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Cat & Kitten

Cat Nutrition and Food

Val Cairney August 19, 2022 21


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Hi everyone, and welcome to this episode of Val Talk’s Pets.  In this episode, I’m going to stick with our feline friends again and talk specifically about nutrition and food for our cats.  Throughout many of my episodes on cats I’ve addressed how cats get often painted as fussy and finicky and picky.  Are they?  Is there a reason?  Well let’s go through some of the food issues and nutritional requirements for cats and kittens and if you are new to feline parenthood I hope you can pick up some good tips to make sure you have a healthy and happy cat.  

Let’s start with what a cat is.  Cats are what are called obligate carnivores.  This means that they must have meat to survive.  Unlike dogs that are omnivores or facultative/adaptive carnivores, they cannot be adjusted to a plant based diet.  A cat’s diet must include meat and or organ meat.  So, let’s be clear here.  A cat cannot be a vegetarian.  As I’ve mentioned before, we have had people ask “what kind of vegetarian diet can I put my cat on, because I’m a vegetarian and I don’t want my cat eating meat.”  The answer is an emphatic, none!  You cannot feed a cat as a vegetarian.  They will most likely die.  Feral cats subsist on catching prey and that’s why they are so proliferated as they can keep themselves fed on mice, birds, chipmunks etc.  This is why a cat is not just a carnivore, it is an obligate carnivore.  

Okay, so here is the question.  Why are there grains in many brands of dry cat food?  Now, in the use of grains, there will be carbohydrates, but the type of carbohydrate may be different as some grains are low-carbohydrate and some are higher.  

Here is a very interesting study from nomnomnow.com.  “In one study, researchers found that on average, cats offered the choice of four cat foods (high fat, high carb, high protein and balanced) chose to get 43% of their calories from carbohydrates compared to just 30% from protein.  In another study, researchers observed that cats fed a higher-carb diet tended to restrict their eating (to restrict carb intake), which also had the effect of restricting protein and fat intake.”   Now as they point out, the taste or palatability can’t be controlled.  Cats that find a certain food tastier than another may have nothing to do with the “presence or absence of carbohydrates.”  

So, let’s separate grains from carbs for a minute.  In many formulas you will see carbs, even in grain free food.  Here is part of the ingredient panel that Rory eats in the senior.  After the protein there is a list.  Cranberries, blueberries, pumpkins etc.  Then, kelp, Taurine of course, spinach, yucca, green tea and so forth.  There is quite a bit.  The spinach and yucca are carbs.  So are carrots and asparagus for example.  This food is grain free but has healthy carbs.  As nomnomnow points out, these healthful carbs are “a great source of feline energy and nutrients that also happen to be highly palatable.” 

Now let’s look at grains that obviously contain carbs.  According to nomnomnow, the two reasons grains are in cat food are food cost and palatability.  But let’s look at a very popular pet specialty brand.  The protein in this case is chicken meal (look up my episode on fillers demystified to learn what meal is in pet food) followed by brewers rice, corn gluten meal, wheat gluten, brown rice, pea fiber, rice hulls, dried plain beet pulp.  Okay, corn and wheat are grains and carbs both with high glycemic index with natural sugars.  Research has shown that cats do not have sugar spikes from eating high glycemic index foods like a dog would, so that’s one thing.  In food brands that contain corn for example, the reasoning is usually that corn is a rich source of fatty acids for healthy skin and coat.  Grains in general according to vcacanada are “a good source of fiber vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.  Some grains provide easily digestible protein.  And even though cats are historically carnivores, their digestive tracts are pretty efficient at processing carbohydrates from grain.”    The gluten is a protein.  So, when you look at foods that contain wheat and corn for example, the company will argue that these are used as good sources of fatty acids and digestible protein.  But my question is, wouldn’t I want my carnivore cat to get most of its protein from animals?  In the wild, would I see a cat chowing down on a discarded ear of corn?  Would the cats be ravaging the wheat fields?  And if you remember my interview with Belinda Smith, she pointed out that often these ingredients are used as a binder for the animal protein, like adding an egg and breadcrumbs to your burger mix.  According to seniorcatwellness.com, cats digest carbs less efficiently than other animals because they only have small amounts of digestive enzymes required for digesting carbs.  For example cats have low levels of amylase in their pancreas.  This helps breakdown carbs.  According to Diamond foods, cats also “lack a liver enzyme glucokinase, which is responsible for converting glucose into a form that cells can use to make energy when the liver receives a large amount of glucose.”  “But because many cats eat smaller portions a healthy cat can efficiently digest and absorb and use dietary carbohydrates.”  

