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Cat Diet: Feeding Your Cat

When you think your cat won’t listen or has a behavior problem, the first question to ask yourself is, “What does he eat?” Nutrition directly affects a cat’s ability to listen, to behave well, and to be healthy. A healthful diet is part of the long-term solution for any behavior problem.

Diet and Behavior

In 1932, Dr. Francis Pottenger began a ten-year study on cats. Though its purpose was related to dentistry, it has become well known for what it revealed about the effects of diet on cat behavior. In the study, cats that were fed only raw food remained healthier and developed fewer behavioral problems than did cats that were fed cooked food. (See this article on Pottenger’s Cats) For this reason it is believed by some that a raw food diet is best for your cat. Unfortunately, it is not convenient to feed your cat raw food. Although you can make up big batches and freeze homemade raw food, it takes time and energy that a lot of us don’t have. Pet food companies nowadays sell frozen raw pet foods. Bagged in small portions, you simply take one serving out of the freezer and let it thaw (see “Raw Food” for companies that sell frozen raw pet food products). Cooked homemade food can be frozen too.

Another important consideration is that commercially available dry cat food is hard on the kidneys. Many people think that a dry-food-only diet leads to kidney problems, which are a common cause of death for house cats.

Cats Are Like People

Neither people nor cats can tolerate the same food every day. Eventually, we will have poor manners and poor health, become finicky, and make our kidneys work harder.

We recommend a combination of wet and dry foods along with some dietary supplements. Feed your cat a variety of brands and flavors to help ensure a more balanced diet. No single food can have everything a cat needs.

Dry food and canned food should have meat as the primary ingredient. Cats are carnivores and must eat meat to stay healthy. Read the label on every can and every bag. Chicken, chicken meal, or some other meat should be the first ingredient. Many experts recommend that two of the first four ingredients should be meat.

Buy high-quality cat foods. These typically don’t have ingredients that may cause health problems that could result in higher medical bills. To find high-quality foods, look in pet stores and health food stores. Ingredients in many grocery store discount brands aren’t as good. Cheaper brands can contain what is known as “4-D meat”: dead, down, dying, or diseased meats, which can include cancerous tumors, not to mention dogs and cats, fur, tags, and flea collars may get tossed into the rendering pit and ground into pet food.

Cats should not eat dog food. It doesn’t have enough protein. Buy cat food.

Wet Food

”Wet food” (on this website) means any of the following: canned cat food, homemade food, and table scraps. These should be the main part of a cat’s diet. As mentioned before, dry food can lead to kidney problems.

Unless instructed otherwise by your veterinarian, feed two or three small wet meals a day. As little as a teaspoon per meal will satisfy some cats. Feed smaller and more frequent meals to kittens, or to cats who are weak, old, or nursing babies.

Bring refrigerated food to room temperature before serving it—some cats don’t like cold food. After half an hour, refrigerate leftover canned cat food in a glass container to prevent lead from leaching from the can.

Wet Food Servings?

Give him a trial serving and see how much he eats in five to ten minutes. If he doesn’t finish it, give him less next time. If he eats it all, try a little more next time.

Give your cat meat table scraps, homemade cat food (see “Homemade Food” below), and raw meats and vegetables. Feed a wide variety of canned foods. This helps give him a wide variety of food sources.

It’s hard to find canned food without at least some fish ingredient, but you should avoid canned food that is primarily fish. Too much canned fish in the diet can make your cat lethargic and can even cause illness.

Canned tuna is addictive to cats and will deplete vitamin E. Lack of vitamin E can lead to fatigue and stress, and some cats might start over-grooming. However, fresh raw tuna every so often makes a wonderful cat treat.

When to Feed Wet Meals

Feed wet meals around your work schedule. Try to feed at the same times each day so your cats have something to look forward to.

Don’t buy canned food containing sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite, because they are suspected carcinogens. They often are used in cured meats such as hot dogs and sausages and in canned pet foods.

Helpful Hints

When buying cat food, look for:

  • Canned cat foods that are labeled “natural”
  • Dry foods preserved with vitamin E (tocopherols) or vitamin C (ascorbic acid)

Homemade Food

Tasty homemade food can be a special and healthful treat for your cat. What’s more, with homemade foods, you can control the quality. Homemade food is superior to store-bought food, however, we recommend also feeding store bought foods in order to provide all the nutrients your cat needs.

Warning

Cats with medical conditions or behavior problems may not be able to eat certain foods. Tailor any of the suggested food, recipes, or menus to your cat’s condition, and follow the veterinarian’s advice.

Here are some simple recipes to get you started. (See Cat Books.)

