Optimum Feline Nutrition. What Should You Feed Your Cat?
Getting your cat on an optimal nutrition plan can improve the length and quality of your pet's life, so it's no wonder that, as a responsible pet parent, you have questions. At GeniusVets, we believe that pet care information should come from veterinarians and not from the internet, as anyone with a computer can share information these days. That’s why we’ve taken frequently asked questions on cat nutrition, sent these questions to renowned veterinarians across the U.S., and compiled their replies to get you useful information that you can trust.
While we've sourced all of the cat nutrition exam information and recommendations below directly from leading veterinarians across the country, please make sure to seek out the advice of your own veterinarian or find a trusted vet near you using the GeniusVets Directory.
Proper nutrition is crucial in cats because they have particular nutritional requirements that are quite different from dogs. Cats also don’t like it when you switch up their food on them often, so you want to make sure you make the right, nutrient-dense choice from the start.
Cats are obligate carnivores or meat-eaters, so they have special needs. It’s vital for vegetarian or vegan pet owners who eat plant-based proteins to realize their cats don't, as most of their protein requirements should come from meat proteins. When looking at cat food labels, look for high levels of meat protein-based diets. The higher the quality of the ingredients in that food and the frequency with which they eat will play a significant role in the development and weight maintenance of cats. Many of the medical issues we see in cats have to do with obesity, making these decisions all the more critical.
As a reminder, fresh water should always be readily available 24 hours a day. It’s also worth mentioning that cats have natural hunting instincts, so any time you can help an indoor cat hone these instincts by using treat puzzles and other toys, the happier your cat will be.
Getting your cat set with good nutrition from the start is essential, so call your veterinarian and make an appointment right away if you’re unsure if you’re providing adequate cat nutrition.
The primary nutritional requirements for cats are very similar to what we have in humans—water, protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals. They need a diet higher in fat and protein than dogs, and most commercial diets provide that. Make sure their food has vitamins such as taurine and arginine. Lastly, cats need about a cup of water per day for an average 10-pound cat.
Will my cat's nutrition requirements change throughout their life as a kitten, adult, and senior cat?
Absolutely, yes—going through all the different life stages will affect the type of food you need to feed your cat and how that food will affect them. With the rapid growth rate of kittens, they're going to need kitten food with more fats, proteins, and calcium for bone development. Then the opposite would be true later in life.
Senior cats tend to require lower magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus quantities as they get older, but they still need high-quality protein. Chronic kidney disease can be a common disease in older cats, so we must feed them a diet with a bit lower protein and some different electrolytes in there as well, as we want to extend their quality of life. Whenever their growth has long finished, they're going to need additional requirements, so consult with your veterinarian on nutritional requirements as your cat ages.
It’s generally not a good idea to free-feed your cat. The bad thing is not the free feeding part but, rather, the lack of self-control that most cats have. They will stay at a food bowl and engorge themselves, and then the next visit, we have to talk about obesity. Avoid doing this to keep your cat at a healthy weight.
The two most visibly apparent signs of poor cat nutrition are obesity and a poor or dull hair coat.
Other signs of poor cat nutrition, such as:
- Failure to groom themselves or over-grooming
- Loose or foul-smelling stools and gassiness
- Vomiting, as their food is perhaps not agreeing with them
- Failure to thrive or gain weight, as that can indicate that they're not getting the appropriate nutrition from the diet
- Dull eyes
- Inconsistent appetite
- Skin disorders
Sometimes cats will have such a high carbohydrate load that they'll gain weight and find it very hard to lose. Again, obesity contributes to many health problems, so it’s essential we nip that in the bud sooner rather than later.
While food allergies aren't as common in cats (it’s usually more of an immune-mediated issue), 80% of cats with food allergies are allergic to beef, dairy, or fish. However, some cats are allergic to chicken, corn, or wheat. Many cat owners are surprised by the fish allergy. Fish-based protein, or fish meal, is very inexpensive, as it's what's left over from the fish after humans take what they want from the product. Because fish is very allergenic, we don’t recommend that it’s in any part of your cat’s diet, whether or not that’s canned food, dry food, or the common Temptations treats.
When cats have food allergies, they’re itchy all the time—24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The allergies don’t come and go, especially around their head and their face. But again, it's not a very common thing that we see.
Other signs that your cat may be suffering from a food allergy are:
- Skin infections
- Ear infections
If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s a good idea to chat with your veterinarian about how to best treat them.
Adult cats should get a combination of both wet and dry food twice a day. Kibble is best for their teeth and, when it comes to wet food, watch the portions, as too much can lead to weight gain. It also depends on what kind of food you're feeding. Cats that are only getting canned food should get about two five-ounce (tuna-sized) cans a day and four of the small three-ounce cans a day. Fresh things you can supplement with are tuna and salmon, although you don't need to do that if they're on high-quality food. Most cats need about 22 calories per pound per day for maintenance.
If the cat food is not very energy-dense, you may be feeding more. And remember, if you have to feed more for your cat’s energy requirements, that means you're also going to be scooping more out of the litter box, which is why we recommend nice, digestible diets. Unfortunately, some protein labels can be very confusing, so feel free to reach out to your veterinarian if you have any questions. Your vet can look at your cat's weight and their ideal weight based on their body condition score, and they can then calculate the exact amount of calories that your cat should eat. We highly recommend getting this number from your vet because you can’t really up cats’ amount of exercise by much, especially if they are indoor cats.
