Feeding your cat can be complicated.Cat at the Table

As someone who has had a dog most of his life, I figured that taking care of a cat wouldn’t be much different. One policy I had adopted over time with my dog was that I would feed him the same things that I ate; his diet consisted of everything from chicken to spaghetti and even tacos and vegetable stir-fry. My dog lived for 15 years and so I assumed this sort of policy would work just as well with a cat. I mean, if I liked it, and a dog liked it, why wouldn’t a cat?

Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. And my new roommate let me know it.

For those who may not know, cats can be finicky eaters. While this may not be a shock to anyone who has ever owned one (you may be laughing at the above sentence for how much of an understatement it is), it is quite a contrast to some other domesticated animals and a new experience for me.

So, how do you feed a cat? Cats usually base their food selection on texture, taste and moisture content and not the vitamins or minerals their bodies may need. The last item on this list (moisture content) turns out to be one of the most important on the list when considering your feline’s health.

Cats are carnivores. They also have evolved from ancestors who had adapted to dry and arid climates. As a consequence, the concept of “drinking” water is pretty foreign to a cat. This doesn’t mean that your cat won’t drink water; he will, and you should always provide a bowl of fresh water. However, this does mean that a cat’s digestive system is not set up to handle liquid in the most efficient way possible and also does not have the internal “thirst drive” most animals have for water. In the wild, cats get most of the moisture their body needs in the form of the meat that they catch and eat (small birds, rodents, etc.). In other words, your cat prefers flesh because that is how he gets the water he needs. This also might account for why your cat may turn up his nose at any dry kibble you put in front of him. From his point of view, that food lacks one important ingredient and that is water.

The genetic predisposition to obtaining almost all of the needed daily water from flesh has prompted some veterinarians to recommend diets that consist only of canned cat food. However, there are two important things to note here. One, not all veterinarians recommend this diet. Two, feeding your cat tuna is different than feeding it wet cat food even though the cans (and smells) are sometimes very similar.

(And now it’s time for my disclaimer: Although it should go without saying, every cat is different and your veterinarian probably knows what is best for your pet. Ask them questions but also know when to trust their judgment. The information provided here is only meant to help you think about your cat’s nutrition and is not intended to be an endorsement of any particular feeding plan. Although I prefer something that seems more like the food I would eat, that is simply my preference and based off my own beliefs. And as you’ll see, my cat didn’t feel the same way I did, either.)

Dry cat foods are formulated with some degree of water in them regardless of how dry they appear, so you are not dehydrating your cat if that is all it eats. Dry foods are also one of the most cost effective and simple ways to deliver the needed vitamins and minerals to your cat. Some vets prefer this diet, or at the very least don’t believe these types of foods will harm your pet. Pet food companies also spend much time and money on research and development so you should feel fairly comfortable knowing they do have the best interest of the animal in mind. It should also be noted that if dry pet food was really terrible for your cat and caused immediate bodily harm, the product probably wouldn’t have been on the market for decades.

That being said, veterinarians like Lisa A. Pierson make interesting points when they say that dry cat food sits in storage and can potentially mold and mildew before you ever purchase it. There is also a chance that other animals such as rats and mice may have been in the large warehouses where stockpiles of the food are kept and thus it could contain feces and other nasty items. She also notes that these foods usually contain carbohydrate levels that are too high for your cat and that most of the protein comes from plants and not animals. Pierson makes these last two arguments based on cats’ evolutionary history as hunters and carnivores and is firmly in the camp that feline food should reflect this fact.

To that end, Pierson recommends a diet of homemade cat food (or at the very least, canned store-bought food). However, her recommended recipe (and many others found online) is a lot more complicated than just opening a can of tuna and putting it down for your cat.

The National Research Council of The National Academies has a free pamphlet called Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs that outlines the variety of vitamins and minerals your pet needs to prevent future health issues. The pamphlet is based on a larger report and contains a lot of good information about not just about what to feed your cat but how much and how often. For instance, they recommend leaving food down so your cat can graze about 12 to 20 times per day rather than consuming her daily caloric intake all in one meal. The National Academies is an independent research organization so the report appears fairly balanced and legitimate.

Pierson does not contradict what the report says and the food she chooses tends to reflect an in depth understanding of a cat’s health needs. Her process is thorough and she does an excellent job explaining why she is using what she uses and where to get it. All of this is very helpful. Although the recipe is relatively easy to follow, it really isn’t for someone like myself who has limited kitchen space and lacks the proper grinding equipment (you read that right). However, if you are bold, it is worth a shot.

As for me, everything I have read has convinced me wet food is better for my cat. She actually does like it better than the dry variety. But, I still see her munching on her kibble throughout the day. For now, she’s the boss and I’ll continue to give her both. I never thought this much about my dog’s food. Maybe I should have, but he wasn’t as particular as my new cat is. And that might just be the understatement of the year. –Mike Griffin

Mike is a dog lover who also has a fondness for cats. And rabbits. And birds. And hamsters. The list pretty much includes any critter that will let him enjoy their company or occasionally pet them. When Mike isn’t writing for Ohio Animal Companion, you’ll probably find him at any one of the local parks or trying to not to burn down his house with the experiments he holds in his kitchen that he likes to call “cooking.”