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Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Cat Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of cat nutrition.

Perceptions (and Misconceptions) About Feline Nutrition

April 20, 2012 / (7) comments

One of the most common questions that I hear from cat owners is, "What type of food should I buy?" To the non-pet owners out there, the answer must seem obvious … "Cat food."

But the information that feline aficionados are really after is more complex. Owners want to make sure that their cats are getting optimal, balanced nutrition, and they don’t want to inadvertently feed their pets something that could compromise their health.

Learning about the nutritional needs of cats is not always easy because available information is often contradictory and confusing. I’ll bet you’ve seen a few of the following dangerous misconceptions yourself:

Cats can eat dog food and do just fine.

No, no, no! The nutritional needs of dogs and cats are quite different, and so are their foods. When cats eat primarily dog food, they can develop potentially life-threatening diseases. Dog foods are generally lower in protein than are cat foods, and do not contain all of the essential amino acids and fatty acids that a cat’s body needs to function normally.

That said; don’t panic if you find your cat stealing the occasional bite from the dog’s bowl. There is nothing in dog food that is toxic to cats, so as long as this behavior is the exception rather than the rule, you have nothing to worry about.

Cats need to have food available at all times.

A recent study by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates that 54 percent of cats in the United States are overweight or obese. In my opinion, the primary reason for this is that many cats have 24/7 access to food while living a sedentary lifestyle. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a bored cat will turn to the food bowl for distraction; people do the same thing.

Obese cats are at a higher than average risk for diabetes mellitus, liver disease, osteoarthritis, heart failure, respiratory problems and constipation. Feed your adult cat two measured meals a day and offer only enough to maintain a slim body profile and healthy weight.

Milk is good for cats.

Of course, kittens drink milk from their mothers, but after weaning, milk is not a normal part of the feline diet. Some adult cats are not able to break down the lactose that is naturally present in milk, which can lead to diarrhea. Even if your cat is not lactose intolerant, milk is not a nutritionally balanced meal. As long as your cat can digest milk well, a small amount as a treat every now and then won’t do any harm, but don’t make it a regular addition to the diet.

Cats are carnivores, so they should eat just meat and fish.

While it is true that cats need to take in more protein than do dogs, a meat-only diet is not a healthy option for either species. Among other things, meat is deficient in calcium, which would put cats, especially those that are still growing, at risk for skeletal abnormalities. When cats eat a diet composed primarily of fish, they can develop a vitamin E deficiency, which can result in a painful condition called steatitis (i.e., inflammation of fat). Raw fish is especially dangerous because it contains thiaminase, an enzyme that breaks down thiamine, a form of vitamin B. Cats that are deficient in thiamine become weak, are unsteady when walking, and may sit with their head bent forward and develop seizures.

Don’t let confusing messages about nutrition put your cat’s health at risk. Check out the new nutrition center and MyBowl page on petMD.com to get more information about what constitutes a complete, balanced and wholesome diet for cats.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Ryan Wick / via Flickr

Comments  7

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  • Perceptions (and Misconce
    04/20/2012 01:50pm

    Thanks for the great info. As a new cat owner this helps out a lot. I was never into liking cats due to allergy issues and so had never taken the original time to educate upon feline needs, misconceptions and so on.

    Chai Vu

  • Cats need to have food av
    04/20/2012 06:00pm

    In response to your comment that "food available 24/7" is a bad idea, I tend to disagree. What is needed is a couple of good double timed feeders to provide no more than about 18 crunchies per feeding, every two hours, if you can manage that. Reducing food intake in this manner is often recommended for humans as a form of "portion control" as it shrinks the stomach. Eventually one is able to free feed a pet as the decreased appetite prevents further overeating long term.

    This particular concept is important for those with cats that have developed diseases such as diabetes due to the weight issues. Owners only check glucose readings during daylight hours, but in the dead of night, if a cat hasn't been eating regular snacks as they are built to do, hypos can develop when the owner is unaware. This then leads to seizures for some cats.

    I only recommend using the small single serving feeders that are controlled individually as other feeders don't allow the same control of serving size. With the small ones you can decrease that serving size very slowly until there is an indication of slow weight loss, also preventing fatty liver issues. This system worked very well for us the one time we needed to reduce a cat's weight, and the cat went on to live out a full, healthy life into old age, with no vet bills other than yearly checkups.

  • 04/20/2012 06:03pm

    I should also have clarified that other than this one point, I think your comments are definitely right on, Dr Coates. (-:

  • 04/25/2012 02:51am

    This sounds like a wonderful way to feed cats. It's definitely not free-feeding, just a different form of meal-feeding, and I wouldn't expect it to be associated with the same health problems that are commonly seen with free feeding.

  • Fish
    07/11/2012 08:00am

    Is there any concern about cats that eat fish cat food getting mercury poisoning?

  • 07/15/2012 01:23pm

    I've not heard of any such cases.

  • Fish
    07/15/2012 06:23pm

    Studies have shown that feeding too much raw fish causes a thiamine deficiency, and over the years I have also read that it is better to provide fish oil, (where heavy metals concentrate), from surface feeding fish such as menhadin as they don't consume heavy metals.

    As finnicky cats are sometimes difficult to give foods that have a variety of nutrients, we try to cover all bases with tiny treats of high protein canned foods, (1/8 can twice a day), that some days are fish based. This is on top of assuring that the cats have a good source of omega fatty acids from fish in their grazing food as cats don't have much of the D6D enzyme needed to process plant based ingredients in their diet. So far, we have cats living into their 20's and dying of non nutrition related ailments so I don't see having some fish in the diet as being a negative at all. There are some owners out there who don't have a choice if their cats are intolerant/allergic to other ingredients. I think they do just fine with no decrease in longevity that I have ever heard or read about.