The cat’s life stage should be taken into consideration as well as the cat’s lifestyle. Are they an active cat or a couch potato? All of those things are going to factor in. As mentioned, cats should always have access to water and, because they’re not as effective as drinking water as dogs are, canned food is a must to help sneak in that hydration.
Cooking for Your Cat
If you prefer to cook for your cat, there are Veterinary Nutritionists who can work with you to create a few options for well-balanced diets. It is extremely important to work in consultation with a Veterinary Nutritionist when doing this to make sure your cat’s daily food intake is well-balanced and formulated for your cat’s size and their particular nutritional and life-stage needs.
A good resource to help with this is the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.
If you have any further questions about cat nutrition, please ask your vet. If you don't have one yet, we can help you find a local veterinarian!
How do I know what foods are toxic to cats? - Haines Road Animal Hospital
So, it is hard. There's actually a way longer list than most clients think. I would recommend going on ASPCA, they have a great toxin section and just definitely looking at different plants that you can have in your household that can be toxic to cats. One of the big ones I can think of would be lilies, and also just looking at some of the household common spices, such as garlic, what those can be toxic for as well. And just trying to familiarize yourself with them, maybe printing out a list, putting it on your fridge, just to make sure that we're not giving your kitty anything that's going to harm them.
How do I know what foods are toxic to cats? - The Waggin Train Veterinary Clinic
I think the safest bet is to look into various sites. I know for sure the ASPCA has a site that is fairly comprehensive, as far as foods and perhaps even more specifically human foods that can be toxic or make your animals ill. So I would probably reference a list like that to find out for sure.
Can I feed my cat human food? - Haines Road Animal Hospital
I wouldn't recommend it. Reasons behind it are sometimes human food can be really fatty and actually cause harm to your cat. They can give them something called pancreatitis, which is inflammation of one of those digestive organs. Also, it can predispose them to developing obesity, which obesity in cats is associated with a lot of health conditions. So at this point I would just stick with the kitty food, which I think, my cat at least is very happy with his kitty food.
Can I feed my cat human food? - The Waggin Train Veterinary Clinic
Yeah, it's kind of a tough question, because what do we really mean when we say human food? There are certain things that we eat that cats most definitely eat; chicken and fish, things like that, absolutely. Do you want to depend just on those? Of course not.
It's always safest and, in my opinion, best, to feed them a well-balanced cat-formulated diet. Does that mean commercial foods are best? We can debate that when we have more time. But I think it's the simplest thing that provides, as I said, a well-balanced diet with all the vitamins and minerals that they need. So that's what I tend to stick with for my own animals.
How do I know if the food I’m giving my cat is making him sick? - Haines Road Animal Hospital
I would definitely monitor things like your cats stool. Sometimes if it is not the right nutrients for him, sometimes the stool can just be a little, not as solid. Also, it can be really foul smelling. Also if your cat's energy level decreases at all, or if the coat does not look as beautiful as before you started that diet. I think at that point, it's a good idea to chat with your veterinarian about switching diets.
How do I know if the food I’m giving my cat is making him sick? - The Waggin' Train Veterinary Clinic
The most common thing we see is food allergies. If the allergy is consistent 365 days a year, then it's probably not fleas and it's probably not seasonal. I would approach illnesses that are related to food the same way.
If it's something that you're feeding—maybe it's a new additive that you added to the cat's diet or a new ingredient or perhaps even a new bag of food—and right at that point you see that your cat has been constantly ill with a variety of signs, it's a strong possibility that it's the food. If it began with the initiation of a new ingredient and it's consistent after the cat has been eating the new food, that is kind of a big red flag for me.
Can changing my cat’s diet suddenly cause harm? - Haines Road Animal Hospital
Can changing my cat’s diet suddenly cause harm? - The Waggin' Train Veterinary Clinic
Yes, typically very transient and mild harm, but yes. The most common thing we see is when a diet has changed abruptly is gastrointestinal signs. What does that look like? Some cats can vomit, but more often they'll have diarrhea. So if you do have to make a change, or if you're planning on making a change, just do it gradually over the course of maybe a week. Use this period to gradually mix the new food in slowly, giving more and more of the new food to make sure that they tolerate it.
How do I know if my cat has eaten something toxic to them? - Haines Road Animal Hospital
So that's hard because so many of the toxins can lead to different things, but I would say definitely monitor for his or her appetite level, his energy level, and any vomiting or diarrhea I would definitely take him into a veterinarian and see what's going on.
How do I know if my cat has eaten something toxic to them? - The Waggin' Train Veterinary Clinic
If the illness can be traced back to the addition of a new ingredient or food or something along those lines, that is when I would become suspicious. To answer one specific set of signs that can say, oh, that means your cat ate something bad, I can't do that because it just depends on what they ate. Certain foods can be toxic to an animal's gastrointestinal system. Some can be toxic to their heart and some can cause skin any issues. It just depends on what they ingest in order to be able to answer that.