Nutritional advice to dispel the myth of the fat & happy house cat
By Peaks Pet Nanny, Aimée Fiorini
When I was a kid, I remember watching the cartoon “Garfield”. Here is a cat who loved to gobble down his countless boxes of lasagna in one sitting and sleep all day long. Garfield represented the quintessential fat, happy, lazy house cat. I used to think that was a cute image for a cat, but I don’t think feline obesity is cute anymore. I now see a very unhealthy and sick cat. Just as Americans are facing their own obesity issues, so are their beloved feline friends. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), a startling 54% of cats are now considered to be overweight, which leads to related health issues such as diabetes, renal failure, gastrointestinal problems like vomiting and Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD), and a general lack of energy. All of these ailments usually have one clear factor in common: nutrition! Proper feline species-specific nutrition is what will help your cat maintain or return to good health.
Unfortunately, your veterinarian may offer misguided nutritional advice. Most veterinarians are not trained in nutrition and are usually sold claims from pet food companies that their latest specified formula will help cure your cat’s IBD and kidney issues. Companies such as Science Diet want you to believe you are spending money on the market’s most nutritious cat food, when in truth you are spending money on a food-like substance that is detrimental to your cats’ long-term health. Vets and food companies are only starting to realize that cats are obligate carnivores which, according to Margaret Gates from feline-nutrition.org, means cats eat meat by necessity.
There are three simple rules for you to consider when buying cat food: high water content, high animal protein content, and a low carbohydrate ingredient list. The ancestors of our domesticated cats lived in the desert where water was scarce, so their primary water source came from prey: birds, lizards, bugs, mice, rabbits, etc. Fresh meat contains every vitamin and amino acid cats need to stay healthy. The high water content hydrates and clears out toxins from the kidneys, helping them to feel full. Dry food, on the other hand, creates an excess of buildup in the kidneys. Overweight cats will binge on dry food because they are overcompensating for the lack of water and meat in their diet. As veterinarian Guillermo Díaz from feline-nutrition.org writes,
“When cats are given a water-depleted diet, i.e. dry kibble, the minerals from the food and metabolism build up in the bladder because of the reduced frequency of urination, producing hyper-concentrated, over-saturated urine leading finally to blockage. One can think of it this way: if you keep adding sugar to a cup of water, at some point the water can’t dilute any more and it begins to precipitate out at the bottom of the cup.”
Male cats are much more susceptible to having urinary tract diseases because their urinary tract systems are much smaller than the female systems. This is why the amino acid called taurine is so important. Taurine keeps a cat’s kidneys, eyes, heart, and brain healthy. Particularly essential for males, taurine forms ureic acid which breaks down any crystals that may form in the kidneys to ensure a healthy urinary tract. A blocked urinary tract plus excess weight will inevitably lead to painful, expensive surgery—surgery that could be avoided by simply having a proper diet.
Dry food started out of necessity by pet food companies during World War II. The metal used in canned food was being used to help the war effort. Todays dry food still uses a lot of carbs and plant proteins to make up the bulk of the food to keep manufacturing costs down. Rice bran, potatoes, pea protein, soy, and wheat are the most common harmful ingredients found as these bulking agents. If you absolutely feel that you need dry food in your cat’s diet, please use it as a supplement to your cat’s wet food and check the ingredients list.
For those of you who have a cat like Garfield who is already deemed overweight, I have a plan outlined that will absolutely help him to lose weight. Please be aware that specific meats or ingredients that may be okay for one cat may not be okay for another cat. Do your research and then slowly change the diet so you don’t disrupt your cat’s delicate digestive system.
No grazing on dry food!
If a human were to sit with a whole box of doughnuts, bowl of spaghetti, cakes, sugary cereals, etc. in front of him day long, he is going to find it hard to ignore the temptation of sugar. The same principle goes for cats. If you put a high carb food in front of your cat, he/she is going to eat it! Instead, food should be given only twice a day. According to aspca.org, food should be placed in front of the cat for only 30 minutes at a time. Whatever they don’t eat should be thrown out or put back into the refrigerator.
