By Elizabeth Xu
Feeding your cat is a basic activity, and it’s one that likely doesn’t seem too difficult. You just buy some cat food at the pet store and put it in your cat’s food dish, right? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Cats have specific dietary needs and may even have preferences when it comes to the placement of their food dish. Feed your cat wrong, and it can lead to obesity or behavioral problems. Here are six cat food mistakes you might be making, and how to course correct for the best health and happiness of your feline.
As an animal lover, you’re probably familiar with the notion that dogs have a never-ending appetite, but cats are more finicky and don’t tend to indulge. Experts, however, say that’s not the case. “Somebody started a rumor that cats will only eat what they need, but this is not true,” says Dr. Sasha Gibbons of Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Connecticut. “Many cats are gluttons, unfortunately.”
Dr. Jonathan Stockman, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist at the Colorado State University James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, agrees. “A lot of people free-feed their cats, which can be a recipe for excessive eating,” he says. “We expect our pets to self-regulate, but that doesn’t work that well for people and it doesn’t work for pets, either.”
The solution? Don’t give your cat free rein, and keep track of how much they eat. Stockman recommends feeding specific amounts per day and keeping track of how much your cat has consumed by weighing their food bowl in the morning and at the end of the day and making adjustments as needed.
If you regularly cook for yourself, making a few extra dishes for your pet might seem natural. After all, when you want to give your feline friend the best, you might think that a home-prepared meal is healthier for her than a commercially-available one. That might be true, but only if you follow some guidelines.
“These diets are often lacking in key vitamins and nutrients,” Gibbons warns. Dr. Sarah Wooten, a veterinarian based in Greeley, Colorado, cautions that raw diets can be deficient in essential animal acids, such as taurine, which can lead to heart disease. Wooten and Gibbons both recommend consulting with your veterinarian or nutritionist, who can help you create a recipe that’s properly balanced for your cat.
You probably took convenience into consideration when choosing a location for your cat’s food and water bowls, and made sure the bowls wouldn’t be underfoot, but what does your cat think about that location?
“If you use an area that’s really close to the litter box, it can be uncomfortable for the cats and the smell may deter them from eating,” Stockman says. “Cats are more picky on being sanitary.” He notes that you should also keep their food and water bowls clean.
It can be tricky figuring out how much food your cat needs each day, and many people simply see what their pet food manufacturer recommends. That general guideline might not be best for your cat, however.
Use the package as a starting point, but realize that all cats have different needs and people measure differently, Stockman says. “If the instructions on the package are per cup, that may mean different things to different people,” he says. “You may fill the cup to the rim or you can fill the cup to the point that it’s overflowing.”
If you’re following the package instructions and your pet is gaining weight, the amount needs to be adjusted, Stockman says. Wooten adds that the standard recommendation for indoor cats is 250 kcal/day. If you are not sure how many calories you are feeding or need to feed, your veterinarian can help you figure it out.
Humans and pets alike enjoy a good treat for a job well done, but too many can lead to an imbalanced diet and obesity in cats. “We do want to remember that all treats provide calories,” Stockman says, noting that most aren’t complete and balanced. Most experts recommend that treats don’t exceed 5 to 10 percent of a cat’s daily calorie intake, he says.
Fat cats might be all the rage on the internet—sure, they’re cute—but extra weight isn’t healthy for felines. “Obesity is an epidemic in cats,” Gibbons says. “Owners are lucky if they have a cat that has a high metabolism or self regulates because the majority of cats do not.” Spayed and neutered cats have a lower metabolism than unaltered cats, and indoor cats burn less calories than their outdoor counterparts.
Once your veterinarian notices that your cat is overweight, it’s important to address the issue. But many owners decide to ignore it, Stockman says. Instead, make sure your cat gets enough physical activity and, more importantly, a good diet. He recommends a prescription weight loss diet, which will lower your cat’s caloric intake but still provide the nutrients they need. “Some people expect to have successful weight loss just by feeding them their regular food and decreasing the amounts; that can be successful in some cases, but when you restrict food too much, you’re restricting not only the calories but also the needed, essential nutrients,” Stockman says. “It’s important, while restricting the calories, to also provide those nutrients.”
Be sure to discuss any changes in your cat’s diet with your veterinarian, who is qualified to make recommendations based on your pet’s unique needs.