Cats are adapted to a hunting lifestyle and are reliant on a totally animal based diet. This means that they are obligate (strict) carnivores and need meat and animal tissues to fulfil their nutritional needs. Their highly specialised taste and sensory system is designed for meat and animal tissues as are their jaws, teeth and digestive system. This article is a detailed guide to your cats nutritional needs and gives you tips on how best to feed your cat.
This need for animal based tissue means that cats have a higher protein requirement than many other mammals and this should be at least 25% of the daily calorie intake. Cats on a low protein diet will start to break down their own body stores of protein and will start to lose body mass rapidly.
Unlike dogs, cats are unable to efficiently derive nutritional support from plant based matter. They lack specific metabolic and enzyme pathways which would enable them to digest plant material effectively. They are not adapted for an omnivorous diet and cannot be sustained on vegetarian diets.
What makes a cat eat?
Any owner can tell you what their cats prefer to eat. For apparently fussy cats this list may be frustratingly small. It is both important and interesting to learn why your cat eats what it does and often an understanding of a cats tasting mechanisms can help owners in introducing new foods.
Smell and Taste
The sense of smell in a cat is far more sensitive than that of a human. A nice strong appealing odour from a particular food is a great stimulant to the cat to tempt it to taste and start eating. As the food enters the mouth it passes over taste buds on the tongue.
These taste buds respond well to the tastes of salty, sour and bitter but don’t seem to be designed for the taste of sweet. This reflects the cats preferred diet of protein and animal based tissues.
If both the smell and taste of the food are agreeable then the cat is more likely to eat more. If just one of the senses are stimulated then the cat will not be as interested. So if a food smells appealing but tastes bland then the cat may only be stimulated to eat a small amount.
Fresh food left out can lose its odour over time so this is best removed if not eaten and replaced with smaller amounts of fresh food more frequently.
Cats are not designed to chew food effectively. Their sharp teeth tear and cut food into smaller pieces which can be swallowed. Foods that are high in moisture content such as canned food are initially eaten much quicker than drier food. The rate of ingestion of wet food reduces as the meal progresses compared to dry food where the rate of consumption is usually constant.
Cats are hunting animals and will eat freshly killed prey in the wild. This may explain the domestic cat’s temperature preference of food which is approximately 35°C. As well as mimicking the temperature of freshly killed prey, warmed food will also give off a stronger odour which will stimulate the cat’s sense of smell.
If you are tempting a cat to eat then warming the food may help to stimulate their senses. Be careful that the food isn’t too hot however since food seems to lose its appeal to cats when warmed over 40°C.
For optimum health a cat’s diet must be balanced in terms of all nutrients, water, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals.
Components of food
Inadequate or deficient diets can have a major impact on the health of a cat. Certain illnesses have a dietary component to their onset and can be made worse by improper nutrition.
Carbohydrate is not an essential part of a cat’s diet since they are able to derive a lot of energy from the breakdown of protein. Despite this low requirement for carbohydrate, it is often contained in commercial pet foods in relatively high amounts. Manufacturers of pet foods often use grain and cereal as a cheap way to give bulk to food, particularly dry food. In a natural setting, cats would not consume such high levels of carbohydrate. Some experts believe that these inappropriately high levels of carbohydrates may be contributing to the high levels of obesity we see today in the UK cat population.
Cats can tolerate carbohydrates to an extent but can often suffer digestive problems when faced with meals with high sugar content. Diarrhoea can often result from consumption of large volumes of milk because of the sugars which are present (sucrose and lactose). For this reason there are specific cat milk products on the market which have reduced amounts of lactose.
Water is an extremely important nutrient with respect to overall health. Cats do not have a very strong thirst drive and many owners find that their cats drink very little water. This may be evolutionary since hunting cats in the wild are ingesting prey which are made up of about 70% water.
Canned food contains water which contributes to overall water intake but dry food contains substantially less and as a result cats on dry diets may not take in enough for their dietary needs.
Some cats prefer running water to still water in the bowl. Leaving a tap dripping or investing in a pet water fountain can increase water intake in some cats. This may be especially useful in cats who have kidney or bladder problems.
Specific Dietary Requirements of cats
Cats are not simply small dogs and so cannot be fed on a dog food. They have specific dietary requirements for substances which need to be provided as essential components of the diet. Two of these substances are amino acids which cannot be synthesised by the cat:
Arginine is required by the cat to dispose of toxic waste products caused by protein breakdown. It is used to convert the toxic waste product ammonia into the less toxic urea which can be excreted in the urine. A deficiency of argnine can lead to signs of lethargy, salivation and the cat may vocalise excessively.
Taurine is another substance which is required in the diet since the cat cannot synthesise it. A deficiency of taurine can lead to serious and irreversible damage to organs such as the eye and the heart. Taurine is found almost entirely in meat which is one of the reasons cats are strict carnivores.
Fats perform several important functions in the diet. As well as increasing the palatability of the food they also carry the fat soluble vitamins A, D and E. Fat in the cat diet provides the essential fatty acids linoleic acid and arachodonic acid.
Unlike many other mammals the cat has limited ability to convert linoleic acid into other essential fatty acids which means the cat must have a source of them in the diet. Some of these essential fatty acids are found exclusively in animal tissues. Another fact which reinforces the idea that cats are carnivores and need a meat based diet.
When allowed continuous access to food, cats tend to adopt a pattern of small frequent meals throughout a 24 hour period. Most cats will eat enough to satisfy their energy requirements regardless of the type of food. Remember dry foods are much more concentrated and have higher energy density requiring the cat to each much less when compared with canned food.
Despite this feeding pattern, cats readily adapt to different feeding schedules imposed by their owners. They will often adjust food intake to accommodate different feeding schedules. Many owners opt to feed their cats two meals per day for convenience although more frequent or less frequent feeding schedules are appropriate. Remember that if feeding multiple times a day then the daily food allowance must be divided between these meals. Be wary of overfeeding since cats who are allowed access to large amounts of energy rich food with little exercise have a tendency towards obesity.