Determine portion sizes
One thing pet food companies do well is indicating the portion sizes of the food according to the size of your pet. Try to gauge the portion of food your cat will need by his size and level of activity. For example, a small active kitten will need maybe 4 or 5 small servings of food throughout the day while an adult cat who is not as active will only need 2 servings of food in the morning and at nighttime. Most cats eat a can of food a day. If you are trying to bring down your cat’s weight, try feeding him half a can in the morning and half a can in the evening. If your cat is begging for more food, try splitting the cans up into thirds or fourths so that your cat feels more satiated throughout the day.
High water content, high animal protein content, very little to no additives, and absolutely NO GRAINS!!
I cannot emphasize enough how grains are so damaging to a cat’s system over the long-term. Consider switching to a higher quality canned food that contains absolutely NO GRAINS and the first few ingredients are actually meat. If you compare Hill’s Science Diet Perfect Weight Dry Food to Nature’s Variety Instinct Rabbit Wet formula, the ingredients are drastically different. The first four ingredients in Science Diet are chicken, brewers rice, corn gluten meal, and wheat Gluten. The first four ingredients in Nature’s Variety are rabbit, pork liver, water, and ground flaxseed. While the chicken protein in Science Diet may be positive, rice, corn gluten meal, and wheat gluten are unnecessary carbohydrates and will not help with weight loss. On the other hand, the rabbit, pork liver, and water in Nature’s Variety are all very nutritious ingredients and will give the cat energy. While a cat may not need flaxseed, it does help improve their coat.
If at all possible, avoid carrageenan, guar gum, and xanthan gum. The thickener carrageenan has been proven to be especially harmful to both cats’ and humans’ gastro-intestinal health.
If you really feel that you have to give your cat dry food, only give him or her a small serving size, and not a heaping pile of dry food that will be left out for days. If your cat does not like wet food, try to introduce some wet food into the dry food mixed. Also, try different brands with different types of meats to interest your cat.
Play with your cat!
This step should be the easiest. Not only will you get to bond with your cat, this playtime helps burn off some of those calories. Try to aim for at least 20 minutes a day and try games that will get your cat running and jumping. Maybe try taking your cat out on a leash in the backyard. Your cat will appreciate any time he or she has with you.
Find other ways to clean your cat’s teeth!
When I have told people how bad dry food is bad for their cat, the usual reaction I hear is, “But it cleans my cat’s teeth!” Actually, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I also once believed that dry kibble cleaned the cat’s teeth, but upon further research I found that cats, like humans, can develop tooth decay from eating carbohydrates. Wild cats eating a high protein diet would clean their teeth naturally by chewing on the bones of their prey…but, unless you understand how to properly prepare raw diets, I wouldn’t suggest giving your cat bones.
The best way to clean your cat’s teeth is to actually learn how to brush them. I know the prospect of putting your fingers into your cat’s mouth may sound terrifying, but it can be done! The one positive aspect to brushing a cat’s teeth is that only the outside perimeter needs to be cleaned; their rough tongues actually clean the inside area of the teeth. I use a poultry flavored toothpaste from CET Virbac. The whole process of desensitizing my cat to the toothpaste and toothbrush only took me about three weeks. She now looks forward to having her teeth brushed since she loves the toothpaste.
Another simple way to promote clean teeth is to give your cat a toy from the brand Petstages. Their toys have netting on them that can help clean the teeth.
Lastly, there are treats specifically for dental care but I cannot attest to the effectiveness of them. Treats by Greenies and CET Virbac are fairly popular choices.
I know some of these methods may sound a bit controversial and require changes in your daily routine, but I see these steps as an investment that will keep your cat happy and healthy over a longer period of time. I have seen the difference a healthy diet makes in my own cat at home. She never had a weight problem, but she did have digestive issues. When I had just adopted her as a kitten, she was used to eating Friskies dry and wet food at her foster family’s home. We soon learned just how much the soy, corn, and gluten added to Friskies gave her diarrhea and eye-watering gas. Through changing her diet to better quality food, her coat is more beautiful than ever and she no longer has the horrible gas. She has so much energy that she zooms across the house at full speed and just enjoys her cat life.
My previous cat Itty Bitty went through renal failure in her old age. She used to eat dry food until it caused her to vomit constantly. The vet suggested Science Diet which was expensive and made no difference. As soon as we took her off dry food, she stopped vomiting for the last years of her life.
If you take the time to learn about proper nutrition for your cat, I guarantee that he will become the new slim and trim energetic Garfield. He’s just waiting for you to give him a chunk of meat instead of reheated frozen lasagna.