Cat Food That Maintains Healthy Digestion

Virginia-based emergency veterinarian Katy Nelson has seen the results of cat food with low digestibility. “You can spot a cat on a high-fiber diet a mile away,” Nelson says. “Its skin is dull, and its coat is far from pretty.” Obese cats, once routinely fed high-fiber diets in order to promote weight loss, were basically wasting away as the nutrients they needed to absorb from their food went out of their body in the form of waste.

Increasingly, veterinarians and cat food manufacturers agree that cats need to feast on foods with moderately fermentable fibers. Nelson shares her advice for identifying digestive issues and looking for specific ingredients in your cat’s food to ensure that it’s getting all the nutrients it needs to thrive.

Identifying Digestive Troubles

Unfortunately, the best way to identify whether or not your cat has digestive problems is to check its poop. Stools that are too hard or too soft may be an indication that your cat is either not absorbing nutrients from food, or that the food does not have the proper nutrients to keep the digestive tract healthy in the first place.

“If your cat is having problems with elimination or vomiting, you need to work with your veterinarian to investigate what is going on. If you haven’t changed your pet’s diet and it has diarrhea for more than two or three days, vomits multiple times a day or has any blood in its stool, this indicates something more serious than improper digestion,” says Nelson. Once your veterinarian has ruled out conditions like pancreatitis, parasites and inflammatory bowel disease, it’s time to talk about food.

Best Ingredients for GI-healthy Diets

  • Beet Pulp The term “digestibility” refers to how easily food goes down -- and how readily absorbable its ingredients make its nutrients. According to Nelson, the best fiber source is moderately fermentable, which comes in the form of beet pulp.
  • Prebiotics These are ingredients that promote the gut’s natural, good bacteria while keeping the bad bacteria in check. The next ingredient on Nelson’s list of must-haves is the prebiotic fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which crowds out the bad bacteria and feed the good.
  • Grain Sorghum and Corn Research has found that the combination of these complex carbohydrates also enhances digestibility. providing a stable source of energy throughout the day.

The above ingredients also enhance gastrointestinal tract health, allowing your cat to absorb vitamins, minerals and other beneficial components, like vitamin A and fish oils.

Prescription Formula

If your cat is having digestive problems despite being on a diet with beet pulp and prebiotics, talk to your vet about a veterinary intestinal formula. “I often try a prescription diet for a short period, and then taper off to a nonprescription food,” says Nelson. “The prescription diet usually serves as a temporary solution. Once the pet gets through a tough time, we go back.” She adds that some cats may need to remain on the veterinary-prescribed food. “It’s more expensive, but less so than continuous trips to the vet. If you find something that works, you can stick with it.”

It’s important to note that GI tract problems are often stress-related. “Whether their favorite person is away from home or they have a fun new cat tree, the adrenal glands secrete cortisol, which can lead to an imbalance of bacteria in the gut and can require treatment with antibiotics,” she explains. Taking care of your cat’s GI tract will help to ensure that you and your pet can enjoy each other’s company for many meals to come.

7 Food Ingredients for Your Cat’s Health

Feeding a high-quality cat food containing at least seven special enhancements will fuel your cat’s daily activities and safeguard its health, says registered veterinary technician Jennifer Taylor.

Some of the key enhancements are glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health, dental care formula to reduce tartar buildup, L-carnitine to help metabolize fat, and higher levels of antioxidants to support a healthy immune system. Veterinarian Amy Dicke shares more information about these and other ingredients.

1. Two Fibers Better Than One
Fiber cleans out your cat’s system and promotes a healthy digestive tract. Some cat foods now include a one-two fiber punch, doubling up on this ingredient.

Look for beet pulp and fructooligosaccharides (FOS) on the ingredient list of cat food. “Beet pulp, a moderately fermentable fiber, releases short-chain fatty acids, which are used as energy by the intestinal cells, thereby boosting their capability to absorb nutrients,” says Dicke. FOS, on the other hand, “selectively feeds the beneficial bacteria and promotes balance in the digestive tract,” she adds.

