-type diets (using green peas and novel meat sources) are available from some veterinarians. OTC choices include Nature's Variety Prairie (lamb, duck, rabbit and venison), Petguard (venison and rabbit), EVO 95% meat varieties, and Merrick Thanksgiving Day Dinner (turkey). A diet trial must last at least 8 weeks and must include only the test food; no treats, no exceptions. Just one diet slip (such as giving a treat containing chicken) could invalidate the entire trial and you will have to start over.

preventing_stray_cats.jpgHolistic treatments for food allergies include homemade diets for cats using novel ingredients, natural anti-inflammatories like slippery elm and antioxidants, skin-healing supplements like Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils, flaxseed oil), and other immune-supporting treatments like BioSuperfood.

It should also be noted that even in cats who are not specifically allergic to something in the food still often do better with a hypoallergenic diet. It seems that the fewer allergens the immune system has to deal with, the less chance it will over-react.

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By Jean Hofve, DVM

If you're new here, please consider subscribing to my feed. If you love cats, you'll enjoy the posts we place online every day.  Thanks for visiting!

cats-eating.jpgHomemade diets are great for our cats. By making your cat's food at home, you control the quality of the ingredients, and commercial food additives such as colorings and preservatives can be avoided. Once you get the hang of it, homemade food is both time and cost-efficient. It's definitely worth the effort!

Before you put your companion cat on a home-prepared diet, Dr. Jean strongly recommends that you discuss your decision with your veterinarian or a holistic veterinarian in your area who understands nutrition and is comfortable with home-made diets. For a list of holistic veterinary practitioners by state, visit www.holisticvetlist.com.

Dr. Jean also suggests you obtain one or more of the following books, so that you have a more complete understanding of feline nutritional needs. It is essential that you follow any diet's recommendations closely, including all ingredients and supplements. Failure to do so may result in serious health consequences for your animal companion.

* It's for the Animals! Natural Care & Resources. Helen L. McKinnon. C.S.A. Inc. Available from It's for the Animals!; P.O. Box 1913; Fairview, NC 28730; toll-free 1-888-339-IFTA (4382). http://www.itsfortheanimals.com

* Natural Cat Care. Celeste Yarnall. Available from Celestial Pets.

* Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets: the Healthful Alternative. Donald R. Strombeck, DVM. Iowa State University Press. ISBN 0813821495. (Note: feline recipes are too low in taurine, and many recipes are slightly low in calcium.)

* Raising Cats Naturally. Michelle Bernard.

lots of cats eating.jpegThese recipes have not been formally analyzed or tested, but they are reasonably well-balanced for long-term use. Please read and understand all instructions before beginning! NEVER SKIP VITAMINS OR OTHER SUPPLEMENTS--THEY ARE CRUCIAL TO YOUR PET'S LONG-TERM HEALTH!

Variety is crucial to your cat's health! (This applies to any and all diets and recipes!) Do not get in the habit of feeding just one or two combinations of ingredients.

To make a large batch of food, increase portions and mix protein source, oil, vegetables, and calcium together. Freeze in meal-sized portions. Vitamins/minerals, enzymes, and probiotics should be added fresh at each meal.

The recipes utilize a good quality human supplement. Some of the cheaper human supplements, particularly those with a heavy coating such as One-A-Day, are not well digested even by people and should not be used for animals. Cats should get 1/2 of a human supplement per day.

Alternatively, you can use a specially made dog or cat vitamin supplement, such as Dr. Goodpet or Nu-Cat. (There are many good animal supplements available at your local feed store or health food store). Be sure to use the recommended amount.

You can grind up the supplements with a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle to add to the food; or get the kind that comes in capsules, and open the capsule and empty the powder into the food.

