Cats can be even more unpredictable than humans in some ways, including what they will and won't eat. But even though some felines are more finicky than others about their dietary choices, they all share some basic nutritional needs – and some need specific adjustments to their diets to help them cope with health challenges. Let's take a moment to examine what you should (and shouldn't) feed your favorite four-legged friend.
Feline Nutrition 101
Cats eat meat. This fact will come as no surprise if you've ever received the surprise present of a dead mouse or bird from Kitty. But there's more to it than that. Cats have to get their nutrition from meat instead of plant matter. That's because their bodies can't manufacture several essential nutrients, from vitamins such as Vitamin A and niacin to amino acids such as arginine and taurine. (By contrast, dogs can produce these substances internally.) Your cat can also get these essential nutrients from the tissues of other animals. A high-quality cat food solves this problem by providing a fully-balanced nutritional mix.
Keep in mind that cats may need different amounts of calories, proteins, and other nutrients depending on their age and activity level. That kitten bouncing all over your house may need 3 to 4 meals a day until he starts to mature, at which point you can taper off to 2 meals. Geriatric cats may not move much at all, so you'll want to scale down their daily food intake. Sedentary cats can quickly become obese. Obesity in turn can make your cat prone to diabetes, high blood pressure, internal organ problems, arthritis and other woes.
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What Not to Feed Your Cat
As you can imagine, commercial dog food isn't designed to provide that comprehensive nutrition your cat needs. Make sure your dog's food bowl and your cat's food bowl each contain food created specifically for each animal – even if your kitty prefers the taste of “puppy chow.”
Generally speaking, human food should also be crossed off of your cat's menu, no matter how much your cat may beg for it. Not only do human bodies require a totally different nutritional mix than cats, but our diet tends to include foods full of salt, sugar, fat, chemicals, and other things we probably shouldn't even be feeding ourselves. Some foods, such as garlic, onions, and chocolate, can even make your cat dangerously ill.
That said, the occasional treat of a genuinely healthy human food won't hurt your cat; in fact, it might even do him good. Sardines, for example, are packed with protein, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, and other nutrients cats can use. (They're also lower in mercury than that other feline favorite, tuna.) But these fish also add calories, so you'll want to dial back your cat's portion sizes accordingly. You also want to stick to salt-free, water-packed sardines so your cat isn't receiving unhealthy extras along with his nutrients.
Special Diets for Special Needs
Even though all cats need the same basic nutrition, some food ingredients can aggravate, or at least don't do anything to improve, existing health issues. Fortunately, there are plenty of specialized products your veterinarian can recommend these days, some of which are devised to suit cats with particular diseases or disorders. For example, you can find low-carb food for cats with diabetes, low-phosphorus food for cats with kidney disease, and low-sodium food for cats with hypertension. Low-fat foods and/or reduced portions may be good for obese felines (along with exercise and other healthy responses). If your cat suffers from a painful inflammatory condition such as arthritis, ask your vet whether adding a little turmeric to his food might help him feel better.
Feeding a cat isn't as simple as you might have thought. But serve your cat high-quality food that meets his nutritional needs, and he'll thrive for years to come!