Chop all cooked meats and raw vegetables as small as peas, or use a food processor. The more organic ingredients you can use, the better.

Quick Dinner for Cats

  • 1/2 cup meat (cut-up cooked lamb, poultry, rabbit, fish, or raw ground beef)
  • 2 tablespoons cooked brown rice, quinoa, or couscous
  • 1 jar of vegetable baby food (peas, broccoli, etc.)

Stir together. Serve at room temperature. Serves two or three cats.

Cat Food Recipe

You can substitute ingredients to add variety to this recipe. Broccoli and carrots are good sources of vitamins A, C, and D as well as calcium.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or butter (not margarine!)
  • 1 carrot, finely grated
  • 1/2 cup green vegetable, finely grated (broccoli, green pepper, parsley, etc.)
  • 1 pound raw meat (poultry, beef, buffalo, lamb, rabbit, or boneless fish)
  • 1 can (about 2 cups) low-sodium chicken broth or bouillon
  • 1 cup cooked brown rice, cooked quinoa, or Sojourner Farms European-Style Pet Food Mix (www.sojos.com)
  • dash salt (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons dietary supplement (see “Supplements” below)

Heat oil or butter over medium-high heat. Brown the meat. Add broth and vegetables. If using poultry or rabbit, reduce the heat and simmer until done; the other meats won’t need to be cooked any longer. Remove from heat, add grain, and stir. Serve warm but not hot. Store the rest in the refrigerator or freeze in small portions. Makes 20 quarter-cup servings.

Beef Jerky

This recipe always draws a crowd—or should we say, a clowder. (The actual name for a group of cats is “clowder.”) You will need a food dehydrator for this.

  • 1 pound very thinly sliced beef
  • 1/4 cup low-sodium tamari or soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon liquid smoke
  • 1 tablespoon 100 percent pure maple syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon dietary supplement (see “Supplements” below)

Mix liquids together and stir into beef. Let set for 15 minutes. Spread the mixture on the dehydrator pan. Dry in food dehydrator one to two days. When the jerky is completely dry, break it into small bits. Makes about 9 ounces of jerky.

Cat Treats

The more organically grown / hormone-free ingredients you can use, the better:

  • Steamed spinach, squash, or kale with butter
  • Baked potato with butter
  • Raw egg yolk (not raw egg white)
  • Coconut milk
  • Plain yogurt
  • Sour cream
  • Cooked turkey, chicken, lamb, roast beef, buffalo, or rabbit (cut the meat into small bits and store in freezer in plastic bags
  • leftover cooked meat cut into small bits
  • Roasted chicken necks (including bone, crumbled into sections)
  • Raw ground beef or buffalo
  • 1/2 teaspoon baby food with meat (no onion powder)
  • Restaurant leftovers (no sugar)
  • Buttered popcorn
  • Smoked oysters packed in olive oil
  • Avocado
  • Cheese (cottage cheese, parmesan, cheddar, Swiss, etc.)
  • Oatmeal with cream
  • Pancakes with butter
  • Stuffed cabbage
Foods to Avoid

  • Chocolate: it’s poisonous to cats
  • Sugar: depletes the immune system
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • MSG (monosodium glutamate)
  • White flour
  • Raw egg white: depletes vitamin E
  • Canned tuna; depletes vitamin E
  • Onion powder: can cause anemia (sometimes found in baby food)
  • Pork: can contain parasites
  • Milk: can cause diarrhea; raw organic milk is okay
  • Hydrogenated fats
  • Hot dogs
  • Cake, cookies
  • Dog food

Dry Food

As mentioned earlier, a cat’s diet should be wet food. If you are feeding some dry food, feed a variety. Do not feed just one brand; set out three different brands in three different bowls. Buy small bags and when one is empty, open a different brand.

If your cat is sick, overweight, has a litter box problem, or you worry about roaches, keep the dry-food bowls covered. Unless otherwise instructed by your veterinarian, uncover the bowls for about twenty minutes twice a day, so your cat can eat some of the dry food in addition to the wet meals he is getting.

Contrary to popular belief, eating dry food does not alleviate dental problems.

Preservatives

Some experts believe that several of the common ingredients used for preserving dry foods are dangerous. Look for food preserved with tocopherols (vitamin E) or ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which are natural and nutritious preservatives.

Avoid dry food that contains these ingredients:

  • Ethoxyquin. Originally designed as a rubber hardener, pesticide, and herbicide, this chemical is suspected of causing liver disease, kidney disease, skin problems, birth defects, and vitamin E deficiencies. Pet-food makers often use it because it’s inexpensive.
  • BHA, BHT. These common preservatives are suspected of causing liver and kidney damage, immune deficiencies, and behavior problems. In England, BHA and BHT are banned for consumption by children, but in the United States both preservatives are used in food made for human consumption as well as in pet foods.
  • Propyl gallate. This is another preservative commonly used in the United States but banned in England. It is suspected of causing the same health problems as BHA and BHT.