Probiotics include L. acidophilus and other "good" bacteria. They help maintain your cat's normal bacterial population and prevent colonization by disease-causing bacteria. Digestive enzymes are important to keep the pancreas from being overworked, and to aid digestion so your cat gets the greatest benefit from the food she eats. Human supplements can be used at the full human dose; they are impossible to overdose.

cat_food_bowl.jpgMeat may be fed cooked or raw. Meat amounts are given in raw weight. (While many holistic veterinarians recommend feeding raw meat, there are potential risks to your companion animal's health from bacterially contaminated meat. Please discuss this issue with your veterinarian before feeding raw meat.) If feeding raw, it is recommended that meat be frozen for 72 hours at -4 degrees F prior to use to kill encysted parasites. Most meats can be refrozen one time safely, so once you mix the meal, it can be put back in the freezer until thawed for feeding. Raw ground beef is not recommended; if used, it must be organic.

Feeding bones presents many risks; even raw bones can cause cracked teeth and intestinal impactions. Whole bones are not recommended. You can, however, substitute ground bone for bone meal in the recipes. Bone meal must be edible, human grade. Do not use bone meal intended for gardening or plants!

Cats should NOT be fed a non-meat diet. There are many potential problems and unanswered questions on the issue of vegetarian cats. Evidence is clear that cats are obligate carnivores who do best on a meat-based diet.

For cats, use ONE protein source. Meats vary tremendously in fat content; poultry is much lower in fat than any mammal meat, so do not exceed recommended amounts unless you are trying to put weight on your pet! Always follow standard safe meat handling procedures.

Diet for adult cats

Feed adult cats two or three times a day. Refrigerate leftovers promptly. Recipe makes 2 days' worth of food for an average 10-lb. adult cat. Increase for kittens, decrease for overweight cats.

Choose one protein source (meat amounts given in raw weight)

* 16 oz boneless skinless chicken white meat, minced

* 16 oz boneless skinless chicken dark meat, minced

* 15 oz boneless skinless turkey white meat, minced

* 14 oz boneless skinless turkey dark meat, minced

* 12 oz organic ground beef, 95% lean

* 12 oz domestic rabbit, minced

* 8 oz ground lamb or bison

* 8 oz pound beef, chicken or turkey heart, ground or minced

* 2 chopped hard-boiled or scrambled eggs may be substituted for 1/4 of any meat

* Optional: once a week, substitute 4 oz organic liver for 1/2 of any meat

* For a lower protein/phosphorus diet, substitute egg whites for 1/3 of any meat and 1/2 cup white rice (not quick-cooking) for 1/3 of any meat.

Supplements

* 1 slightly rounded tbsp bone meal (human grade)

* 1/2 tsp salt (sodium chloride)

* 1/2 salt substitute (potassium chloride)

* 1/4 multiple vitamin-mineral supplement including choline (human quality), powdered

* 1 probiotic/digestive enzyme supplement

* 1 capsule taurine 500 mg, or 1 tablet 500 mg powdered

* With poultry, add 1 tsp fish oil per pound of meat

* Optional: 1 jars organic vegetable baby food (sweet potato, garden vegetables, spinach); avoid corn and potatoes due to high carbohydrate content.

holistic_cat_food.jpgCats have no need for vegetables, but mixing all the supplements together with some nice juicy baby food before adding the meat makes the process a whole lot easier. It doesn't hurt them at all, and if mine are any judge, it adds a little flavor. Freeze what will not be eaten in 24 hours.

Pay attention to your animal companion's health: his weight, energy level, skin condition, odor, coat quality, stool consistency, and oral health. If these are not maintaining or improving, consult your veterinarian about changing elements of the diet.

Click here for our past posts, our archives have hundreds of helpful cat information posts for cat lovers.  Please subscribe to our RSS feed if you're a cat person that likes cat related information, cat care advice and news.

This article was adapted from it's original to focus only on cats, the original article addressed a homemade diet for both dogs and cats. I removed the information about dogs. To read the article in its entirety, visit Little Big Cat, Easy Homemade Diets for Cats.

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