So of course when it comes to nutrition and biology it always sounds so complicated.  So, do cats need grains and carbs?  The answer is no.  Is there any health risk to having carbs in their diet? No, as long as the cat is a grazer meaning they eat several times throughout the day.  Is it the best choice for food?  Well that’s again debatable.  Here is something that nomnomnow recommends.  “While there is no research that indicates that grains are harmful for cats, we do know that grains are not a required component of a balanced feline diet.  As obligate carnivores, cats can get all the nutrients they need from a high-protein grain-free diet.  When considering any food, look at the overall balance of proteins and nutrients rather than being overly concerned with the presence or lack of presence of any specific ingredient.  As long as the nutritional building blocks are there, your cat will convert that food into the energy it needs to stay happy and healthy.”   Okay.  Sounds like good advice.  But, I wonder about foods that have most of the protein coming from grains and carbs instead of the meat? Wouldn’t it be nutritionally more sound to feed a carnivore meat despite being “able” to convert the grain or carb protein?  Personally, I don’t like the direction that a cat is “able” to convert the grain or carb protein.  To me that isn’t the way the system is ultimately designed to work.  I would rather have a meat forward formula with healthy carbs like spinach or yucca.  No, I wouldn’t see a cat eating spinach leaves either, but the main source of the protein in a meat forward food would be addressing the carnivore with the added benefit of the veg.  Also, I don’t like the cost of some of the foods that are quite heavy on the grains.  If I’m going to pay that kind of money, I want meat to be the first three ingredients.  So bottom line for me, I’ll stick with high quality grain free for my cats.  

Alright so we know about the structure of the dry food so why is it that many cats like certain foods and turn their nose up at others?  Cats, according to Animal path.org, react to food sometimes in an evolutionary way. Cats are driven to consume food that has a particular protein to fat ratio.  They do have taste buds but only 480 compared to the 9000 humans have.  And again, the sweet taste bud is pretty much non-existent as they are carnivores.  It’s the smell of food that really gets them interested.  Also, they like the idea of fat.  So when your cat loves yoghurt or ice cream it’s the fat they are after not the sweet taste.  Cats also have a funny reaction sometimes to trying new foods.  It’s possible that if a cat had not been introduced to a certain protein as a kitten, they will not venture into trying that protein.  This may explain why some cats will not eat fish.  Or sometimes cats will aversion eat or not eat.  If they have had a bad experience with a certain protein they often will not touch it again.  Basically cats taste sour, salty, bitter, meat or savory.  So because cats have limited taste abilities it would follow that they wouldn’t like every food put in front of them.  

Seeing as we are talking about dry cat food right now, you will notice that there are a lot of different proteins available.  As we now know, cats do have taste buds for meat and also the smell is very important to them.  What one cat likes as a protein another may not, so brands give a good selection so you can try a few to find the one your cat likes and also does well eating.  This means that their fur looks good, their weight is good and their stool is good.  You can also find formulas that are specific to weight control, indoor formulas that have more natural herbs that keep the stool smell down and less fat for an indoor cat, hairball formulas so in this case more fiber with grains to push those hairballs through.  There can also be urinary formulas to help with cats that have had crystal issues or to prevent them.  There are formulas for sensitive stomachs, you know for the cats that throw everything up.  There are formulas for senior cats so less fat and sometimes some more joint supplements included. Kitten for growing cats. There is also oral care where the kibble is a bit bigger to make them chew, but the formula should have some kind of enzyme in it to help break down plaque for it to really do anything.  And for cats that have allergies there are formulas that have limited ingredients meaning only one protein and grain free.  Bottom line on dry cat food is that it is in your best interest to feed a high quality dry food because the cat will poop less and smell less when he or she does.  Plus as we know, good nutrition keeps the vet visit down to a minimum.  

