Getting the balance right
To maintain an optimal body condition, your cat's diet needs to achieve the right balance of the six major nutrient groups: proteins, fats and oils, minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates and water. Unless your cat is pregnant or nursing, there is no reason to upset this balance from the early days of adulthood at 12 months until the end of the sixth year.
Unlike dogs, cats are carnivores. They need meat in their diet and can become quite ill without it. This is particularly so because they are unable to manufacture their own taurine, an essential amino acid that promotes a healthy heart and good vision. Cats also require a higher level of dietary protein and a different nutrient balance than dogs. Optimal protein level helps your cat maintain muscle mobility and flexibility.
Some pet owners forget that like humans, cats require a variety of nutrients to provide a proper balanced diet. A good quality manufactured cat food has the correct balance of all the nutrients a cat requires, as well as a satisfying taste. Adding human food to a nutritionally balanced commercial cat food may upset that balance.
Protein is a vital nutritional building-block, responsible for releasing energy and forming muscle, skin, hair, antibodies, enzymes, blood clots, haemoglobin and hormones. Cats require larger quantities of protein than dogs, as their enzymes work at a faster rate. Good sources of protein include beef, chicken and liver.
Fats are an excellent source of energy, providing over twice as much energy as protein or carbohydrate, as well as improving the taste and digestibility of food.
Carbohydrates are split between simple sugars (such as sugars which release energy quickly) and complex carbohydrates (such as starch and fibre which release energy more slowly). Sources of carbohydrate include cereals, rice and starchy vegetables.
Minerals are important for the structure of bones and teeth, maintaining the body fluid balance, and vital metabolic processes. An excess of one mineral can lead to a deficiency of another, so make sure minerals are provided in a careful balance.
Like minerals, vitamins are vital for overall healthy growth. An excess or deficiency of vitamins can lead to health problems. Fat soluble vitamins, (A, D, E and K) are stored in your cat's fatty tissues, whereas water soluble vitamins (B complex and C) are excreted in the urine.
Milk and water
Cats actually don't need milk after weaning. In fact, many cats are intolerant to the lactose (milk sugar) in milk which can cause diarrhoea. Specially made 'cats milk' with a low lactose content is becoming more common but be careful - milk is a food and not a substitute for water.
Cats can't, however, manage without water. Water regulates body temperature, transports nutrients, is involved in chemical reactions and digestion, and removes waste. Ensure your cat has clean, fresh water to drink from at all times, preferably in a large ceramic or metal bowl. This keeps their kidneys healthy and reduces the risk of Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD).
Some cats will often ignore their water bowl in favour of a dripping tap, a puddle in the garden, and even the toilet bowl! (But be very careful if your cat favours the toilet bowl, as toilet cleaning chemicals can cause stomach problems such as ulcers).
Moist or 'wet' foods
Keep opened cans covered and refrigerated, for up to, but no longer than, 24 hours. Always serve the contents at room temperature to make food more palatable and easier to digest. Never serve dog food.
Complete dry foods
With high-quality protein, the right balance of nutrients, and a crunchy texture to keep your cat's teeth healthy, dried foods are very popular with cats. They are more concentrated than moist foods, so only small servings are needed.
Make sure the food is described as 'complete' rather than 'complimentary', otherwise you might be buying a snack treat instead of a balanced meal. If you are switching from a canned to a dried diet, introduce the food gradually over a seven to ten day period.
Always provide lots of fresh water, as dried foods only contain 10% moisture.
A good solution is to feed your cat a mixed diet of both canned and dry food. You could feed wet food in the morning and dry food in the evening, for example, to introduce some variety.
Fresh meat and other foods
Be aware that raw meats may contain parasites, whilst cooked meats can be high in fat and don't contain a proper balance of nutrients.
If you feed fresh meat or fish, always remove the bones, as sharp fragments could stick in your cat's throat. And never give small soft bones (such as pork chop or chicken bones) to cats, as they may splinter and lodge in a cat's mouth or throat.
You should also avoid giving liver as a treat, as it can become quite addictive. Too much can lead to severe diseases due to the high levels of vitamin A it contains.
Some cats like cheese, yoghurt and scrambled eggs - but remember that human foods are nutritionally unbalanced and should not be fed too frequently. Repeatedly adding raw eggs to a cat's diet can cause a deficiency of the vitamin biotin, which can lead to dermatitis (inflammation of the skin), loss of hair, and poor growth.
Supplements are not necessary when a normal, healthy cat is being fed a complete and balanced food. However, factors such as feeding table scraps, inconsistent exercise or medical conditions can leave cats with special nutritional needs.
Some pet owners believe that extra calcium should be added to the diets of pregnant and nursing females and growing puppies and kittens. Whilst it is true that more minerals are needed at these times, they should be obtained through a high quality, nutritionally balanced diet. Adding them out of proportion to other nutrients can contribute to skeletal deformities and other problems.