Now that you know your options, read the cat food label before making a final choice. Look past the brand name, creative packaging, and price to find the small print that lists the ingredients. Cats are carnivores with very specific dietary needs, most of which can be found in animal protein.
Make sure the list begins with a high-quality meat source such as chicken, lamb, turkey, or fish. Other dietary needs (some of which can be found in a good animal-protein source) include amino acids, moderate amounts of fat, vitamins, minerals, and a very small amount of carbohydrate. When choosing food for an adult cat, look for 30-45 percent protein (higher for kittens) and 10-30 percent fat on a dry-matter basis (what's left when the moisture is "removed"). Also be aware that just because the product name on the bag or box is a specific animal source, that animal isn't necessarily the main ingredient of the product unless it's listed first.
Look for the phrase "complete and balanced." The content included on pet food labels is government-regulated, so you can feel better about products with this claim. A statement from the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is another positive to look for, proving that the product has been through some testing and passed some health regulations and safeguards.
Find specific terminology that matches the particular life stage of your pet. This might include "kitten," "adult," "senior," "hairball control," or "weight control." Check with your veterinarian on what the best diet is for your cat's current state of health and level of activity.
Resist being influenced by the price (if possible). The rule of thumb: Pay for a quality, healthful product now, or pay for the vet bills later. Though your pet may eat the less-inexpensive foods, those products can be heavy on byproducts, carbs, fillers, and chemical preservatives. Just as people have health challenges when they eat poorly over an extended period of time, your pet will eventually suffer from a poor diet as well.
There are differing opinions on how often you should feed your cat, so it's helpful to discuss feeding schedules with your vet. Twice a day -- morning and evening -- is a reasonable place to start. Look at it as an opportunity to interact with your cat on a daily basis. Take a moment to groom your cat with a good brush or enjoy some bonding time before mealtime. Once you set down the food dish, your cat will want to focus on the meal.
How much to feed your cat will depend on the particular product you offer, whether you leave dry food out for your pet at all times (known as free feeding), and how much your cat eats -- or leaves behind -- at each sitting. Check the product for portion recommendations, and talk to your vet, who will be familiar with your cat's particular dietary needs, activity level, and lifestyle. Your vet can also help you determine whether your cat is overweight or underweight and advise the right steps to achieve a healthy weight.
Humans prefer a nice atmosphere for enjoying meals. So do cats -- yours will be better able to enjoy and digest food in a calm environment.
- Set up a quiet, clean, low-traffic area away from normal family activity -- and a good distance away from the litter box, with its accompanying odors and dust.
- Use large stainless-steel or ceramic bowls to hold dry food and wet food (if needed).
- Always keep a stainless-steel or ceramic bowl full of fresh, clean water.
- Place all the bowls on a mat made of washable material or wipeable plastic to catch the inevitable spills.
- Keep the dishes clean by tossing them into the dishwasher along with your other tableware at least every other day.
No single food product is meant to meet your pet's dietary requirements throughout its lifetime. Just as with people, cats' bodies and activity levels change as they age. So talk to your vet about when to transition your cat to a new diet that better suits seniors or a particular health condition.
Do your best to monitor your pet's eating habits and litter box activity. Our pets can't tell us when something hurts or just doesn't feel right. So by getting to know your cat's normal routines and responses when things are going well, you'll be better equipped to know when something is wrong. Monitoring your cat's feeding habits will help extend the number of happy, healthy years you and your cat have together.