The ideal diet for pet cats: tasty and nutritious
A reader wrote to me with a question about cat nutrition.
Due to a bereavement, she had inherited a seven year old Siamese cat who was used to being fed on uncooked fresh rabbit and pheasant. He had acquired this appetite after living on a farm for years. As an urban dweller, the reader had no access to such freshly killed meat, and she didn't know what to do. She had tried fresh beef mince and chicken thighs, as well as commercial dried food and tinned food, but the cat was clear about his likes and dislikes; he would rather starve than eat what she was offering him. If he could have spoken, he would have said "I want my freshly killed animals, please". What could she do to get her cat to eat something "normal"?
This is a classic example of a problem that is particularly common in Siamese cats, who tend to be strong-willed and single minded. This reader is fortunate that the cat is fixated on a type of food that is reasonably balanced (whole animals). I have come across other examples where a cat has been fed on a particular diet that is not balanced: the classic example is raw liver. Some cats start to enjoy eating this as a treat, and there's nothing wrong with that. The problem happens when people feed their cats nothing but raw liver. This contains high levels of Vitamin A which is toxic when fed in large quantities. Affected cats develop a proliferation of new bone formation around the bones of the spine, causing them pain and stiffness. The only cure is to put affected cats onto a diet that is low in Vitamin A. That means no more raw liver, which can be a real challenge. A cat that has learned to eat nothing but raw liver does not want to eat anything else. You can try all the fancy expensive diets you like, but a stubborn cat is a force to be reckoned with. Some even have to be force fed, even using feeding tubes.
As for the reader whose cat would only eat freshly killed prey: in the end, the cat ended up winning the battle. The reader discovered that a farm on the outskirts of her town was plagued with wild rabbits, shooting several every week in their efforts to control the local population. The farmer was pleased to have an outlet for the freshly shot rabbit, and the Siamese cat was delighted to have his usual fresh prey again.
Luckily for cat owners, most pets are not so fussy, and they're happy to eat commercial pet food. Pet food manufacturers employ qualified nutritional experts to create recipes, including essential ingredients like meat, vitamins and minerals, that are ideally suited to cats' needs. As a vet in practice, I don't see nutritional imbalances or deficiencies in pets that are fed on standard diets. I do, however, get asked many questions by pet owners about feeding their cats. There is such a wide range of products out there - in supermarkets, pet shops and vet clinics. Dried food, wet food, treats: how can a cat owner decide what's the ideal way to feed their pet?
The easiest answer is to look at a cat's life in stages: from kittenhood to adult then, finally, to "senior". Commercial pet food companies, such as Whiskas and others, now offer tailored recipes designed to deliver the best nutrition at each life stage.
For kittens, an optimal quality diet is important, to allow for high energy playing, the growth of bones and other body tissues (calcium and phosphorus needs to be given in the correct ratio), and the development of a strong immune system. It's ideal to use a commercial formulation that specifically targets kittens, and in most cases, to feed a combination of some moist (tins or sachets) with some dried biscuit food. If you do this, the young cat learns to enjoy eating both types of food, which can be useful later in life.
For adult cats, there's more flexibility: in general you can feed your cat whatever commercial food they enjoy eating, although you should be sure to provide sufficient essential fatty acids to keep the coat shiny and healthy, and you need to be aware of the risk of urinary tract issues. Cystitis (an inflamed bladder) is common in young adult cats, causing them to have urinary accidents around the home. Some diets contain ingredients that can aggravate this problem: talk to your vet if you are not sure about the one you are feeding. In general, cats that are prone to cystitis have fewer problems if they are fed a moist diet, since this creates more dilute urine which is less irritant to the bladder wall. This is one of the reasons why it can be helpful if cats get used to eating moist food from a young age. If they have only ever been given dried biscuits, it can be difficult to persuade them to eat food from tins or sachets.
Finally, it's best to feed senior cats - over the age of eight - on diets that have been specially formulated for older animals. Common diseases of old age - such as kidney and heart problems - are helped by a diet that has protein and vitamin levels that have been adjusted to provide appropriate levels of nutrients.
There's an ideal diet for every stage of a cat's life, as long as that one all-important proviso is fulfilled: fussy felines have to enjoy eating it!
Pete will be discussing cat nutrition at each life stage on Facebook with Whiskas on Wednesday 12th August from 7 - 8pm on www.facebook.com/whiskasireland