Raw Food

You may not have time to prepare regular homemade raw food meals every day, but try to use them as frequently as possible. They provide nutrients that are missing from cooked foods.

You can find recipes and instructions for raw food meals in The New Natural Cat and Reigning Cats and Dogs (see “Cat Food Books” in Cat Books).

Raw food diet sources:

Many raw pet food products are available frozen in one-serving portions.

Homemade food is great.

  • A food processor will speed up the preparation, but simply cutting up the food is fine, too. Try any of these, alone or in combination:
  • fresh organic meats and vegetables
  • Whole organic grains (such as cooked brown rice, quinoa)
  • Table scraps

Grains to add to raw or cooked meats: Sojourner Farms European-Style Pet Food Mix; Urban King; Forage Formula

Feeding Kittens

Wet meals are especially important to kittens. Feed kittens five small wet meals a day, more if you have time. Pay careful attention to the ingredients of all foods, because a kitten’s small body is ultrasensitive. Specially formulated “kitten” foods are okay, but not required.

Supplements

Food supplements help replace nutrients that are destroyed by cooking or are otherwise not present. Supplements by Wysong and Halo Vita-Mineral Mix are designed to help bridge the gap between raw and cooked food. These supplements can be added to wet or dry foods. It’s also good to periodically switch brands of supplements as well as food, so that your cat benefits from a variety of nutrients. (See Cat Products for more information on other vitamin/supplement resources.)

Feeding Tips

Because some cats cannot eat amidst noise and commotion, create a quiet, peaceful atmosphere when feeding your cat. You might need to serve food away from where your dog eats.

Establish a schedule for feedings. Developing a routine is as important for cats as it is for people. Knowing when he’s to be fed gives your cat a sense of security and belonging. You might want to structure cat mealtimes around household meals so that the cat feels included and part of the atmosphere. Don’t feed your cat as soon as you get out of bed. Wait until you’ve showered, made tea, and gotten the newspaper. You don’t want him waking you up every morning to be fed.

Call your cat with same phrase every mealtime, like “Here, Louie.” This helps train him to come when called. Don’t feed a cat when he is whining or begging unless it’s really time for him to eat. Wait until your cat is quiet and respectful before placing any food in front of him.

Use a clean glass or ceramic food bowl that is wide enough for his whiskers. Don’t use aluminum or plastic bowls. Aluminum can get into the food; plastic bowls harbor bacteria and could contribute to what is known as “feline acne.”

If your cat vomits after eating or is eating too fast, spread out his food on a plate to slow him down.

Water

Cats who regularly eat wet food drink very little water. Cats on raw food diets may only drink once every one or two days. Set out glass or ceramic bowls of clean water. Be sure to change the water daily and wash the bowls occasionally because dust will collect in the bottom.

Cats can be very sensitive to chlorine; if you have chlorinated tap water, let the water sit for twenty-four hours so that much of the chlorine can escape. Chlorine is toxic and can cause cancer and health problems in humans. Tap water has made some cats sick with diarrhea or un-explained symptoms. Using filtered or bottled water will eliminate the wait because the chlorine has already been removed (given that the filter is designed to remove chlorine).

Warnings

If your cat drinks water constantly, he could have a serious medical condition. See the veterinarian immediately; get a full exam and have the cat’s urine checked. If the cat is older, have his blood checked as well, to make sure his kidneys and thyroid are functioning properly.

It’s best not to let your cat drink out of the toilet bowl. Water in the toilet is not always safe to drink. Also, the seat could fall on him and hurt him.

Catnip

Catnip is an herb you can grow indoors or out, or buy from a pet store. Most cats love it. Catnip helps relieve stress and boredom and helps provide some fiber in your cat’s diet. Contrary to myth, catnip is not addictive to cats. They won’t sell their blood or prostitute themselves to get catnip. You may, however, have a cat that can pull the catnip jar out of a cupboard and open it. Keep catnip leaves in a sealed container in the refrigerator or freezer. This also helps to keep it fresh.

Use loose leaves for your cat to eat and roll in; apply catnip spray to toys. Buy only organic leaves to avoid harmful herbicides and pesticides.

Treat your cats to catnip once or twice a week. Declawed cats, spraying cats, or cats with litter box problems could use more. Put catnip leaves on a piece of heavy fabric or newspaper. Leave it out for half an hour or so. Roll up the fabric and store it away. Next time, add a little fresh catnip to the pile.

