We’ve all heard some of these: Dogs come when they’re called called; cats take a message and get back to you. Dogs believe they are human; cats believe they are God. If a dog jumps up into your lap, it is because he is fond of you; but if a cat does the same thing, it is because your lap is warmer. Cats act and respond differently than dogs. You’ll never see a cat wag his tail. Dogs’ reflexes are quick, cats’ reflexes are incredibly fast. Dogs prefer action, cats prefer watching first. Maybe the cat is America’s favorite pet because cats are, well – different!
The differences between cats and dogs become particularly evident when it comes to their nutritional requirements. Even though both species are considered carnivores, cats are obligate carnivores, which means that they need meat in order to thrive. In fact, cats cannot survive without at least some meat in their diets. Dogs are considered omnivores – they can survive on plant material alone; however, they, too, do best on a diet made up primarily of meat.
Why do cats need meat to thrive and survive? Dietary protein supplies amino acids and is needed for the manufacture of antibodies, enzymes, hormones, and tissues. It provides energy and is essential for growth and development. Protein derived from meat and poultry contains ample amounts of these essential amino acids, whereas protein in vegetables and grains does not provide these. More importantly, unlike dogs, cats lack the enzyme required to process vegetable-based proteins metabolically.
Another significant difference in nutritional requirements is cats’ need for taurine, which is important for proper functioning of the heart. Meat is a natural source of taurine; it is not available in plant tissues. Dogs can make their own taurine, but cats cannot. Commercial cat foods did not contain this important amino acid until 1987, when veterinarian Paul Pion identified the link between a lack of taurine in cats’ diets and feline dilated cardiomyopathy, a fatal heart disease that has been largely eliminated in the pet cat population since then.
So what should you feed your carnivore? The ideal diet that most closely mimics what cats would eat in the wild is a properly supplemented raw diet. There are several reputable resources available online to learn more about raw feeding, two of the best are Dr. Lisa Pierson’s Feeding Your Cat: Know the Basics of Feline Nutrition and the Feline Nutrition Education Society. Raw feeding does not have to be complicated or a lot of work; fully supplemented commercial frozen raw diets are readily available and all a cat owner has to do is thaw and feed.
However, not every cat owner will want to feed raw, and there are other, healthy alternatives available. A home-cooked diet can be a good option for cat owners who like the idea of controlling the ingredients in their cat’s food and don’t mind the extra work these diets require. Proper supplementation is key; a great resource for preparing nutritionally complete homemade diets is PetDiets.com. The next best thing to feeding raw or homemade is feeding a quality grain-free, canned diet. Look for foods that list meat as the first ingredient. Be aware that with the recent popularity of grain-free foods, some manufacturers are now taking grains out of their foods, but are adding other carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes and peas, and as a result, some of these diets are still too high in carbohydrates.
Cats should not eat dry food. Cats need moisture in their diet, and feeding only dry food is considered to be one of the most common causes of bladder and kidney problems. Even though cats who eat a predominantly dry diet will drink more water, they still only get half the amount of water a cat eating canned food will get, even after adding all sources of moisture together. If you must feed dry food, at the very least, consider feeding one of the grain-free varieties, and supplement with canned or raw food.
Regardless of what type of diet you choose to feed, never feed cats free-choice. Free-choice feeding, which means leaving food available for the cat all day long, is the primary reason why feline obesity has become an epidemic. Cats by their very nature are hunters: they kill, and then eat their prey. They do not graze throughout the day. Feeding two meals a day, appropriate in size for your cat, will go a long way toward keeping kitty fit and trim. What is a normal sized meal? Consider that in the wild, a mouse would constitute a typical meal for a cat. Manufacturer recommendations may not be your best guide when it comes to portion size – they’re usually much higher than what your cat really needs. When in doubt, consult with your cat’s veterinarian.
I’ve been feeding my cats grain-free canned food for a number of years with wonderful results. I recently transitioned Allegra, who just turned one, to raw food, and I now alternate raw and grain-free canned food, with raw food taking up the bulk of her diet (about 75%). I’m also a firm believer in variety and rotate brands and flavors. Cats can be finicky, and by exposing them to a variety of choices, they will not only be healthier (no one food can be complete and balanced, no matter what the manufacturers tell you), they also won’t get stuck on eating only one thing and refusing everything else you offer.
So – what are you feeding your carnivore?