How does my cat's nutrition impact their health and wellbeing?

Wow, that's a big question. The bottom line is, what we put in our animals' mouths affects absolutely every part of their health. So what we want to do is make sure that what we feed our pets is as high quality as we can find, and understand that both hair coat quality, intestinal health, heart health, and brain health are all related to nutrition. So it's critically important that we address this when they're young.

Dr. Kathy Boehme
The Drake Center

Will my cat's nutrition requirements change throughout their life?

Yes. Kittens should be fed for growth. So they should be fed kitten food. The growth requirements are quite different from adult maintenance requirements. There are also senior diets on the market for cats. And this is a more controversial area because there is no standardization with senior diets. So I would say yes, definitely feed kitten food. When they're full-grown, transition onto an adult maintenance diet, and then later in life, base their nutrition on what is going on in their bodies. If, as an older animal, they're developing some health concerns, we would direct your cat's diet in the direction to help slow progression or reverse changes seen, rather than a blanket statement senior diet, which in all honesty doesn't mean anything.

How can I tell if my cat is getting adequate nutrition?

Adequate nutrition manifests in the body. So we would be looking for cats with a nice, smooth, sleek hair coat, minimal dander, and kitties that don't vomit. Vomiting in cats is not normal. Occasional vomiting is not a big deal. But vomiting with any regularity or even passing hairballs with any regularity isn't normal. We want stools to be normal. We want their body condition to be normal, meaning they shouldn't be overweight. They shouldn't be too lean. So again, we're looking for an optimal diet that the cat is going to thrive on. And you're the best one to judge that.

What are common food allergies, and how can I tell if my cat is suffering from them?

Food allergies in cats aren't quite as common as they are in dogs. However, they do manifest in the body as well. So what we can see in cats that have a food allergy is they can have recurrent or chronic ear infections. They can have itching and tiny scabs around their head or over their body. That's called miliary dermatitis. An adverse food reaction, unlike an allergy, allergies often manifest in the skin, although they can manifest in the intestinal tract as well. But an adverse food reaction will cause frequent vomiting. It may cause intermittent inappetence. So they may go off their food. They may be on and off with how hungry they are. Their vomiting can come in cycles. And they may also have diarrhea. Diarrhea is less common than vomiting, but that's how we can tell if an animal is having a problem with their diet.

What, and how much should I feed my cat?

Okay, well. This is very individual. There is no blanket statement that I can tell you in what to feed, nor how much to feed, because it depends on your cat's individual physiology. So basically, again, we're looking for those things to show us that our kitties are thriving. How does their hair coat look? Are they inquisitive? Are they energetic? Cats are very intelligent, and they should play throughout their entire life. Even when they're old, most cats are still willing to play. We're looking for that kind of personality in your kitty. The other thing we're looking at is, are they vomiting? Are they inappetent? How do their stools look? All that should look great. If we have that going, and our cats are a healthy weight, then they're on the right food. And that's perfectly fine.

As far as how much to feed, that depends on how much the kitties are doing. An outdoor cat roaming the neighborhood, which I hope many of your cats are not doing, is going to expend a lot more calories than a cat that just curls up in the sun and sleeps all day. So again, it's variable. We feed for appropriate body condition. We want kitties to be lean—not too skinny, not too overweight. There are body condition scoring charts for cats as well. We can put a link to that on our website so you can see how your kitty's supposed to look when looking down from a bird's-eye view and looking from the side.

See body condition score chart below:

And then also, what we want to do is, as cats age, we allow them to put a little extra weight on because as they go into their older age, we like for them to have a little bit of a cushion in case they develop a chronic disease that takes them off their food. My kitty's almost 18. And in the last two years, he's gotten much more finicky with his food. So, whereas I didn't leave food out, I now leave food out for him to pick on. So again, part of how much to feed will depend on what stage of life they're in and their health.

On average, a healthy young or middle-aged cat should eat about 200 calories per 10 pounds of body weight. So again, that's kind of an average. Their metabolic rates vary just like humans do. For a 12 pound cat, you should give them about 225 calories. A 15-pound cat, 250. So those are ballparks, again. You can use those as a starting point. But then look at your kitty, feel your kitty. If they're starting to get pudgy, cut the food back a little. If they're getting too skinny, feel free to increase it by 10 to 15%.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (760) 456-9556, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Cat Nutrition - FAQs

Dr. Kathy Boehme
The Drake Center

Can my cat live on a vegan diet?

There are vegan diets formulated for cats. However, I think it's important to know that cats are obligate carnivores. It's challenging to adequately control their nutrition on a strictly vegan diet. Even on a vegetarian diet, it becomes difficult to formulate a diet for cats. There are some on the market. However, studies that have been done on those diets show that their labels are often inaccurate, and they are deficient in the amino acids that are necessary for obligate carnivore bodies. They've also shown that those diets are often contaminated with mammalian DNA. So there are animal products in those diets.

I would not recommend that you feed either a vegan or a vegetarian diet to a cat unless there is a medical reason to do so, and your veterinarian has recommended that. If that's the case, then I would only use a prescription diet as these are frequently tested for contamination, and they've been formulated for cat-specific amino acid requirements. Or I would work with a veterinary nutritionist to formulate a vegan diet that you then home cook for your kitty.