2. Antioxidants
Antioxidants help prevent oxidation, which forms “free radicals” in your body. Free radicals are rogue oxygen molecules that can dangerously react with other molecules, leading to health problems. The same thing may happen to your cat and other mammals.

As a result, some cat foods now contain antioxidants like vitamin E and beta-carotene, the natural component that adds color to many vegetables. These antioxidants have been shown to improve immune function in dogs and cats, says Dicke. “A strong immune system is important in fighting and protecting against disease and invaders, such as bacteria and viruses,” she says.

3. Glucosamine and Chondroitin
The dynamic duo of glucosamine and chondroitin has eased the minds of arthritis patients because it plays an important role in nourishing and supporting joint health. These components occur naturally in your joints, as well as in the joints of cats and other mammals.

4. Dental Care Formula
While nothing can substitute regular dental cleanings and exams at your veterinarian’s office, what you feed your cat can help prevent the formation of tartar. “Tartar is a hard, yellow-brown accumulation of minerals, which can cause gum regression, gum inflammation and loss of teeth,” says Dicke.

Feeding your cat crunchy kibbles made of high-quality ingredients is one way you can help slow tartar from building up on your pet’s teeth.

5. L-carnitine

L-carnitine is a naturally occurring vitaminlike compound that plays a vital role in the metabolism of fat. Dicke explains that L-carnitine helps dogs and cats gain a desired body composition by promoting the loss of weight and fat while maintaining lean body tissue.

6. Prebiotics

A prebiotic, such as FOS, is actually a fiber. The enzymes in your cat’s digestive tract do not digest it. “Instead, the bacteria in the intestinal tract break the fiber down and use it for food,” says Dicke. “What makes a prebiotic different from other fibers is it feeds, or supports, the good bacteria -- not the bad -- helping the good bacteria grow.”

7. Natural, High-quality Ingredients

The final enhancement is natural, high-quality ingredients. Sometimes what’s not included in cat food is just as important as what is on the ingredient list. In this case, you should look for cat foods that do not contain any added fillers, artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.

Given the nutritional and medical benefits of the above ingredients in cat foods on the market today, you can rest easy knowing that you are feeding your furry pal some of the best food available.

How Cat Food Is Made and Tested

Before your favorite quality cat food gets to your pet’s bowl, it goes through a complex development process, during which pet food researchers, nutritionists and scientists figure out the best recipes.

“They’ve got as many Ph.D.s and doctorates on staff as any of the pharmaceutical companies,” says Dr. Katy J. Nelson, an emergency veterinarian who works on pet nutrition. “They’re trying to make a product that is going to be the sole thing that these animals are going to survive on, so they have to make sure they have everything in there that could possibly be needed to sustain life and enhance the well-being of these animals.”

Finding the Right Recipe
It can take years for a new cat food to progress from a concept to a food you can buy at your local pet store. In addition to keeping up with the latest nutrition and scientific research, pet food makers also work with cat owners to explore what would best meet the needs of particular cats, beyond the basics. “Getting the idea is the easy part,” says Nelson. “Developing the food and making it into a great product is the hard part.”

Dr. Amy Dicke, a Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian who has worked with teams of nutritionists and researchers agrees: “Innovative nutrition starts with research.”

Here is a rundown on the different stages of developing a new cat food:

1. Formula development
Cat food formulas have their beginnings with research teams of nutritionists, behaviorists and veterinarians, says Dicke. During this stage, raw ingredients are evaluated for functional qualities, nutrient availability and digestibility.

2. Product and process development
Many factors can affect formulas for cat food, such as cooking temperature, cooking duration and even the order in which ingredients are added, says Dicke. Cat food makers will produce small sample quantities of test formulas in their laboratories and make adjustments to find the best combination of production efficiency, production capability and nutritional enhancement for every formula.

