Mealtime Basics for Cats

A healthy diet offers a good start in providing the best care possible for your cat. Learn how to provide the right food to meet to meet your cat's physical and emotional mealtime needs.

You'll likely see three different options for cat food in your local grocery store or pet store: dry, semi-moist, and wet (canned). What's the difference?

Canned (wet) foods: This type of cat food contains about 78 percent water and, depending on the brand, may include more animal protein than a comparable amount of dry food. Both water and protein are critical to your cat's healthy diet. But canned food does come with disadvantages: It can be more expensive; it's messier to clean up; and it has a shorter life span than dry food, particularly after it's been opened. Cover and refrigerate unused canned food; use all of it within 48 hours after opening the can -- or just toss it and start fresh at the next meal.

Dry foods: This type of cat food contains 5-10 percent water and, depending on the brand, may include less animal protein than canned food. Dry products are less messy, can be left out all day, and help remove tartar from your cat's teeth. Dry food has disadvantages: It can be more difficult for your cat to digest than wet food, and it can be less appealing.

Semi-moist foods: This type of cat food contains about 35 percent water, looks like tiny chunks of meat, and is made mostly of meat and meat byproducts. Semi-moist foods are less expensive than canned foods and can be left out all day like dry foods. But they dry out fairly quickly, which may make them less palatable to your cat.

Veterinarians differ on whether cat owners should stick to one type of food or feed their pets a mix of all three. A good compromise is to offer all three types at least some of the time, simultaneously providing a good variety of textures, flavors, and content for your pet in the process. Note which foods get a "paws up" from your cat -- and which don't -- to make shopping easier the next time. If you decide to change brands, continue with the original brand and gradually add in the new while reducing the amount of the original product. An abrupt change of diet can be hard on your cat's digestive system.

Feeding Guidelines

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 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.

How Often and How Much

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.

Create a Pleasant Dining Experience

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.

Keep a Watchful Eye

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.

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