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The Feline Food Pyramid

By Darcy Lockman

The Feline Food Pyramid

Cat owner Amy Morgan, 32, of Brooklyn, New York, has gone to great lengths to eat a balanced diet. A vegan, Morgan had to do her research to make sure she was getting all the nutrients she needed, and she started with the government’s Food Guide Pyramid. Despite her human nutrition savvy, Morgan feels uncertain about what her seven-year-old calico cats, Mashy and Ruki, need. “I know what balanced nutrition for people looks like, but not so much for cats,” she says. “Are they getting everything they could for optimal health?”

While no federal department oversees kitty consumption, veterinary nutritionists specialize in structuring balanced diets for cats. “The best thing is probably a commercial food with a nutrition claim certified by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO,” says veterinary nutritionist Sally Perea, DVM. AAFCO sets standards and enforcement policies for regulating the manufacture, distribution and sale of animal feeds, including cat food.

Below, with the help of Dr. Perea, we have gone beyond AAFCO statements to construct a four-group Feline Food Pyramid Guide to complement the popular USDA graphic.

Meaty Mainstay
The bottom of the feline food pyramid, the largest part, represents the victuals group your furry friend needs the most -- animal protein. Felines are “obligate carnivores,” which means that they must consume meat to get all of the nutrients they need. “At least twenty-five percent of their calories should come from protein,” emphasizes Dr. Perea, who is also an assistant clinical professor at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. She notes that this need separates them from dogs and humans. “Without enough protein, cats break down their own muscle quicker than we would.”

Animal protein also contains preformed Vitamin A, integral to growth as well as maintaining healthy skin and hair. While people and dogs can synthesize A from the beta-carotene in plant pigment, cats cannot. They rely completely on animal sources. “Carrots will not meet their vitamin requirement,” says Dr. Perea.

Finally, in order to avoid heart and eye problems, cats need the amino acid taurine. Cats cannot synthesize taurine from other amino acid precursors. They have to get it straight from animal tissue. Taurine helps your feline to form what are called biliary salts, which are necessary for digestion of fats in your cat’s small intestine. Taurine also supports feline vision, heart function, the nervous system and reproduction. 

Fat Cat
While animal protein is the mainstay of the feline food pyramid, your cat also needs animal fat to thrive. Indeed, fat fills the second-largest slot in the pyramid. “A mouse is almost half fat,” points out Dr. Perea, referring to a feline’s diet in the wild. Cats specifically need a fatty substance called arachidonic acid, an Omega-6 fatty acid essential for energy production. This acid is not found in vegetable oils, only in animal fat. Additionally, fish fat provides Omega-3 fatty acid, which may prevent a host of inflammatory conditions that could affect everything from your cat’s arteries to its urinary tract.

Grains Prevent Pains
Grains are second from the top in the feline food pyramid. Cats require less fiber than protein or fat, but they do need it. Carbohydrates are not only an energy source for cats, but they also aid digestive functioning. “Fiber can help with the health of the large intestine,” says Dr. Perea, “It makes for a healthier gastrointestinal tract.”

Fruits and Veggies
While you don’t need to start feeding your cat green salads and fruit cups, you may want to seek out a cat food that contains them, or at least lists the antioxidant Vitamin E found in green leafy vegetables as well as apples, berries and mangos, to name a few. Vitamin E plays a role in the formation and maintenance of cells, and also in the metabolism of fats. Cats benefit from the nutrients in fruits and vegetables, if only in small amounts. 

The USDA may not be offering nutritional advice for cats any time soon, but educated cat owners can nevertheless ensure that their four-legged friends get all the nutrients they need. With the right proportions from the right food groups, your pet’s diet will satisfy the feline food pyramid guidelines while satisfying your feline’s hunger, too.

Darcy Lockman is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Daily Cat. Her work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times and Rolling Stone.

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Posted on July 22, 2008

Cassie says: My cat is overwheight. That's because she is eating to much. (At least that's what my mom thinks.) But my vet says she shouldn't eat the "wheight watching" diets yet. I try to play with her, give her less treats, giving her less food, and it seems like I tried everything! Now I have no idea what to do. I need help from profesinals. I know that this isn't a comment but, what in the kitty world should I do? Please. I'm afraid if we don't do anything about it she might not make it as many years that she's supossed to. Help me, please. I'm kind of worried about her. I love cats and how can I show that without a cat to love? Thank you very much, and I hope you will be a great help! Keep making kitties happy!

Posted on July 5, 2008

Ohad says: dear elizia, i'm sorry to hear that you are even considering bringing her back to the pound.. i have some advice that might help.. 1) time - everything takes time with cats.. let her take her time, and dont try rushing anything, it will only make the cat regress. 2) it is cat not a dog. you need to prove yourself for it to trust you! this takes time.. depending on the cat, even a few months. a cat showes it's affection in different ways to dogs, 3) the more "depressed" you get from your cat, the worse the relationship will be! Simply stop EXPECTING anything from your cat.. if your cat is comfortable sitting with you in a room, be thankful! if it agrees to eat infront of you, feel flatered! it seems silly at the begining, but you said you love her, this helps you to learn how to respect her and her needs. at the end of the day, our cats also train us! to put it simply you might be it's owner, but you dont OWN it.. nobody "owns" a cat.. dont let it bring you down, it's a fact of life :) 4)Her house is your house, and not the other way around! a cat needs to feel in complete control of it's surroundings (i.e, your home) help her feel welcome by placing toys all around, a scratching post, and a few resting places. AND NOW FOR THE BITING.. after you get your cat all comfortable and settled in her surroundings, try feeding her from your hand. At first, you might have to place the food next to you a few times, and soon kitty will see that you are it's food source! it will want to be around you, as you mean food! try putting some tuna water, or other kitty spreadable treat on your finger, and let kitty lick it off. the little furball may take it's time until it is ready to do that, REMEMBER - if the cat is licking your finger, IT TRUSTS YOU! if it bites while licking, make a high pitched soft "squeek" and whatever happens, dont get angry at it.. it is only learing where the food ends and finger begins.. i promise you that after a bite or two by accident it will stop. it wouldn't ever want to hurt the hand that is feeding it! hope it helps, good luck!

Posted on July 3, 2008

elzia says: my cat is afraid of my hands. i have mistakenly reinforced her bad habit of biting and being afraid. i do not know what to do to correct this. i love her and i do not want to return her to the pound. i am getting more and more depressed at not having the companion i thought i had. she bites when i pet her. i do not know what to do help please!!

Posted on June 29, 2008

Wilma Lamb says: Thanks for all of the good information re any form of cat care. I have one kitty susceptible to upper urinary tract infections and a tomcat with feline AIDS. He is thriving and gaining weight. I especially like advice on kitty nutrition

Posted on May 21, 2008

Constance says: I have (7) cats that were feral when they arrived at my house. It seems like they have had one health issue after another, the latest being a bout of severe cystitus in (2) of the males. Is there a reasonably priced practical diet (and perhaps a supplement)that I can feed all of them that will help maintain good urinary tract health. I'd also like to know just how much to feed....they always seem hungry. I'm mixing a small can with a little dry food at each feeding for each group. There are (4) in one litter and (3) in the other. Thank you, Constance Sowers

Posted on May 18, 2008

Emily says: I bought my kitten soft food by 9Lives. It does follow the AAFCO nutrition guidelines. But is there any other cat food that has a higher percentage of vitamins, taurine, and grains. Keep in mind I am a college student with tuition and other living fees. Thanks.

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