A Hodgepodge of Feline Nutrition Facts
I went to a couple of lectures on feline medicine recently, and I think they contained good info that you could use.
For the record, cats are obligate carnivores. Dogs, on the other hand, are more omnivorous; they can digest different kinds of food. As a whole, though, cats are pretty much programmed to eat mice (and birds and such). But the bottom line is they need a primarily protein- and fat-based diet with a little bit of carbohydrates, consisting of whatever was in the mouse’s stomach at the time he met his demise.
This is believed to be a big factor in why we see so many fat and diabetic cats. Dry cat food, by nature, is full of carbs. It has to be in order to sit on a shelf without going rancid. Cats eat this stuff, they get a big load of carbs (which they really aren’t even physiologically capable of digesting) and it turns into fat. The fat secretes hormones that make the cat hungrier, and the cat eats more.
Eventually, all that fatness and all those carbs can lead to diabetes.
This is why, in general, it is pretty well accepted for DVMs to put diabetic cats on a high fat, high protein (preferably canned) diet. Many cats will actually go into remission if caught early, and once started on insulin and dietary therapy.
So if cats are obligate carnivores, maybe we should just feed pet cats like we feed pet snakes. Nobody seems to object too much to feeding live mice to the snakes. I’m telling you, I think cats would be much, much happier if they got to truly hunt for their food every day. I think there would be fewer behavior, urinary, obesity, diabetes, random vomiting/diarrhea, and other GI problems if they got to hunt. I’m only half-kidding.
Anyhow, one of the things I learned was why cats become "finicky." You know those cats, the ones who will only eat one kind of food and that’s it — and if you try to feed them something different, they will simply just decide to die. (And they will, you know. Cats are the only species besides humans that will willingly starve themselves to death).
This internal medicine specialist (a professor at Texas A&M, who wasn’t terribly nice to me when I was a student, but is a brilliant lecturer and researcher, so I had to get over myself and just suck it up and listen to what she had to say) said that cats become trained to eat a particular type of food as kittens. It’s like they become socialized to food. If a kitten is only exposed to triangle food (Read: triangle-shaped food, not food for triangles) during that roughly 6-16 week period, the cat is programmed to decide it will only eat triangle food for the rest of its whole entire life. This doc suggested making sure you expose your new kittens to lots of different types of food during that 6-16 week period.
I need to e-mail her and ask her if she sees much GI upset from that much diet changing, but it’s a really interesting thought. I definitely see cats that will eat anything you put in front of them, and others (including a cat I grew up with who would eat nothing but the same canned cat food every single day of her life and simply won’t deviate from her diet of choice.
I also learned from a different speaker (this one, Margie Scherk, a board certified Canadian cat doc) that just ten extra pieces of dry cat food per day results in one gained extra pound a year to a cat. (So if a 10-pound cat gains a pound in a year, that’s a ten percent weight gain, which is equivalent to a 150-pound person gaining 15 pounds in a year - just from ten kibbles!!!)
I see sooo many "Jabba the Cats." In fact, some studies suggest that approximately 25 percent of the cats vets see are obese. We neuter the cats, stick them in the house and feed them really, really yummy carb-rich food that’s coated in fat to make it even yummier.
Did you know that a cat’s metabolic rate slows down by 25 percent when s/he is spayed or neutered? I didn’t. We’re supposed to be telling clients to reduce the amount of food they feed their cat by 20-25 percent after they get neutered or spayed. I had no idea. I knew they had a tendency to gain weight, but figured it was just due to it coinciding with their growth rate slowing down.
So, according to Dr. Scherk, a mouse contains about 30-35 kilocalories (kcals). And the average cat should eat about eight mice a day, which amounts to about 250 kcals/day. The cat had to work hard to get these mice; I think she said it takes around 15 tries to catch one mouse. That burns a lot of calories. An outdoor cat really only sleeps about 5.3 hours a day, the rest of the time it’s doing something.
What does our average housecat do? Wake up, eat from the magical endless bowl of yummy food, sleep, eat, go to another sleeping spot, pee/poop, eat some more, etc. That is, until they get fat, diabetic and have gross skin because they can’t groom themselves (AKA "fat cat cheese butt"). That’s a little extreme, but you get the idea.
Dr. Scherk also mentioned that about ten kibbles of dry cat food equals the amount of calories in a mouse. So, the average cat needs about 80 kibbles of cat food per day. Ideally she suggests taking that amount, dividing it into 8-10 kibble piles of food, on eight little plates and placing them in random places all over the house so the cat needs to hunt for his food. It’s more natural to how the cat should eat, AND it gives them exercise.
A little labor intensive, but (a) it makes sense, and (b) it's better than feeding live mice.
At a minimum, you must measure how much food the cat eats per day, and it really should be divided into multiple small feedings. Adding canned food to the mix is a-okay too, according to one of the speakers at the lecture, but a lot of people don’t want to feed canned … so this is an alternative.
On the subject of portion size, I just looked up a few of the popular dry cat food brands to see how many calories there are per cup (and how much would equal 250 kcals, the daily caloric need of an average cat). These were my findings:
- Dry Cat Food #1: 379 Kcal/Cup (cat needs slightly over ½ cup per day)
- Dry Cat Food #2: 542 Kcal/Cup (1/2 cup per day)
- Dry Cat Food #3: 326 Kcal/Cup (4/5 cup/day)
- Dry Cat Food #4: 602 Kcal/Cup (2/5 cup/day, or less than half a cup per day)
There is a huge difference in caloric density in each food, which translates into only a few tenths of a cup difference in the volume of food you feed. So just a few extra kibbles here and there can mean a ton of extra calories for your cat.
Put another way, Dr. Scherk said that a 1×1 inch square of cheese to a cat is equivalent to an extra Big Mac a day to a person.
OK, so that’s the gist of what I learned.
Oh, and one more thing for those with fat cats: Did you know that you can train them to walk on a treadmill for exercise? Check out this YouTube video.
Dr. Vivian Cardoso-Carroll