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Match Your Cat to Its Food

By Elizabeth Parker

Match Your Cat to Its Food

Cat food has come a long way in the last century. The first commercial pet food in America was a dog biscuit from England that arrived circa 1860. And while there's no record of how many pets were in America at the time, there are now approximately 81 million cats living in American households. To meet the needs of this huge population, cat food has not just grown in quantity, but it has advanced in quality and variety, too.

Walk down the aisles at a pet store and you'll see food for growing kittens, aging cats and fat cats. There is food that helps avoid urinary tract trouble and food that prevents teeth and gum problems. There's food for sensitive digestive systems, food that prevents hairballs and food for indoor cats. How do you know if your cat needs to be eating any of these specialized foods? Here's information to help you to decide:

What the Categories Mean
Specialized food bought in a store can target the unique nutritional needs in a cat's life stage, as well as lessen the chances and help control certain health problems. Nine cat food categories to choose from include:

  • For kittens
    Food for kittens is fortified with vitamins and minerals that ensure proper bone, brain and vision development. It can also include antioxidants that may help to strengthen a kitten's immune system.
  • For older cats
    Cat food designed for older cats is often made to be more flavorful (since they can lose a sense of taste and eat less than they need) and more easily digestible (to make sure they get the needed nutrition). "Older" for cats generally means seven years of age or higher, says Robert Flecker, DVM, of Hillside Veterinary Group in Portland, Ore.
  • For hairball prevention
    Cats regularly swallow their own fur while grooming themselves, and this can result in vomiting clumps of undigested hair. Although this is harmless to the cat, it can be unpleasant for you. Cat food that prevents this includes ingredients that cause the fur to be more easily passed through the cat's digestive system. If your cat's hairball problem persists, Dr.Flecker recommends taking your pet to its veterinarian to rule out any  underlying illness, such as inflammatory bowel disease.
  • For urinary tract health
    Has your cat suffered from urinary tract problems in the past? Nutrition providing reduced urinary pH and low dietary magnesium can help maintain your cat's urinary tract health.
  • For sensitive digestive systems
    Cats with sensitive digestive systems might benefit from foods that combine complex carbohydrates, like rice, with easy-to-digest protein, such as that from eggs. Some foods made for cats with sensitive stomachs contain fiber combinations that also help to keep tummy troubles at bay.
  • For the overweight or indoor cat
    Food formulated for overweight or indoor cats is lower in calories, since indoor cats are generally less active than they would be if they were in the wild. Is your cat overweight? If its abdomen is large and round, and your feline has trouble walking, the answer could be "yes," and you should check out the lower calorie selections. If you're not sure about your cat's weight status, ask your veterinarian.
  • For a healthy, shiny coat
    If your cat's coat is looking dull, first establish a regular brushing routine, because brushing helps to remove tangles and to redistribute natural oils. For extra good measure, consider feeding a cat chow designed to make your feline's coat shinier. Because this type of food often contains fish oils, it nourishes your cat's skin, which can result in healthier-looking fur.
  • For multi-cat households
    If your household has several adult cats in residence, there's even a category of cat food just for you. Multi-cat household food provides overall good nutrition, including high level protein for energy, as well as ingredients that can help reach an optimal weight, so the cats may all benefit from one food.
  • For teeth and gum health
    Another cat health issue concerns teeth problems related to gum disease. Several cat food companies offer dental diet foods that are especially  crunchy, so that when a cat chews, plaque doesn't have a chance to build  up, says Dr. Flecker. If you suspect your cat has gum disease, take it to the doctor. Signs include red and swollen gums as well as bad breath and sometimes even weight loss.

How to Choose and Introduce a New Food
First, keep in mind your cat's age, since some foods are linked to a cat's stage of life. For the other categories, consider the health concerns you have for your cat and buy foods that will help lessen the chances of those problems.

Cats are famously finicky about food, so introducing a new food requires attention on your part. "I recommend easing a cat onto a special diet over a period of a week," says Dr. Flecker, who offers this sequence:

  • For the first two days, your cat's meals should consist of 25% of the new food and 75% the food it's used to.
  • For the next two days, adjust that ratio to 50-50. Then, in the following two days, shift the percentage to 75% new food and 25% old food.
  • Thereafter, feed your cat 100% new food and you should get no complaints.

