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Cat Food: Feeding FAQs

Drs. Foster & Smith Educational Staff
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Cat Food FAQs: Feeding

Can I feed my cat dog food?
Cats are not small dogs. And your cat's nutritional requirements are not the same as those of a dog. For example, cats require higher levels of protein than dogs. Cats must have the amino acid called taurine in their diet, whereas dogs can actually make their own taurine. A cat eating food deficient in taurine can develop severe heart disease and other health problems. Almost all cat foods now contain added taurine.

Your cat requires a different form of Vitamin A than dogs do. Dogs can use beta-carotene as a source of Vitamin A; cats cannot. Your cat cannot manufacture the fatty acid arachidonic acid and must have it supplemented in her diet; it is not essential for dogs to have this fatty acid in their food.

Essentially, if your cat is to eat a significant amount of dog food, she will be eating a diet deficient in many of her required nutrients. To ensure your cat's optimal health, be sure she eats quality cat - not dog - food.
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Can I feed my cat free-choice?
Whether you feed your pet free-choice (providing a constant food supply throughout the day) depends on the pet. If your pet is a "nibbler," you can put out the day's ration and let her eat it throughout the day. However, don't just fill the bowl whenever it becomes empty, or your pet will probably overeat and you will find it difficult to tell if the pet "goes off feed" (is not eating well).
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How can I stop my cat from gulping his food?
Some pets gulp an entire bowl of food down in a just a few seconds. This can cause stomach and digestive system upset because the animal takes in large amounts of air with the food. If your pet is a "gulper," place a large object in the food dish (forcing your pet to take more time and smaller bites as he eats around the obstruction). The object you place in your pet's bowl should be something that is too large for him to pick up in his mouth. Try a ping-pong ball for a cat, a baseball for a toy dog, a softball for a medium-size breed, and an even larger ball for large and giant breeds. If you have more than one pet, feed them separately to reduce competition for food. You may also try scattering dry food over a large area of floor or grass, forcing your pet to spend time finding and eating each individual piece of food.
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Should I follow the feeding guidelines on my cat food label?
You'll need to be a critical thinker when reading cat food feeding guidelines. First, there is usually a wide range of recommended quantities to be fed. Second, determining a quantity to be fed based on the weight of the pet is an extremely inaccurate way of feeding. Third, there is little consistency between brands in the recommended quantities to be fed. It is little wonder consumers are often confused about how much to feed their cat. As a general rule, the recommended amount on your cat food bag is rarely the actual amount that should be fed, but instead should be considered a rough starting point. Your cat's age, activity level, health, reproductive status, and even environmental temperature will influence the amount of food your cat should receive.
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So how should I feed my cat?
So where should you start? Start with the food itself. Avoid poor-quality foods - in addition to actually being more expensive (due to the increased quantities you'll need to fulfill nutritional requirements), poor-quality foods produce more waste and may create digestive or behavioral problems. Instead, choose a high-quality food and look at the recommendations on the label. Make sure you know your cat's weight (and projected target weight if necessary). Ask your veterinarian if you're not sure about an ideal weight for your cat. When determining the amount of food to feed, remember to factor in environmental variables and any additional calories from treats or table foods, and adjust the starting food amount accordingly.

