Dear Dr. Hershey,
I have a 3-year-old orange tabby cat. I would like to feed him a natural diet. Could you please give me some advice on that?
One of the most frequent questions I get is “what should I feed my pet?”
This is a very important question to ask, especially if you own a cat. Cats are so different from dogs in terms of their nutritional needs, and understanding their dietary requirements is essential to optimal feline health.
If you want to feed your cat in a “natural” way, it is important to think not just about what type of food should be offered, but also the manner in which it is offered.
Let me start by giving you some information about a cat’s dietary intake in the wild. The domestic housecat is thought to have originated in the Middle East. Cats are well adapted to an arid environment and their kidneys have excellent concentrating ability.
They get most of their liquid from eating prey (a mouse, for example, is about 70 percent liquid), so they don’t tend to drink as much water. Cats are solitary hunters and therefore take on prey much smaller than themselves, necessitating several small kills per day. They are also obligate carnivores, which means that they require animal protein in order to achieve good health.
Unlike dogs, who manufacturer specific amino acids if not present in their diet, cats lack certain key metabolic enzymes which means that if they are not eating animal protein, they will be nutrient deficient.
A sad example of this became evident in the late 1980s. Cats started to develop a fatal heart condition known as Dilated Cardiomyopathy. It was eventually discovered that the cause of this heart condition was that manufactured diets were missing a key amino acid called taurine. Cats cannot make taurine, and it is a necessary amino acid for the heart muscle. Since then, pet food manufacturers have been supplementing cat foods with taurine and this problem has virtually disappeared.
We can also learn a lot from studying the feeding habits of domestic cats. Waltham, a pet food manufacturer, has done a lot of research on cat nutrition and feeding. In a research paper, the company notes that when food availability is not restricted, cats will choose to eat small, frequent meals. On average, about 13 meals per day. They also noticed that some cats will demonstrate neophobia and others neophilia.
Neophobia is when a cat is very reluctant to try new foods. This can pose a challenge if your cat develops a medical condition in which a dietary change is necessary. Cats that are fed a variety of diets throughout their life tend to show less neophobia. For cats that are adverse to their new diet, you can generally transition them to a new food by offering a small amount of the new food side by side to their old food in a different dish. After having the opportunity to see and smell the new food after several weeks most cats will eventually try the food. It is important to not take away the old diet until your cat is consistently eating the new diet.
Some cats will exhibit a different feeding habit called neophilia. In this condition, a cat seeks out new food, often people food. This is most commonly seen in cats that are fed the same diet on a daily basis. This condition can be of concern because cats will sometimes greatly reduce the intake of their cat food, and instead fill up on other foods that are not nutritionally balanced. For these cats, offering a variety of cat foods can help reduce food-seeking behavior.
So what does this all mean for the best way to feed your cat? What we know is that cats can adapt to many feeding strategies. However, if you want to feed your cat in the most “natural” way possible, here are some tips.
— Since cats are solitary hunters, in a multi-cat household, feed the cats in separate rooms.
— Feed smaller meals throughout the day instead of one or two large feedings.
— You could try having your cat “hunt” for its food by feeding your cat out of feeding balls, food puzzles, and hiding it in little dishes around your house.
— Canned food is better the dry because it has more moisture in it. (For owners trying to achieve multiple feedings per day, you could try freezing small portions of canned food and leave it out to thaw throughout the day. Cats prefer to eat body temperature food over cold food, so will typically leave the food until it warms.)
— Choose a high protein food. What is high protein? As a guideline, a high protein food will have more than 45 percent protein on a “dry matter” basis. The pet food label usually lists the crude protein, so you will need to convert it. The formula for converting is as follows: First, we need to determine how much of the food is “dry matter.” To do this, look at the moisture content of the food. If the food is 10 percent moisture, then it is 90 percent dry matter. Then look at the crude protein and divide the percentage of protein by the percentage of dry matter to get the percent of protein on a dry matter basis.
— It’s OK to introduce new flavors and textures everyday. If your pet develops vomiting or diarrhea during food transitions, then you will need to be purposeful about only feeding one food every several weeks to tease out which food could potentially be causing the problem. (Please note, vomiting, diarrhea and a poor appetite can also be a sign of other serious diseases. Seek veterinary care and don’t just attribute these symptoms to food if your pet is not doing well.)
Dr. Teresa Hershey is a veterinarian at Westgate Pet Clinic in Linden Hills. Email her your pet questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.