Is wet food better for my cat than dry food?

This is a controversial area right now. Many people think that canned food diets are better for cats. And the reason is that we do lose many older cats to renal disease or kidney disease. And cats are desert-adapted animals. They are formulated to have very efficient kidneys. And also, they were evolved basically to get their water from their food. Small rodents are what cats evolved to eat. And so canned food diets may be more appropriate for fulfilling that water requirement that cats don't get through a dry food diet. I think it's possible to have cats live a long, healthy life on dry food. However, in the last decade, we've been leaning towards cats at least having some of their calories come from a canned food diet. And part of that reason is that a lot of chronic diseases older cats develop require us to take them off of dry food and feed a canned-only diet.

So there are people out there saying, "Well, why don't we just do that from the get-go?" And that's a complex argument. So again, I think it's possible to have a healthy cat on dry food. I agree with the idea that at least part of their food should come from canned food so that they get more water and moisture.

Are prescription diets better for my cat?

Suppose your cat has a condition that a prescription diet can slow the progression of or reverse. In that case, absolutely, a prescription diet based on what your veterinarian is recommending is a good way to go. A healthy cat has no reason to be on a prescription diet. So that's something to discuss with your veterinarian, but I don't think you need to be afraid of prescription diets. Again, food is medicine, and if we can treat a disease through dietary means, in my opinion, that is a much better way to treat it than in other ways we can do that.

If my outdoor cat hunts, is he missing something in his diet?

That's kind of funny. No. Cats are hardwired to hunt. This is how they survived and stayed alive through their evolution. So an outdoor kitty that hunts isn't missing anything. Their bodies are enacting what their brain is telling them to do. Many people get angry at cats for hunting, but they can't help it. This is just part of who they are. And indoor cats will have hunting behaviors too.

Will human food make my cat overweight?

No. Human food won't make your cat overweight. What will make your cat overweight is feeding more calories than they're expending and a sedentary lifestyle. Many of our kitties are inside now. And for important reasons, they stay inside. But part of the downside to an indoor lifestyle is they move their bodies less, and they have less to do. So we need to continue to engage them in interactive play and give them things to do to exercise their brains and bodies to burn those calories they should be burning. So again, in your mind now, it's not the food specifically. It's the number of calories that they're getting in excess.

Will free-choice feeding make my cat overweight?

That definitely could, yes. Cats don't typically regulate their intake. Some cats do. I have clients who leave the food out all the time, and their kitties are beautiful and lean, but that's not the norm. Most cats will overeat. So if you have a grazer, meaning you've tried to meal-feed your kitty, which is the ideal way to feed, even if it's multiple small meals a day, and they're not going to eat that way, then you have to control the number of calories that you're leaving out. So you have to control the food. So you can leave a set amount out that you've measured out in the morning, and when it's gone, it's gone. Or you can divide that set amount into two times that you put out—however you want to do it. But the bottom line is you need to control the number of calories they have exposure to every day.

Are there any other common cat food myths that you want to touch on?

There are many myths about cat food, just like there are many myths about our nutrition. Nutrition is a science that is frequently changing as people become more interested in it for themselves and their pets. One of the myths that we need to dispel right away is that you can tell very much from a pet food label. It's not possible to do that. The only thing that you get from a pet food label is what ingredients are in there. However, I can tell you that even that ingredient list is easy to manipulate. The more important things with a cat’s diet are digestibility and bioavailability. Is what they're eating being absorbed by their body? Is it in that food in a form that can be absorbed efficiently and easily by their body? Are the nutrients that are in there what's put on the label?

They also can do something called ingredient splitting. The public has now decided there are certain things that are bad to have in pet food. So pet food companies can split that into something different, call it two different things, and so it goes down lower in the label. So it looks like there's less of it in the diet, meaning it's no longer the first ingredient or one of the first ingredients. So I know I have people who frequently email me a label and ask me if it's a good diet. And I can tell you that it's simply not possible to tell if that's a good diet from a label. There are things to look for in foods.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association has come up with a list of things that consumers should look at to choose a diet for their pet. That's a good resource. It is not a perfect resource. There are problems with the list. However, it's the best thing that we have right now. Though, some of the things on their list are a little difficult for a person to traverse. A second organization called the Veterinary Nutrition Alliance has taken some of the questions from the first association, and they've surveyed pet food companies to try and find those answers. So those are two resources. If you are looking to try and determine what might be best for your pet, those are two resources that you can look at.

Of course, we will help guide you. But again, there are new diets on the market coming out all the time, and we can’t be well-versed in all of them. No one can be well-versed in all of them. So it will take a little bit of detective work on your part. And again, you watch your pet and their health and determine if this diet is good for your pet. But that's one of my big beefs.

Another one I'll mention quickly is the byproduct concern. Many people are very concerned when they see byproducts on the label, but I want you to know that byproducts are organ meats. These are not indigestible products like hooves and feathers and beaks and nails. These are organ meats like the spleen, liver, and kidney. These are good for our pets. So I don't want you to have the impression that byproducts are bad for pets. They're highly edible, digestible, and nutritious.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (760) 456-9556, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.