In the third part of our four part series, we discuss feeding and nutrition for cats.
Cats are obligate carnivores which means they have an absolute requirement for eating meat. Obligate carnivores can eat other food stuffs but, in order to maintain their health, must eat meat as the main part of their diet. This is because, for cats, meat is their only source of ‘essential amino acids’. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which are required for many important bodily functions. Cats require 22 amino acids, but can only synthesise 11 of these. The remaining 11 are termed ‘essential amino acids’ and must be consumed as part of the diet, and many are only found in meat. The internet provides a wealth of information on what owners should and should not be feeding, however, it is important to ensure that advice is taken from trusted and reputable sources. There is a significant risk of serious health problems if cats are fed an inappropriate diet and, if there is any doubt, then the pros and cons of various dietary options should be discussed with a veterinarian.
Cats are hunters
In the wild, cats hunt, catch and consume their prey in solitude. Domestic cats maintain an absolute requirement for displaying hunting behaviour and, since most of us are not enthralled at the thought of them chasing birds and mice, we must provide alternative options. Fishing rod toys, feather chasers and balls make excellent replacements and also serve to strengthen the cat-owner bond.
If they are to survive, being protective of their prey is essential for wild cats. Domestic cats retain this necessity to be on guard in case of intruders coming to ‘steal their kill’, and thus much prefer to eat alone, in a safe and quiet environment. Putting food bowls in places that could leave cats feeling vulnerable means that they are on high alert for the duration of the meal. Instead, we should ensure that cats are fed in an area of the house that is quiet and secluded, or at least somewhere with a good view point so there is no risk of being unexpectedly ambushed. Even in multi-cat households in which cats may give an external impression of getting along just fine, meal times can be a time of stress. Cats feeding from a communal bowl are likely to wolf the food down quickly and then escape to a less pressured environment. Alternatively, they may feel threatened and eat very little, hoping that they can come back later when the coast if clear. Using multiple-feeding stations is preferable, ideally in separate rooms or, alternatively, with positioning of the bowls in an open space so that the cats have good visualisation of the surrounding area during meal times.
Misconceptions and obesity
Obesity in cats has become common over the last few years. The causes are multifactorial and include lifestyle as well as dietary issues. Lack of exercise is common in indoor cats and stimulating play behaviour should be advocated, however, misconceptions regarding what and how we feed cats plays a large part.
In general, cats tend to self-regulate their calorific intake, however, this can be disrupted when living in unnatural environments, particularly following neutering. The tendency is for us to feed cats twice a day because that fits in nicely with our busy lives. In reality, cats much prefer small regular meals. While this it easier to achieve by feeding dry food, this also comes with its problems. Dry food is easy and convenient. It creates less mess, has a positive impact on dental health, and can be used with foraging toys to increase environmental stimulation. However, dry food is highly calorific and tends to reduce water intake.
Owners sometimes worry when cats don’t wolf down a whole meal in one sitting, however, eating only a few mouthfuls then walking away is normal cat behaviour. In fact, constantly trying to ensure that a whole meal is eaten all at once can spiral into a viscous cycle of learnt behaviour which may predispose to obesity. If the meal isn’t finished, the temptation is to replace it with an alternative food and, if that one isn’t finished, then a third option is tried. Unfortunately, the cat then learns that, if they don’t eat, they may well be offered something more tasty. And, since the owner is concerned regarding the perceived lack of food intake, those second or third offerings are indeed likely to get progressively more tasty, and often more calorific. This can result in obesity despite the initial perception that the cats appetite was poor. At the extreme end of the spectrum, this can result in a large proportion of the cats daily calorific intake being given as treats. This not only predisposes to obesity, but also to nutritional deficiencies. Feeding treats is great for cat-owner bonding but they do tend to be highly calorific. We have to keep in mind how many calories our cats require and, if treats are being given routinely, the ration of complete food should be reduced accordingly. We may perceive a small piece of sausage or cheese as a rather small treat, but for a cat this could easily contain half of their daily calorific requirement and, if fed on a regular basis, will result in obesity. The final thing to note is that signs of affection don’t always mean ‘I’m hungry, feed me!’. Vocalisation and leg rubbing quite often just mean ‘I want a little attention’ but, if treats are given each time, this can also spiral into leant behaviour and increased food intake.
The final topic covered in our series of blogs is centred around the topic of stress behaviours and illness.
Do you have questions on the topic of feeding and nutrition for cats? If so, please do not hesitate to contact your local practice.