Not that long ago it was thought that cats were one of the “easy”, low maintenance pets you could have. Give them some food, water and a litter box and they can pretty much take care of themselves. For the most part we keep them indoors so they don’t need to go to the vet. They are small so keeping them in an apartment is fine and there is no need to exercise or play with them. Wow were we wrong. We’ve been doing our feline family members a disservice.
Don’t get me wrong, adequate food, water, and a litterbox are still important cornerstones of health and wellbeing for cats but they aren’t the only things they need for a long HAPPY life. A couple of years ago the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association used Animal Health Week to discuss Safeguarding of The Five Animal Freedoms. These freedoms are nutrition, socialization, shelter, veterinary care and the ability to exhibit normal behavior.
The first of the accepted Five Animal Freedoms is “Providing Proper Nutrition”. This is explained as freedom from hunger and thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor. At a glance this sounds simple but it’s really not.
Cats are notorious for being difficult to get them to drink water. They are all individuals and there can be some weird quirks that will stop them from drinking. It’s possible you need to change the water bowl. For some cats if the bowl is too narrow they won’t like their whiskers touching the edges. Other cats prefer to drink from something like a cup. If our retired clinic cat Hemmingway can see his reflection in the bowl it will actually scare him and he will run away. For some they prefer the moving water of a fountain or a dripping faucet. They can even be discriminating enough to not like the taste of tap water and prefer bottled water.
Some general guidelines are that water bowls should be washed frequently and refilled with fresh water daily. The water bowl should be placed away from the food dish to avoid possible “contamination” and in the case of a multicat household there should be at least as many bowls of water available as there are cats.
Feline nutrition is so much more involved than it used to be. We no longer just have foods to support life but we also have diets tailored to such things as decreasing stress, preventing bladder crystals, decreasing arthritis pain etc. You can see how all these options can make what to feed your cat a confusing choice.
With so much of our lives tied up with electronic media devices, advertising has a huge influence on our choices and unfortunately advertising companies are experts at twisting facts to make products sell. Pet food is a billion dollar a year industry and is no exception to this situation. "Real meat first" and "cranberries for bladder health" would be two examples of clever advertising. Why you ask? With these examples the real meat that is put into your cats food is made up of mostly water but with dry kibble it is then dehydrated which ends out making the "first" actually several ingredients down the list. When things like cranberries and blueberries are added to a diet you will typically find them further down on the ingredient list which means although it is in the diet it's in the diet in such low amounts it's not actually therapeutic. That’s not to say that the diet doesn’t provide adequate nutrition just that all the advertising can be very misleading.
“With so much advertising, people tend to focus on ingredients, but the nutrients are more important” Richard Hill, PhD, associate professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville.
A better recipe is one that concentrates on the overall digestibility and nutrient profile of the diet. When we are concentrating on nutrients instead of fads finding a well balanced diet gets a little easier.
Start by having your veterinarian complete a physical examination including a nutritional assessment. This assessment will include things like how many calories your cat should have in a day and is there anything "extra" we should be trying to accomplish with the diet. For example if your cat has a history of having a dry coat we might choose a diet that contains higher levels of omega fatty acids. In complicated cases your veterinarian also has the ability to consult Board Certified Nutritionists for Advice. All of this will combine to help your veterinary team give you a specific diet plan tailored specifically to your individual cat.
Your veterinarian is probably going to recommend a diet from one of the big companies in veterinary pet food. These main companies are Hills, Purina and Royal Canin. There are a couple others but these are the most common. While these companies are not the only ones with good diets on the market they are the ones with the most (some times any) accepted research. When you ask your veterinary team for any recommendation you expect us to know what we are talking about. Without these type of facts available we often can’t recommend other diets with confidence because without the research we just don’t know for sure what the long term effects of feeding that diet are going to be.
If you would rather not feed a veterinary diet The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) has put together some great information on what to look for and how to make an informed decision. The best two handouts are The Savvy Cat Owner’s Guide to Nutrition on The Internet and Recommendations on Selecting a Pet Food. These can help you weed through the advertising and get to the facts. As I hinted at earlier there are pet foods on the market whose makers have no research or nutritionists backing what they have put together so knowing what to look for can be extremely helpful.
Another big problem we run into with pet foods on the market is the huge difference in the calorie count from one food to another. Commercially available diets can easily range from 200 kcal/cup to almost 700 kcal/cup. Cats will happily nibble throughout the day if food is always available (especially if they are bored) but they are not very good at regulating how much they are eating. You can easily see why pet obesity is a huge issue in North America.
Experts agree it’s best to feed cats at specific mealtimes, and to put food away at all other times. This is called meal feeding. They also agree that in the case of cats it’s best to try and “put the hunt back into mealtimes”. We can do this with the use of various feeding puzzles and activities. For information on feeding puzzles you can check out our previous blog What you should know about Boredom and Puzzle Feeders
Feeding healthy cats requires using a complete and balanced diet which incorporates life stage and is adapted to lifestyle in sufficient amounts to ensure a healthy body weight and a lean body condition and promote health. If you have questions about nutrition your best resource is your veterinary team.