3. Analysis
An expert team of chemists, biologists, microbiologists and lab technicians evaluates the test cat food formula for proper levels of nutrients.

4. Palatability testing
“Even the most nutritious pet food is worthless if the dog or cat won’t eat it,” says Dicke. During this stage, cat food formulas are by cat “taste-testers.” Instead of primarily relying on pets in research setting, some pet food makers now recruit cats for palatability testing in their own home environment.

Digestibility testing
Researchers don’t stop after determining which cat food is more palatable to cats. They also test to understand how much of the nutrients is absorbed by the body. “This tells us how well the formula’s nutrients are retained and how well they contribute toward the health and well-being of the pet,” says Dicke.

Before new cat foods are sold, they must be complete and balanced and meet the nutritional adequacy expectations of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which regulates pet food labeling in the United States.

Pet food makers are always looking for volunteers to help test foods. “A lot of companies feel like home usage gives you more realistic information about how pets are going to do on this diet, because it incorporates the stresses of everyday life -- both good and bad,” says Nelson.

Prebiotics Support Your Cat’s Inner Strength

Your cat’s immune system works to combat dirt and germs, which can easily end up on its fur, and quickly soon after, licked right off. Now, cat food contains ingredients called prebiotics that can strengthen that defense.

Prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and activity of digestive system bacteria that are beneficial to your cat’s health. For the first time, they are now available in both wet and dry high-quality cat foods. Ohio-based veterinarian Dr. Amy Dicke explains more about what prebiotics are and how they work.

Prebiotics in Cat Food
While certain cat foods now have the word “prebiotics” on the front label, check the product’s ingredient list. Look for the word “fructooligosaccharides,” or FOS for short. If you find it, the food has one of the best prebiotics now available. Although the name seems very scientific, it’s actually a fiber, according to Dicke. “FOS is found naturally in certain fruits, vegetables and grains,” she explained. “However, the concentration is typically very low and does not provide the desired health benefits.”

How Prebiotics Work

Up to 70 percent of your cat’s immune system is found in its digestive tract. To infect your cat’s body, germs and other invaders must break through a mucous membrane barrier, consisting of cells lining the gut. Like a wall, this barrier can prevent unwanted organisms from moving into the body.

When FOS is broken down, it produces short-chain fatty acids, which serve as food or energy for the cells of the mucosal barrier, promoting their health and integrity. An increasing population of beneficial bacteria helps to competitively exclude, or crowd out, bad bacteria through physical competition for space and nutrients, as well as producing substances detrimental to the undesirable bacteria.

Health Benefits of Prebiotics

Beyond supporting the immune system, prebiotics may also lead to other health benefits in your cat. Research on humans, who use prebiotics in a similar way, found that prebiotics appear to reduce inflammation. A study on this was recently published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology. “Just as some foods can lead to poor health, it’s no surprise that others can have positive effects,” said the journal’s editor, Dr. Luis Montaner.

A study in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood reported that prebiotics, very similar to those found in breast milk, ward off a dangerous form of dermatitis. Kittens receive comparable prebiotics from their mothers when they nurse, so it’s possible that prebiotics in cat food can help to prevent feline skin and coat problems in adult cats.

How to Begin Feeding a Cat Food With Prebiotics

If your cat is not currently eating a food containing prebiotics, and you’d like to make the switch, Dicke advised that there should be a transition period, where the new food is mixed with your pet’s current diet. Here’s a sample feeding schedule over a week’s time:

Day 1: Feed approximately ¼ of new food mixed with ¾ of the current food.

Days 2 and 3: Mix the food ½ and ½ .

Days 4 to 6: Give your cat ¾ of the new prebiotics-containing food and one-quarter of its former chow.

Day 7: Begin feeding your cat 100 percent of the new product.

Are Prebiotics Suitable for All Cats?

