Whether your cat is a picky eater or a little on the pudgy side, they probably let you know how they feel about what you put in their bowl.
“Cats are very opinionated about food, and a lot of their food preferences are formed in the first year,” says Julie A. Churchill, DVM, PhD, associate professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine in St. Paul. So if your cat is a kitten, now is the time to get them used to different types of food — wet, dry, and semidry.
But even if your pet is older, there are still ways to make sure they are getting all the nutrients they need to be healthy. Start by learning more about what you’re buying and what your cat needs.
Choose Balanced Food
All cat owners should know how to read a cat food label, says Richard Hill, PhD, associate professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville.
“With so much advertising, people tend to focus on ingredients, but the nutrients are more important, namely protein and fat,” he says.
It’s trendy to bash grains and carbohydrates in pet food, but those are not necessarily bad, Churchill says. Plus, food made of only protein and fat gets pricey. “Carbs can be valuable to hold dry food together and make food more affordable, and many cats like that crunch. As long as carbs are in an amount cats can handle, it’s OK.”
How do you know if your cat’s food is balanced? Look for a statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) on the package.
“It will say that the food is complete and balanced, either through a feeding trial or because the recipe meets cats’ nutritional requirements,” Hill says. If the food has this distinction, there’s no need to give your kitty extra vitamins or supplements — the food has all they need.
How Much, How Often?
Most cats will eat their main meals at dawn and dusk, when they would normally be hunting and catching prey in the wild, so those are often the best times to feed them.
How much your kitty should get in their bowl depends on their age, size, and how active they are, but the average is about 200 calories per day. It’s a good idea to ask your veterinary team to help you calculate your cat’s needs. Pay careful attention to the calorie counts on all foods you give to your cat, Churchill says. “The calorie count can vary significantly from food to food.”
Cats will also nibble during the day if you leave food sitting out, but be aware: They aren’t good judges of how much they should eat.
“Overfeeding is an epidemic,” Churchill says. When cats gain too much weight, they can have problems like joint disease, heart disease, and diabetes.
Vets say it’s best to feed cats at specific mealtimes, and to put food away at all other times.
If your cat is more chowhound than finicky feline, it might be most helpful to switch to a food lower in calories rather than cut back on quantity, Hill says. “The problem with restricting food is that it can lead to mean cats.”
What about treats? It’s fine to dole them out occasionally, but don’t overdo it. They should be no more than 5% to 10% of your cat’s daily calories.
Vegetarian Cats? Homemade Food?
Vegetarian or vegan diets might be a healthy choice for you, but they’re a bad idea for your cat. Unlike dogs and humans, cats need specific vitamins, minerals, and proteins that only come from meat.
But not raw meat. That may be part of life for big cats in the wild, but it’s unnatural for house cats, Hill says. “In the wild, they eat the whole animal or bird they catch, not just the meat. Meat alone will be deficient in vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.”
Plus, bacteria on raw meat, like salmonella and E. coli, can make your cat (and you) very sick.
What about making your own cat food at home? Churchill says if you decide to go this route, you shouldn’t do it alone. “I strongly recommend that you get a veterinary nutritionist to help you. Cats are only 8 to 10 pounds, and changing one ingredient can change the whole nutritional value of the diet.”
Generally, most experts say commercial cat food is the way to go.
“The beauty of commercial food is that it’s formulated specifically for cats, so it’s complete and balanced and meets their needs, and you don’t have to worry about it,” Churchill says.