Okay, so let’s venture into wet food.  There are so many types and styles of wet food for cats it seems almost endless.  Cat wet food can come in, pate so a more solid food, stews with some veg and gravy, shredded where you can see the protein in shredded bits, slices in gravy, minced, pouch food that  can be like a very smooth pate to lots of gravy to bits and shredded meat.  It really does go on and on.  And these formulas can also come in senior, digestive, urinary, indoor, weight control and kitten.  The proteins just like the dry vary from chicken, salmon, duck, turkey, trout, combos of protein, you name it.  The trick is to find which style your cat likes.  Some cats are real pate eaters while others will only eat stew.  So, yes, you may go through a few varieties before you find one.  Now, I do not feed a lot of different canned foods.  I stick to about 2, maybe three but that’s it.  I rotate these cans but I try not to create pickiness by constantly changing the food.  Remember, the cats do not know there is a store full of different food, so when you’ve run the gamut, that cat may wonder why food is repeating and then we get, well he used to eat this but now he turns his nose up.  So just a suggestion.  In terms of eating wet food, it is a good thing as it contains a lot of the moisture that the cat will ingest.  But, some cats just are not wet food eaters so if that is the case, make sure they are drinking water regularly and you can try to increase their water intake by using an automatic waterer where the water is moving.  Some cats really increase their water intake when they have one of these.  But, for the wet food connoisseurs, again stick to the higher quality wet foods.  These canned foods do not have harsh smells so nor will your cat when he poops and again, he will poop less.  And something to try is to warm up the wet food when it comes out of the fridge.  Some cats do not like their wet food after it has been stored in the fridge.  This makes sense because as a carnivore they would eat their prey warm.  It’s worth a try if a cat is picky about this.  

So let’s touch on treats for a bit.  Again there are a lot of treats for cats.  I’m not big on giving treats all the time, but some people swear by it.  Treats can come in dental, hairball, and weight control.  They also come in crunchy, chewy, crunchy with chewy inside, and tubes that are fun.  It’s like a soft pate inside a tube and you push the product up as the cat licks it.  Rory loves these.  It’s hilarious to see his eyes so wide and focused.  He gets these on his birthday or if he catches a mouse or sometimes just for fun.  Cat treats too come in different qualities.  You can definitely pick up cat treats at the grocery store or the dollar store, but let me just give you a comparison of two types of treats.  A very, very popular brand has it’s ingredients in one formula as,  chicken, chicken meal, brewers rice, poultry by-product meal, wheat flour, corn gluten meal, animal fat preserved with mixed tocopherols, (remember in pet food when it says “animal” we don’t know what it is) pea starch etc.  Here is a Canadian brand I chose, ground pork liver, chicken, pork fat, oat bran, dried honey, organic pea flour, pumpkin, parsley, flax seed catnip, turmeric, sea salt, rosemary.  So, for me, I would choose this brand.  Yes, it will be more expensive than the first one.  You can get the first one at the dollar store.  If I see the word “animal” in an ingredient panel, I don’t want it.  No way.  And I know cats love those cheap ones, but Rory just doesn’t know they exit.  

And just a note on supplements for cats.  Cats can benefit greatly from natural supplements.  As I have said in the past, I managed Esme’s renal issues with Omega Alpha’s kidney tone for 2 years.  You can also help cats with supplements for boosting the immune system or for hip and joint.  It’s a bit harder to get supplements into cats because you have to be so careful as to how much you put into their wet food so they won’t turn their nose up.  If it’s really important to have a cat take a liquid supplement, sometimes you have to use a syringe.  And don’t forget that calming products can come in the form of a treat or liquid.  

I think the biggest thing I hear about cats when it comes to food is that they are picky and some are extremely picky.  People have tried so many types of canned food and have very little luck.  Some find that their cat will only eat one type of canned food and this has become a real issue lately as several companies are experiencing some major supply issues.  But, I don’t know if I would call a cat that eats only one food picky.  That cat to me sounds like they know what they like and as long as the product is available they are pretty low maintenance.  But, it has been a real challenge for many cat owners over this issue and supply.  The other thing is to read your labels as well.  Check out the amount of grains in the food.  Remember, all grains are carbohydrates but not all carbohydrates are grains.  Questions surrounding grain in cat food should be directed to an animal nutritionist and I would suggest a holistic animal nutritionist.  Personally, I’m on the grain free side for my cat and as I have said, I don’t want to pay some pretty huge bucks for certain brands that are full of grains when my cat is a carn-i-vore!

So, maybe going forward we can try and change the narrative about cats and their eating styles.  Cats are discerning, not picky.  They have limited taste buds so their food repertoire is not abundant.  We can live with that, we just have to learn their food language because as I say, knowing is caring.

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Val Cairney

Hi everyone, and welcome to Val Talk’s Pets, the forum for pet parents and enthusiasts alike. So, I have been working in the pet industry now for almost 10 years and, on a daily basis, I handle a lot of issues and questions arising from pet parents. I am not a veterinarian but I do have certifications in Canine, Feline, Small Animal, Fish and Herptile and Avian Health and Nutrition from the University of California, Davis Extension, the Vet College.

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