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Mother cats don’t have to think twice about what they feed their offspring. They simply lay back and let nature take its course. In the first days after birth, mother cats produce colostrum, a condensed milk that provides kittens with antibodies that strengthen their immune system. In the weeks that follow before weaning, the milk that cats produce is high in protein and relatively low in fats and carbohydrates. It provides little ones with all the nutrients they need.
For human “parents” of kittens and cats, feeding doesn’t come quite as naturally. If you fall into the human-caretaker-of-a-feline category, chances are you’ve had some concern about whether you’re feeding your cat for optimal health. Rest assured that with a little bit of education and advice from veterinary expert, Trisha Joyce, DVM, of New York City Veterinary Specialists, you can deliver all the nutrients that your furry friends need in a way that’s on par with mama cat’s success.
What All Cats Needs
The same nutrients are essential for all cats, no matter their stage of life, according to Dr. Joyce. As for many other mammals, these include water, protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
While a cat’s basic nutritional needs remain the same throughout its lifetime, what changes are your feline’s caloric needs. Growing and pregnant cats, for example, require more calories than other felines. The way your cat processes nutrients throughout its life cycle also changes. Other nutritional need differences exist, based on the age and condition of your feline. These begin right at kittenhood.
A kitten grows much faster than a human baby. In its first weeks, a kitten’s body weight may triple. Rapid growth continues for around the first six months of its life. This spurt is fueled by calories -- lots of them. “Kittens should be eating commercial growth formulas,” explains Joyce. “These are specifically for young cats and are higher in protein content. That’s the main difference. They support growth and weight gain, which you want for kittens.”
Take-Away Tip: Feed your little love a food specially formulated for kittens.
While weight gain is desirable among kittens, a steady weight is the goal for adult cats. “As kittens become cats, they become more sedentary, and they’re no longer growing. They need less calories than they once did,” says Joyce, noting that obesity is a growing problem among American house pets. “Your adult cat’s nutritional needs should be met but not exceeded.” To allow weight gain in mature cats is to put them a risk for chronic health conditions like diabetes, liver disease and arthritis.
A veterinarian can monitor your adult cat’s weight, but you must also be attentive to your cat’s physique. You should be able to feel your cat’s ribs and see a small tapering of a waist between your cat’s rib cage and hips. If a weight problem develops, you can address it by participating in active play with kitty, and also by feeding a commercial weight control diet, which provides less dietary fat without sacrificing necessary nutrients.
Take-Away Tip: Address weight gain immediately by feeding a weight-control formula.
The Stork’s Coming
A pregnant cat’s body is working hard to gestate her kittens, and her caloric needs go up accordingly. At the same time, a pregnant cat can lose her appetite. A nutrient-dense, savory food can tempt a mommy-to-be to eat enough, and the easiest way for a cat owner to provide this is, surprisingly, kitten chow. Caloric needs remain high -- two to three times higher than normal -- during lactation. A nursing mother should continue to eat food made for kittens. Once her babies are weaned, mom can then switch to an adult maintenance, or weight control, formula to lose the baby weight.
Take-Away Tip: Mother your soon-to-be mother by feeding a kitten food formula.
“Geriatric cats often have medical issues,” says Joyce. For example, many elderly cats are diagnosed with kidney insufficiency, a common condition that causes toxins to build up in your feline’s blood stream. For cats affected with this condition, a multi-stage renal diet can be introduced to provide the right amount of protein. There are also special diets formulated for more benign health problems, like hairballs. Your veterinarian can suggest the appropriate food plan for your geriatric cat when the time comes.
Take-Away Tip: Feed your older cat according to its health-related needs.
With a little bit of attention to your cat’s life stage, feeding your feline for optimal health throughout its lifecycle can therefore be as simple as a trip to your favorite store’s pet food aisle.
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.