Cat with a fridge full of food

Feline Nutrition

Let’s talk about cat food. You probably already know your kitty loves tasty fish and treats, but picking a balanced and healthy regular food is just as important. But how do you figure out what to give your cat? Smart owners invest in a quality source of nutrients to ensure their pet is always full of energy.

One of the more important aspects to keeping a pet healthy and happy is diet choice. Whereas wild animals will be able to piece together their own meal for the day, a cat kept indoors will be entirely dependent on the food you decide to give.

So what should you feed your cat, and how often? That depends on multiple factors like age, activity, the presence diseases and several other things. We’ve broken this article up into several pieces so you can skip right to the information that you came for:

Feeding kittens

Cats start their journey through life as little kittens. Since they expend a lot of energy and their bodies need to grow rapidly, it will probably come as no surprise that kittens have different nutritional needs than adults and seniors. We will discuss these first.

In the first weeks of a kitten’s life, it can survive entirely on milk from mother. Near the four-week mark a kitten will gradually start to transition to eating solid foods. This process of switching over from liquids to solids is called weaning. It roughly takes between four and ten weeks to completely wean a kitten off of milk.

If your newborn kitten doesn’t have a mom, you will have to get a replacement for mother’s milk. Pet stores and vets can help you get the right product. Don’t use regular cow-milk!

Two cats eating from their food bowl

First time buying solid food
Once the weaning phase has started, it’s time to buy your first bag of kitten food. Not just any old bag of food will do; their little bodies are developing fast, and they need to ingest enough nutrients to sustain all that growth.

So if you want your kitten to grow into a healthy adult, you would be smart to buy a food that is tailored to young kittens. Almost every brand has a special bag for juniors, which is mostly different because it contains extra protein needed for growth. It is also very important that this meal contains every other essential element; if just one is missing, your kitten won’t be able to fully develop like she is meant to.

Tip: We highly recommend you to match the type of food you’re buying with your cat’s current life-phase. This ensures the proportions of the different macro-nutrients (carbs, proteins & fats) in the food globally align with your cat’s current nutritional needs.

Meal frequency

it is most important that kittens are fed at regular intervals. Although they have a very small stomach, they are eating quite often throughout the day. The recommended frequency for kittens is four to five meals per day, making sure the portions are small. More frequent meals in even smaller portions is fine too, should you wish; just make sure you don’t exceed the recommended amount of food per day.

Daily energy maintenance requirements for kittens

Young kittens usually need roughly 275 calories per day, with the bigger breeds consuming up to 100 additional calories up to 375. As your kitten grows, so will the daily amount of calories she needs to eat in order to grow. If you’re wondering whether what you are giving is enough, you should be able to judge that just from observing how often she goes to her bowl for a meal.

For more tips on taking care of kittens you can read our special article series by Dr Greg, starting with the first article on taking care of newborn kittens.

Transition into adulthood

Between 3 and 6 months you can slowly start transitioning into three slightly bigger meals per day. Most cat breeds will reach their maximum height around 6 months. Owners frequently make the mistake of thinking adult age has now been reached. However, just because your cat suddenly stopped growing, does not mean she is already a full-grown adult.

Parts that we can’t see are still changing: brain development will continue between 6 and 12 months. Once the 12 month mark has been reached, you can start slowly switching over from kitten food to adult food.

Kittens can easily adapt to different diets, however if you do it too abruptly that could lead to problems like overeating. It is therefore recommended to stick to smaller portions first, and slowly add to them over a period of a few weeks.

Raw diets are believed by some to be healthier than commercial food. But research suggests the potential benefits may not outweigh the risks and higher price of raw meat

Feeding adults

As kittens grow into adults, their energy levels and metabolism change. Most cat food brands have a bag tailored for each phase of life. After the first year comes the time to switched out the bag of kitten kibble for real adult food. It will be another seven years before the recommended moment to switch over senior food arrives.

How much should I give?
The recommended amount of food to give to adults is between 60-80 grams per day. This is of course a very rough estimate, and can vary for different breeds and the type of food you decide to give, Some specimens from the same breed will eat a little more, others will need a little less. Wet food contains more liquid, so you can give a lot more of it when you are going by weight.

Daily maintenance energy requirement for adults

If you are going by calories, there’s a mathematical formula to calculate the amount of calories for a certain body weight:

  • Lean adult: 100 kCal x Bw (kg)
  • Obese-prone adult: 130 kCal x Bw (kg)

So for example a lean adult weighing 5,5 kg will need 100 * 5,5 = approximately 550 calories for daily maintenance.

Meal frequency

Cats are often conditioned from a young age to eat two or three times per day at set moments (breakfast, dinner etc.) That is convenient for most owners as they are too busy to offer lots of small portions throughout the day.