According to Dicke, prebiotics can be beneficial to nearly all cats at all life stages. “There are times during your pet’s life when dietary FOS may have greater value,” she added. Cats that may especially need the immunity boost of prebiotics include:

  • Kittens and adolescent cats with still-developing immune systems
  • Cats with certain chronic medical conditions that could also use the extra boost
  • Pregnant female cats
  • Older cats that sometimes suffer from decreased immune system function

Consult with your veterinarian to see what he or she recommends. If your cat has a serious weight or medical condition, it might require a special veterinarian formula food to address its particular needs. But for most cats, a wet or dry food containing prebiotics is a very wise choice for mealtime.

Cat Food Ingredients: The 4 Essential Groups

Felines are true carnivores, so your cat needs meat. We, humans, on the other hand -- along with our dog friends -- are omnivores. This means we can survive on both animal and plant foods. But because of its physiology, a cat requires animal-based proteins and certain essential amino acids contained in meat protein in order to survive.

“Cats are much more dependent on protein,” says Dr. Katy J. Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., who has worked on pet nutrition issues. “They really have no choice but to be a carnivore.”

In addition to their dependence on protein, cats may also benefit from some of the nutrients found in other ingredient groups in quality natural cat food.

Key Ingredient Groups in Cat Food

“It may not be exactly how humans look at nutrition in terms of the food pyramid,” says Dr. Amy Dicke, a Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian who has worked with teams of nutritionists and researchers. “But the four essential food groups that I think can apply to dogs and cats are proteins, carbohydrates, fats and fibers.”

1. Proteins

At least one protein source should always be in a top spot on the ingredient label of a cat food in order for it to meet Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulatory standards for a “complete and balanced” food for your kitty. “Cats have a higher protein requirement” than dogs or people, says Dr. Joseph Wakshlag, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine. Cats require 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day, compared with 0.8 grams per kilogram in humans and 1.3 grams per kilogram in dogs, he says. High-quality protein sources can include chicken, salmon, egg and other meats, poultry or fish sources. In addition, by-products or meal from protein sources -- such as chicken by-products or chicken meal -- are also good sources of protein, says Wakshlag. “Just because you don’t like eating liver or think hearts are yucky doesn’t mean that by-products aren’t good-quality sources of protein,” he says. In fact, organ meats -- in particular, intestines -- contain an essential amino acid for cats called taurine, one of several essential amino acids cats get from meat. After studies in the 1980s found that lack of taurine could cause eye problems and blindness in cats, AAFCO set standards for minimum requirements of taurine in wet and dry cat foods.

2. Carbohydrates
Cats don’t require as many carbohydrates as dogs or people do for their energy, but carbohydrate sources such as whole-grain barley, cornmeal and rice are necessary in making dry kibble. Grains are fine for cats as long as they're in a small amount. Low-carbohydrate diets (primarily canned food) have generated lots of talk recently in terms of prevention of diabetes in cats, but a 2007 study by veterinary researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands found no correlation between diets high in carbohydrates and feline diabetes.

3. Fats

Such ingredients as chicken fat and fish oil help your cat get important fatty acids, like omega-3s and omega-6s, according to Dicke. Fats can help a kitty maintain skin-and-coat health, but fatty acids are key elements in the function of the brain and spinal cord, says Dicke.

4. Fiber

Fruits and vegetables as well as other natural fiber sources can help cats maintain proper digestion. Ingredients like apple and beet pulp combined with some grains along with prebiotics like fructooligossaccharides (FOS) in premium foods can help your cat remain regular, says Dicke. In addition, some cat foods contain cellulose, an effective fiber in anti-hairball formulas. “There are some benefits from fiber in terms of stool quality, and that’s why it’s added” as an ingredient in cat food, says Wakshlag. “We want cats to have nice, round, tighter stools. Fiber tends to create that nice quality.”

Before making any dietary changes for your kitty, always talk to your veterinarian. While there are many good foods on the market, some may not be right for your cat. “Before you change,” says Nelson, “place a call to your veterinarian and say, ‘I’m thinking of doing this. Is it a good food? Is it OK for my particular pet?'”