The Bottom Line
Above all, when considering your cat's food, go for the best you can buy. "I recommend premium quality cat food," says Dr. Flecker. "Ideally, it should be food that has been tested in food trials." To find out if a pet food company has done this, simply check the company's web site or call their customer care telephone number and ask.

The advances in cat nutrition must be working, as the percentage of cats older than six years of age has nearly doubled in just over a decade, according to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Dedicated animal lover Amy Reichbach of Los Angeles, Calif., can attest to that fact. Reichbach's beloved cat, Iris, accompanied her through college and into the early years of her marriage. "As she got older I gave Iris the best senior diet food," says Reichbach, who adds that Iris lived to be nearly 80 in human years.

Elizabeth Parker has written for The Boston Globe, Shape, Glamour, Viv and many other publications. She is co-author of Heeling Your Inner Dog: A Self-Whelp Book (Times Books) and currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, cat and two rabbits.

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Posted on January 10, 2010

Joy says: I would suggest mixing some dry food with the wet. You can let it sit with the wet to soften the dry but that way he'll get full, less diarhia & less possiblity of dehydration.

Posted on February 26, 2009

Laura says: My cat is 11 years old and has had crystals in the past and has always had a problem with hairballs and vomiting. She has been on urinary health dry food for several years, but I want to give her something to help with her digestion aswell. Is there such a product?

Posted on January 5, 2010

lynn says: my cat came to me at 14 years of age. I feed him friskies canned food. He has lost alot of his back teeth so he needs something softer. But the food seems to go right through him, he has diarhia and he is hungrey 30 minutes after he eats. His fur is falling out and I cant afford expensive food. He is always hungry I feel so bad for him. Please help me and tell me what I can feed him that wont cost me alot and he wont spend so much time in the litter box.

Posted on February 6, 2008

sherry says: my cat drinks alot of water. i am aware of kidney problems associated with this. i took her to a vet, but didn't tell me much. what can i do? what diet should she be on? she is a senior cat

Posted on January 5, 2008

Jeremy Hawk says: Since you have already gottten rid of the plastic cat food bowls, the next step is to use natural apple cider vinegar (not the kind in grocery stores) to clear up acne. Start by using a dilution of one part apple cider vinegar to three parts water for a week. Next, make a mixture of one part vinegar to two parts water and use this for a week. You may want to continue with this strength. Some people will go on to use the apple cider vinegar straight, undiluted, but straight vinegar may be irritating to others. Apply the vinegar mixture to pimples with a cotton ball. This clears up the acne and helps to get rid of the red marks from past break-outs.-- If you are not able to purchase this type of apple cider vinegar, there are two shampoos that have the same ingredients needed to clear the acne. The names of these shampoos are Oxydex, and Pyoben shampoo. A prescription is needed for the pyoben while, for the time being, Oxydex is otc. If you purchase one of the shampoos, the directions are given through this link: Good luck!!!

Posted on July 26, 2008

Mary says: My female cat will not eat dry food, unless it is mixed in with her wet food. I sometimes leave for a few days and have the automatic cat feeder that is on a timer and also has cold packs. I was wondering about the freshness of the food for that long. I know the ice packs don't stay cold for 3 days. Is there another way I can keep the food "cold" so it stays fresh while being opened. Also, Is it okay to leave leftover cans with a lid on - on the counter for the next serving. My cats won't eat cold food.

Posted on December 26, 2007

Carla Kooij says: Please tell me how to cure our cat's chin acne. He is almost 8 years old and has just started getting it -- several spots under his chin. They used to bleed, and scab over and he'd scrath them. We thought he fell out of his cat tree at first, and hit his chin. We took him to our vet and she said "Cat Acne!" How can our cat suddenly get this? Should we eliminate certain new foods we've been giving him ? Could this be causing some kind of allergies to affect his chin? Is putting animax on the best thing? We did get rid of his plastic bowls ...

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