Cat Nutrition - How Nutrition Affects Your Cat's Overall Health

How does nutrition impact the health and well-being of my cat?

It makes a big difference. Nutrition impacts pretty much everything. Poor nutrition will lead to poor health, and there are diseases we can prevent by having good cat nutrition and a well-balanced diet.

Dr. Ben Larson
Berry Farms Animal Hospital - Cupola Animal Hospitals

What are the nutritional requirements for a cat?

The basics and big categories will be water, a protein source, fats, vitamins, and minerals, and all generic cat food brands will cover those bases, excluding the water.

Water: The single most important nutrient for sustaining healthy cell and overall body function. Cats lose water through their:

  • Lungs
  • Skin
  • Urine
  • Milk
  • Feces

Cats also have evolved to receive the majority of the water in their diets through the consumption of food. This is why sound feline nutrition includes a diet that is rich in unprocessed proteins and water. Canned cat foods are usually formulated with water content in mind and can contain up to 80% of this feline nutrition requirement per serving.

Protein: Protein is a fundamental component of feline nutrition that is necessary for the maintenance and support of a cat’s:

  • Muscle
  • Bone
  • Ligaments
  • Tendons

Additionally, many of a cat’s functional body components are made of proteins, including:

  • Enzymes
  • Plasma proteins
  • Hormones
  • Neurotransmitters

Proteins all have their own digestibility profile, and some proteins, like fish and chicken, are more available for use in the body than other proteins, like plant and dairy. Digestibility refers to the net amount of protein that is left after the cat food’s chemical breakdown in the body.

Proteins also contain essential amino acids that synthesize, or break down and utilize, the protein molecules themselves. Amino acids are synthesized in the liver with the help of carbon and nitrogen. There are 30 total amino acids, 20 dispensable (or non-essential) and 10 non-dispensable (or essential).

Dispensable refers to the ability to be safely absent from a diet. This means the 10 non-dispensable, or essential amino acids, must come from a cat’s diet. A high-quality cat food that follows a sound feline nutrition requirement protocol will only use unprocessed or minimally processed fish, poultry, and meat that contain upwards of 40% of these feline nutrition requirements per serving.

Essential fatty acids: Essential fatty acids, also known simply as fats, provide the most concentrated source of energy for cats. In cats, fats provide energy, making carbohydrates unnecessary. Fats carry fat-soluble vitamins D, E, A, and K. Fats also supply linoleic and arachidonic acids, which are essential for overall health. Cats that have fat deficiencies will display the following symptoms:

  • Stunted growth
  • Dry hair/dandruff
  • Listlessness
  • Susceptibility to infection

A high-quality cat food will contain between 20 and 40% fat (essential fatty acids).

Vitamins: Vitamins are organic substances (made by plants or animals) that are very important feline nutrition components because they help regulate various body processes, including:

  • Boosting immunity
  • Supporting growth and development
  • Helping cells and organs properly function

There are two types of vitamins, fat soluble and water soluble. We mentioned fat-soluble vitamins above, but the difference between them is: Fat-soluble vitamins are processed and can be stored in fat cells. They generally have a more sustained release than water-soluble vitamins, and they also have acute toxicity levels. Water-soluble vitamins must dissolve in water before the body can use them. They cannot be stored and therefore must be replenished with greater frequency than fat-soluble vitamins. The water-soluble vitamins are:

  • The B Vitamins: thiamine, riboflavin, pyridoxine, pantothenic acid, niacin, B-12
  • Vitamin C

A raw or minimally processed cat food diet usually fulfills vitamin requirements naturally through the use of whole foods like chicken, meat, and fish. Dry foods usually add synthetic vitamins to make up for the removal of natural ones during processing. Although there is no universally accepted vitamin intake requirement for cats, exhaustive documentation exists to support vitamin intake as part of overall feline nutritional health and wellness.

Minerals: Minerals are inorganic substances that are produced in soil or water, which are consumed by plants or animals to regulate:

  • Acid-base balance
  • Tissue structure
  • Enzymes

Just like vitamins, there is no universally accepted mineral intake requirement for cats, but volumes of data exist indicating the need for the following minerals to help facilitate healthy body functioning:

  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Zinc
  • Iodine

The overall balance of a cat’s diet is affected not only by the levels of individual minerals but also by the interactions between them. For this reason, we recommend consulting a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist about mineral amounts and balance when choosing cat food or nutritional supplementation for your cat.

Will my cat's nutritional requirements change throughout their life as a kitten, adult, and senior cat?

Absolutely. Kittens require more calories than an adult cat, even if the cat's been spayed or neutered. Senior cats don't need near as many calories, and they even require some different vitamins and minerals. So their nutritional requirements do change throughout their life.

What are some signs and symptoms of poor cat nutrition in your pet?

One big one would be a poor, dull hair coat, as that can signify poor nutrition. Your cat might also experience some urinary issues, diarrhea, skin disorders, and even hair loss.

What are some common food allergies in cats, and how can I tell if my cat is suffering from them?

The most common food allergies in cats will be protein sources–chicken and beef will be the most common allergies, and you'll know because it'll usually arise in skin issues. The cat will be very itchy, may get ear infections, and may lose hair.