So what’s better, small portions or two big ones throughout the day? The truth is that it doesn’t really matter. In fact, nearly every feeding pattern is usable, as long as your cat is used to it or slowly eased into it. Twice a day is the minimal amount though. If you have limited time to spend and want to be as close to the natural feeding pattern as possible, choose to leave the bowl full all day.

To make things even easier there are also automatic feeding bowls with a release timer available. These can feed your cat on set times, even when you are away from home. But one of the biggest advantages of these machines is that they are of tremendous help in creating accurate portion sizes. This is especially handy if you’re trying to help your cat lose weight.

Free feeding
Another option is to leave the bowl full all the time and only add more once it’s (near) empty. This is called free feeding. In many cases free feeding becomes problematic because cats often have a hard time sensing when they need to stop eating. It is therefor on of the major contributors to the rise in cat obesity.

Quality of the food

The crucial aspect that will make or break any nutrition plan is the quality of the food. So what is the best food for my cat? Despite what some brilliant product marketing experts would have you believe, this is actually not an easy question to answer and there is certainly not one brand or product that is better than all the others.

The first thing that makes this question complicated is this: every pet is unique. Instead of searching for the one food brand or type that is the best, the healthiest and so on, a much more beneficial idea would be to find the best diet personally suited to your cat’s current circumstances.

That being said, vets generally recommend selecting food from a well-known brand. The reason beeing that the bigger brands are more likely to have hired vets and true pet nutrition experts to help them compile a healthy recipe. You would also be wise to steer clear of any product that makes unrealistic marketing claims, for these kinds of products are often designed not for cat health, but for generating a healthy profit.

Ingredients of healthy cat food

Felines are obligate carnivores; in layman’s terms this means that they must consume some source of animal protein and fat in order to stay healthy. A good food has quality meat sources listed high on its’ ingredient lists.

Grains have cought a lot of flak in recent years, most notably for their reputation as an unhealthy filler material used mainly by the cheaper food brands to cut costs and earn more money. As a response, many brands came out with new grain-free cat food products. Some cat parents are even going as far as putting their pet on an entire diet of raw food and meat.

While grains do contain a lot of carbs & calories and little fat or protein, there is in reality very little scientific evidence to support these claims of them being unhealthy. Most grains actually contain some very vital and healthy minerals and vitamins. And despite what some sources would have you believe, cats can certainly digest them.

Grain-free food does have its’ place in in the market for pets that have an allergic reaction or intolerance to grains, but those cases are pretty rare.

To summarize: look beyond the attractive packaging, the flashy marketing claims and the edgy trends. Pick a solid food from a premium brand that matches the current life stage and circumstances your cat is in. Also be sure to check that the food you plan on buying can do what it says it does (and contains), and that all claims made on the packaging are actually verifiable.

Cat food guidelines

Several authorities in the world have their own guidelines when it comes to qualifying pet food. In the United Stats, a product has to match the nutrient distribution profiles that are established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). When you see a reference to an AAFCO nutrient profile on a pet food label, you’re better assured that the “complete and balanced” claim is valid.

For a product to meet AAFCO standards, it has to contain all those nutrients at the recommended minimum level. The AAFCO has two nutrient profiles for cats: one for adult cat maintenance, and one for growth and reproduction (which includes growing, pregnant and nursing cats).

We can’t list all the other guidelines here, but the adult maintenance profile sets the minimum level of crude protein at 26 percent on a dry matter basis. For more elaborate information, you can visit the AAFCO website.

Changing diets

When your pet has a medical problem like obesity, urinary problems, diabetes, periodontal disease or chronic renal failure, the veterinarian will commonly suggest switching over to a different food. Often, that bag is better suited to the circumstances because the composition of macro-nutrients is different compared regular food.

As we all know cats aren’t very fond of sudden changes, and their little stomach can even get upset from a sudden change in diet. So what you can do in this situation is try to make the transition as smooth as possible by progressively adding a bit more new food into the meal each day.

For detailed information and more helpful tips on this subject, check our suggestions for changing a cat’s diet.

Help! My cat is getting too fat

As with humans, obesity in cats can have multiple causes and just as many solutions. Think genetics, medical problems, overeating, changes in the daily energy maintenance requirement and so on.

According to research by the University of Illinois most owners actually tend to underestimate the weight of their pets. One of the most common reasons for obesity among domesticated cats is overfeeding (and as a consequence, overeating). Over time this leads to significant gains in fat mass, which is associated with poor health and a number of diseases.