Sometimes a cat will become a little feisty when smelling or eating catnip. He’s being protective of it, so don’t touch him. He may play too rough with you while he’s feeling like a “real cat.” He could get feisty with other cats too, but that’s okay (that’s their job.)

Spray catnip on your cat’s toys, beds, and scratch­ing posts about once a year to tell him what’s his and what isn’t.

Eating Problems

Cats are notorious for being fussy eaters. Cat owners often throw away or give away cat food because their cat “just won’t eat it!” Ask your pet store what their return policy is on cat food. You might be very surprised: Many pet food stores guarantee your cat will like it or you’ll get your money back. Ask your pet store if they have food samples.

This section recommends feeding a wide variety of foods to your cat. However, change in diet can have the same affect on a cat as when we humans improve our diet – your cat may lose weight or have changes in stools and moods. Have sympathy on your cat if you’re weaning him off of his regular food. It is like us quitting chocolate, coffee, bread or sugar—we tend to feel worse and act worse before we feel better.

Changing Diets

If the cat is older, and you are switching him to a higher-quality diet, make gradual changes over a two-week period. Young, healthy cats often can be abruptly switched to better foods. A cat may experience moodiness when switched from a relatively poor diet to a more healthful one. He also may get diarrhea. If a kitten gets diarrhea, take him to the veterinarian. If an adult has diarrhea more than two days in a row, see the veterinarian.

Keep to a Minimum

  • Canned food containing sodium nitrates or nitrites
  • Cheap brands
  • Artificial preservatives

Mr. Finicky

For any finicky eater, make sure the cat is not sick. Many old cats will appear to be finicky eaters, but really are beginning to die. It’s not uncommon for the cat to be dead within a week or so after the owner realizes he’s not just being finicky.

Call the veterinarian when:

  • An old cat misses eating one day
  • An adult cat misses two days
  • A kitten (after being weaned) misses one meal; kittens are always hungry

After eating the same food day after day, cats may at first refuse to eat anything else. Your cat may even go on a mini hunger strike to see if you will produce the food he’s addicted to. Don’t give in if you’re certain your cat is just being finicky! Try these tactics instead:

  • Sit down and stay with him while he eats. He might need you to be there with him, especially if he’s new in your household.
  • To stimulate his appetite, massage or play with him before feeding. Massaging your cat and playing with him does wonders to work up an appetite!

If he doesn’t want to eat wet food, try these tips:

  • Use a saucer instead of a bowl. Use a clean one every day.
  • Move his plate away from the other cats.
  • Feed him a bit of food from your finger. Or try a little baby food, and gradually change to homemade or canned food.
  • Tempt him with home-cooked chicken, lamb, turkey, buffalo, or beef as treats.
  • Buy small cans of food. Some cats like their food fresh out of the can and won’t eat leftovers.
  • Try moving the food plate. Some cats will eat the exact same food just rejected, simply by moving his plate a foot or two away from where it was, or try a different room. Some cats will eat a particular brand of food in one room yet refuse the same food offered in another room.

Special Considerations

Many cat owners think their cat needs low-fat foods when he’s overweight, older or less active. And maybe that works for some cats. With both cats and people, many who consume “low-cal” diets are often the ones with weight problems.

Diets for Obese or Senior Cats

The best weight-reduction program for a cat is a high-quality, balanced diet. Foods labeled “less active” or “lite” often just make the cat want to eat more. With premium cat food and homemade food, cats will usually stabilize at a healthy weight.

Limit feeding dry food to no more than once or twice a day. If the advice in this section doesn’t help, consult the diet books referenced in Cat Books.

Senior cats can benefit by eating mostly wet food, in small meals, several times a day. Add a little water to each wet meal to help flush his aging kidneys.

Shopping List—Cat Food

Choose from naturally preserved brands like these:

  • Acana, Advanced Pet Diets, AvoDerm Natural, Before B.G. Grain, California Natural, Core, Evanger’s, Evo, Felidae, Flint River Ranch, Innova, Instinct, Matrix, Merrick, Mulligan Stew, Natural Balance, Natural Planet Organics, Nature’s Logic, Newman’s Own Organics, Organix, Orijen, Petguard, Pinnacle, Prairie, Solid Gold, Spot’s Stew, Taste of the Wild, Tiki Cat, Wellness, Weruva, Wysong.
  • Many of these pet foods are available at www.onlynaturalpet.com. See Cat Food Makers for links to cat food websites.
  • Avoid cheap brands.
  • Halo Vitamin Mineral Mix, Wysong’s food supplements, or other pet food supplements

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