One of the first challenges a pet parent faces when getting a cat or kitten is figuring out what to feed them. Pet parents often find themselves wandering the pet food aisle asking themselves, "What is the healthiest food to feed my cat?" There are a plethora of cat food options lining the shelves of the pet food aisle. Cats can be picky eaters and have unique nutritional requirements.
Feline Nutritional Considerations
Cats should be fed a diet based on their age and body conditioning score (BCS). Also, any health concerns should be taken into consideration.
Since cats can be very picky eaters, it’s important to start them on a variety of food with a variety of textures as kittens. When a cat has only been fed one type of food, it can be difficult to change their food if a health problem occurs. Pet parents can begin by introducing and rotating between wet food and dry food and using different dry foods with different shapes.
Cats are strict carnivores and need to eat animal byproducts to meet their nutritional needs. When choosing a food, it should contain a high amount of protein, a moderate amount of healthy fats, and minimal amounts of carbohydrates. Animal byproducts are necessary to provide the correct types of amino acids cats need such as taurine - an amino acid responsible for maintaining heart health. Cats also need trace amounts of various vitamins and minerals.
Water is vital for all living things and cats are no different. Cats are about 70% water and require fresh water daily. Some cats prefer to get water through their food. Canned wet food is usually 75% water; however, it also sticks to their teeth and can cause tooth decay. Dry food can help scrape cat teeth clean. This is another reason offering a variety of foods is beneficial. Fun fact: Orange male cats should only be fed wet food because they are prone to bladder blockages.Body conditioning score (BCS) is a scale used to characterize body weight and muscle mass. On a five-point scale, a cat ranked as a one is considered severely underweight. A cat ranked as a five is severely obese. The ideal BCS rating is three. Consulting a cat weight guide can provide pet parents with a better understanding of a healthy cat weight.
What to Look For
When selecting a commercial food, pet parents should read the package and label, and check for approval from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Good quality food will have some form of “balanced and complete” on the packaging and will indicate it’s been AAFCO approved.
As a kitten ages, their dietary requirements change. Good cat food will list on the package what life stage it has been AAFCO approved for.
Another important thing to look for is the protein source in the title - “Chicken Cat Food.” This is important because it means chicken makes up 95% of the food.
Here are a few other things to look for on the package:
- The first ingredient should be real meat.
- Good fats Omega-3 and Omega-6.
- Whole grains from wheat or rice.
- “Meal” from a specific source such as chicken, fish, or beef.
What to Avoid
Cat food manufacturers have gotten creative with buzzwords such as “premium,” “fancy,” “gourmet,” and “deluxe” to make their products more appealing to pet parents. However, these words have zero indication as to the quality of the product.
Here are a few other things to avoid:
- “With” in the title - “Cat Food With Chicken” - means the food is only required to contain 3% chicken.
- “Flavor” in the title - “Chicken Flavor” - means the food isn’t required to contain any chicken.
- Unspecified “meal” such as “by-product meal”
- If the title contains words such as “entree,” “dinner,” “formula,” or “recipe,” the food is only required to contain 25% of the ingredient - “Chicken Dinner Cat Food.”
Commercial Food vs. Homemade Food
Recently, more and more pet parents are choosing a homemade diet for their feline babies instead of buying commercial foods. There are pros and cons to both options. Commercial diets have been tested to make sure the correct amount of essential nutrients are included in every meal. However, there are some controversial ingredients in many commercial foods, and pet parents can’t control what the food is made with.A homemade diet can be beneficial because the pet parent can control the ingredients, and the food is fresher. However, making sure there is a correct amount of essential nutrients can be difficult. Making food can also be expensive and time-consuming. Pet parents might need to add a feline probiotic to their diet. Pet parents wanting to go this route should consult with a vet that specializes in feline nutrition. A feline nutrition specialist can also provide nutritionally balanced recipes.