If your cat is too large and you want to change that, your first course of action should be to gradually limit meal frequency, portion sizes and/or the amount of treats that you’re giving. In most cases this should have a sufficient impact on the amount of fat stored. Don’t give up if you do not see any result after a few weeks. The caloric deficit needs to be maintained for several months before you can start to see real results.

This cat could probably lose a few pounds.

Should these things fail, another possible solution is diet food. This special type of food contains less calories than the regular brands, but still includes all the essential nutrients that your cat needs in order to stay healthy.

As a final option, consider weighing the meals before handing them out. The packaging should tell you the appropriate amount in order for your cat to lose weight. You can keep track of progress with the vet or by measuring your cat on a scale every week.

Fasting can be lethal and is strictly forbidden for cats.

Frequently asked questions

What is better, wet food or dry food?

While both tend to contain enough macronutrients, one of wet food’s major advantages is the added liquid which may help your cat to stay hydrated throughout the day. This can be beneficial especially for older cats that need to drink more due to chronic renal problems.

Other differences can be found in the higher amounts of carbohydrates in dry food (frequently even too high), and the type of proteinsource used which is often plant-based. Contrary to wet food, dry food also tends to be heavily processed, which is always less healthy than unprocessed meals. Some food scientists thus believe that dry food causes or contributes to many gastrointestinal problems.

On the other side of the medaillon, we suspect that dry food may be easier on the teeth. It can possibily help prevent periodontal disease by scraping away plaque as it is beeing chewed. However, there is currently no scientific evidence to support this theory.

How important is the list of ingredients?

Ingredient lists provide less insight into the quality of a cat food product than most people seem to believe. Nutrient content is what you should be looking at. A list of ingredients that sound great can easily be less nutritious than one that only has things that don’t sound so fancy. If a food company is really out for your money, they could even go so far as to add certain ingredients in miniscule amounts for no other reason than because they sound great when you read them on the packaging.

Next time you take a look at the list of ingredients, we recommend you also judge a product by the table of nutrients that should always be listed somewhere on the packaging.

Is it okay to give my cat only canned tuna?

We answered this in more detail in this post. To summarize: fish should never be a major part of a cat’s menu. Not only does it lack essential nutrients, but tuna in particular is not safe in larger quantities because it is often contaminated by high levels of mercury. Mercury acts as a neurotoxin even in small doses.

It’s fine to mix some canned tuna through a bowl of regular wet food every now and then as a treat, but do not make your cat’s entire diet consist of only tuna or other fish.

What is the difference between kitten, adult and senior cat food?

The major thing that sets kitten food apart is that it often has extra protein.

Food for seniors can differ in a number of ways:

– The individual pieces may be smaller, making it easier to digest.
– Can contain less calories (as older cats are less active, they tend to put on weight faster)
– Sometimes the amount of phosphorus in senior food is lowered, which can be beneficial for cats with kidney problems
– Can contain extra meat to improve the odor and make it more appealing to cats that are losing their sense of smell

Can you spoil a cat with too much wet food?

There is no consensus as to whether feeding your cat extra tasty wet food and treats all the time will “spoil” them, in the sense that they would refuse to eat any other kind of food afterwards. We personally think it’s a myth. Your cat could become more picky for some time, but once you stop giving the extra tasty food it shouldn’t last longer than a few days.

My cat is not eating extended periods, what should I do?

Anything longer than a day is unusual. Consult your veterinarian as soon as possible. There’s almost certainly an underlying medical condition that needs to be diagnosed and treated

If you think your cat is not drinking enough, we have an article with some suggestions.

Should I give my cat milk?

Few animal species drink milk after reaching adulthood. Since cats do not have the necessary enzymes to digest the protein lactose that is present in dairy, they can get diarrhea after drinking or eating it. Milk, yogurt, cheese and cottage all contain lactose and are thus not recommended.

If you still want to give your cat milk, there are special milk products specifically tailored to cats, which do not contain lactose. These products are certainly not essential to a healthy diet, provided you are feeding a good quality food with all the essential nutrients and plenty of animal-sourced protein and fat. You can think of cat milk more as an extra tasty treat.Few species of animals drink milk after reaching adulthood. Since cats do not have the necessary enzymes to digest the protein lactose that is present in dairy, they can get diarrhea after drinking or eating dairy products. Milk, yogurt, cheese and cottage are all not recommended.

If you still want to give your cat milk, there are special milk products specifically tailored to cats, which do not contain lactose. These products are certainly not essential to a healthy diet, provided you are feeding a good quality food with all the essential nutrients and plenty of animal-sourced protein and fat. You can think of cat milk more as an extra tasty treat.

A 200mL bottle of Whiskas cat milk
Cat milk: a great treat that your cat is sure to love, but it’s not essential.