Remember, most cats are overfed and under-exercised - so, if in doubt about how much to feed initially, feed a little less. After you have started feeding your cat an appropriate amount of food, weigh your cat at least once a month to determine if you (and your cat) are on the right track. If necessary, increase or decrease the amount of food slightly until the cat stays at his ideal weight. You can easily weigh your cat on your bathroom scale - simply weigh yourself while you hold your cat, then weigh yourself without your cat and subtract the difference.
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How should I switch my cat from one food to another?
Normal bacteria in the intestine help your cat digest her food. A sudden change in food can result in changes to the number and type of bacteria and their ability to help digest food. These changes can lead to intestinal upset. Therefore, a pet needs to be switched to a new food slowly. By 'slowly' we mean gradually over the course of 7-10 days. For example, make a mixture that contains 25% of the new food and 75% of the old food and feed that for several days. Then make it 50-50 for several days, then 75% new food to 25% old food for several days. Then you can start feeding 100% new food. If at any time your cat starts vomiting, has loose stools, or appears constipated, slow the rate at which you are switching the food.
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One of my cats is on a special diet. How can I make sure she doesn't eat the others' food?
If one of your cats requires a special diet, feed her in a room separate from your other pets' feeding area. If you have a cat with special dietary needs, try feeding her on a surface high above the other pets' food (such as a counter or table) where the other pets can't reach it. As another option, place food for a kitten or small cat inside a cupboard or closet with the door secured partially open, and make the opening too small/narrow for other pets to get through.
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At what age should I switch my kitten to adult food?
Most commercial kitten foods are developed to feed until 12 months of age. At that point, you can switch your kitten to adult cat food.
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What should I feed my pregnant/nursing cat?
If you didn't start a vitamin-plus-mineral supplement before breeding, start it now. Do not over-supplement, as that may be harmful to the developing kittens. If you are adding multiple supplements to the diet, make a list of all the ingredients, gather nutritional labels, and take everything to your veterinarian to make sure it is balanced. Poor diets may cause problems with the developing fetuses and with the queen.

The queen should eat a premium adult food prior to pregnancy and for the first few weeks of pregnancy. Starting the fourth week of pregnancy, begin adding a premium kitten food to her diet. Each week, increase the amount of the kitten food, so when she is in her final week of pregnancy, she is on all kitten food. Increase the frequency of the daily meals to three or free-feed her by mid-pregnancy. She may need to eat small meals every 3-4 hours during the last week of the pregnancy, as the kittens continue to take up more room (remember that most fetal growth occurs in the last two weeks of gestation).

During the last week of pregnancy and the first 3-4 weeks of lactating, she may eat 1½-2 times the amount she ate before pregnancy. As long as she is gaining a healthy amount and not becoming obese, she should receive the food.
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At what age should I switch my adult cat to senior food (or is this really necessary)?
Veterinarians generally consider a cat in the last third of his normal life expectancy to be "older." Of course, many exceptions exist, and if a cat is active and in good shape, he should continue to be fed and exercised as if he is a younger cat.
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My senior cat won't eat. What should I do?
Most importantly, if your cat is getting thin and not eating well, she should have a complete veterinary exam to rule out any possible disease problems. For a variety of reasons, some already finicky cats become even more so as they age. To encourage a cat to eat more, you can:

  • Warm canned or moistened dry food in the microwave to increase the aroma of the food. Be sure to stir the food before feeding it to your cat.
  • Add a little water from canned tuna to increase the aroma of your cat's food. Ask your veterinarian if your cat might also have small amounts of bacon drippings, hamburger grease, clam juice, chicken drippings, or baby food added to her normal diet.
  • Switch to canned food (if currently feeding dry food). Consider switching to special high-calorie, nutrient-dense diets made specially for "stressed" animals.
  • Feed smaller amounts of food more often. By offering a small amount of food several times each day, your cat may actually increase her total daily intake.
  • Ensure your cat has a quiet, stress-free place to eat. Be sure younger cats or other household pets are not harassing her when she eats.
  • Pet your cat and talk softly to her as she eats (but only if it does not disturb her).
  • Feed balanced, veterinarian-prescribed homemade diets.
  • Ask your veterinarian about short-term use of appetite stimulants.

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Is it ok to give cats even healthy table scraps?
You can give your cat table scraps, provided that they are low in fat and sugar, but treats developed for cats are a much better choice. Just make sure that treats or table scraps do not comprise more than 10% of your cat's total diet. If you do give your cat table scraps, give samples of foods such as rice, green beans, or a scrap of lean meat. Avoid fatty foods like chicken skin, or the scraps of fat you've trimmed off your dinner steak, as well as high-sugar foods like candy and baked goods.

Be aware, however, that by feeding table scraps, you'll typically have a lifelong "beggar" at your table whenever you eat. Further, feeding table scraps may encourage your cat to steal food left on the table unattended - some of which could be hazardous to your cat's health.
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