When it comes to cat food, what and how much should I be feeding them?

That goes back to the question previously, too. The cat’s food will change throughout their life, so I would talk with your veterinarian and see how much to exactly feed your cat, because, again, if it's a kitten, they may need more than if your cat's 10 or 12 years old, or they may need less at that point.

Feline nutrition is very important for general health. However, the plethora of dietary options, brands, and formulas available to consumers can be confusing, making it hard to decide which kind of cat food is best for your feline friend’s health and wellness.

Unlike humans and various other creatures (dogs included), cats’ evolutionary process has resulted in no dietary need for carbohydrates. Just like their undomesticated, and much larger relatives, domesticated cats’ bodies have adapted to a protein- and fat-rich, carbohydrate-poor diet. In the wild, cats use plants, primarily tall and short grass, for digestive regulation and dental support. However, wild cats do not consume vegetable or plant matter for the purpose of energy or nutrition.

High-quality cat foods are formulated with this evolutionary platform and feline nutrition requirements in mind. The three main types of cat food are:

Kibble (dry)

  • Pros: Usually inexpensive, convenient
  • Cons: Higher in carbohydrates than desired

Canned (wet)

  • Pros: Convenient, usually more nutritious than kibble
  • Cons: Usually more expensive than kibble per serving

Fresh (uncooked/processed proteins)

  • Pros: Optimal wellness cat food diet
  • Cons: Most expensive option, most cats will not accept the change to fresh

At Cupola Animal Hospitals, we take pride in providing our patients and their human caretakers with all the information necessary to help cat owners make educated decisions about all facets of feline nutrition, cat foods included.

Kitten Food

For the first month of a cat’s life, kitten food comes in the form of mother’s milk and/or commercial milk replacer formula given every 2–4 hours if the kitten has been separated from its mother. Once this initial period passes, kitten food can become a dietary staple in the following stages, amounts, and frequency:

From 3–5 weeks of age, feeding kittens involves offering the milk-replacer formula in a shallow dish to encourage weaning from a bottle. You can also add a moist, easily chewable diet consisting of a mixture of warm milk-replacer and high-quality canned or dried kitten food 4–6 times a day.

By 5–8 weeks of age, your kitten should be able to chew its own kitten food, and you should provide a protein-rich and energy-filled diet, with feedings taking place 3–4 times daily. There are many different types of kitten food available, and we would like to discuss these dietary options with you at your next veterinary appointment. Typically, we recommend canned kitten food because it will mimic the natural diet both in consistency and formulation. However, a good diet may also consist of a combination of canned and dry kitten foods. After 6 months of age, kittens should be fed 2 times per day.

Kitten food is usually very high in protein, calories, and fats, which are all necessary to support healthy growth and body function. Feeding the right kitten food in the right amounts and at the right times throughout the day is essential for happy, growing cats. Our veterinary staff would be happy to discuss the best kitten food options for your feline friend as well as a proper feeding schedule at your next veterinary appointment.

Cat Foods

Although dry cat foods are very popular among cat owners, they should be considered the second choice for cat food. This is because dry foods have a higher carbohydrate count than we consider optimal. In addition, the protein choice tends to more plant than animal based.

The high levels of carbohydrates and plant protein can lead to weight gain and digestive issues, especially in older and more sedentary cats. However, dry food is convenient and the best choice for busy households. Some premium food brands have developed specialty prescription formula dry cat foods, which can be sound choices for cats with allergies, certain health conditions, and as part of a diet also containing canned or fresh food.

Wet cat foods can have a nutrient profile that mimics the kind of diet cats would choose in the wild. The protein in canned cat food is usually animal based, which means that canned cat food has a nutritional profile that compliments a cat’s evolutionary profile and physiological needs. Canned cat food also usually has a low carbohydrate count and a high water amount.

Fresh cat foods are the same kind of foods a cat would consume in the wild. Fresh cat food diets are high in unprocessed proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and of course, water. They are also very low in carbohydrates. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to get your cat to accept a change in food types and texture.

Senior Cat Food

Beginning around 7 years of age, cats begin transitioning from adulthood to the mature/senior stages of life. This transition causes health and lifestyle changes with a cat’s:

  • Weight
  • Skin
  • Joints
  • Teeth
  • Internal organs

If your cat is doing well on his or her current diet, then there may be no need to change to a different formula. Some brands make a senior cat food that is specially formulated to deliver ingredients that are more easily digested than standard adult cat foods. Senior cats are more likely to develop health issues related to intestines and kidney disease. There are diets specifically formulated to benefit cats with these issues, which may help slow the progression of these diseases.

Your veterinarian can help you choose the best cat food for your senior cat by taking his or her pre-existing medical conditions, current health status, and overall lifestyle (indoor, outdoor, sedentary, active, etc.) into account.

What should I do if I have questions regarding my cat's nutrition?

Talk with your veterinarian about it. Every cat is going to be different. There may be some metabolic or some other diseases going on. The veterinarian can help coordinate with you on what the best diet is for your cat; they can figure out the exact amount to feed and help make your cat healthier overall.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (615) 283-9040, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.