Seven Signs Your Cat's Eating Right

Ever wonder whether you’re feeding your cat the right food? The proof might be purring at your feet right now. Even if you conscientiously scour pet food labels and do your research, your own cat can offer the best evidence of the nutritional value of the food you dish out.

Although diet is among many factors affecting your cat’s health, appearance and behavior, feeding your feline a high-quality meal is an essential and wise move. Here are seven signs your cat is thriving on a well-balanced, nutritious cat food:

  1. A shiny coat Your cat’s coat should be plush and shiny, says Dr. Margie Scherk, DVM, DABVP (feline), a past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners and editor of the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. “Matting or flaking are suggestive of poor dental health, arthritic pain or poor nutrition,’’ says Dr. Scherk.

    Lack of protein can be the culprit. Dr. Judy Karnia, DVM, who runs a cat clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., sometimes sees cats that aren’t getting enough of this essential nutrient. Your pal’s healthy coat depends on adequate protein levels. “You definitely want to make sure you’re feeding a good brand of cat food with good protein levels,’’ says Dr. Karnia. Look for crude protein levels of at least 30 percent in dry food and 8 percent in wet food. You may find protein levels and other nutritional information listed under words like “Guaranteed Analysis” on the cat food label.

  2. Good teeth and gums “Good dental health includes not just having strong, white teeth but also -- and arguably more important -- healthy, moist, pink gums that cover the roots of those teeth without bleeding or excess gum tissue,’’ Dr. Scherk says. You should lift the lip at the back of your cat’s mouth at least once a month to check its dental health. Dry food may help some cats in keeping the tips of their teeth clean, says Scherk.

  3. Digestion and hairball care There’s no polite way to say this: You can tell a lot about your cat’s diet when you scoop the poop. Look for moist, formed “logs” with a “pungent odor that is neither sour nor excessive,’’ advises Dr. Scherk.

    If your cat produces pellets or small pieces instead of logs, your furry friend might be dehydrated. Your veterinarian can help return your cat to normal hydration, says Dr. Scherk. Switching to canned cat food, adding water to your cat’s food or offering a water fountain are options to help your cat get the water it needs.

    If your cat’s poop is too soft or watery, visit your veterinarian. Loose poop could be a sign of digestion problems, food intolerance, inflammation, infection or even a serious illness, such as cancer.

    If your pal is prone to hairballs, paying attention to diet is particularly important. Special hairball formula cat foods offer fiber that helps move the hair along the digestive tract. A healthy diet also means your cat isn’t as prone to shedding as much fur.

  4. A healthy weight Like many veterinarians, Dr. Karnia sees far too many kitties carrying excess baggage. If your pal’s belly sways with each step, you need to re-evaluate your cat’s diet and caloric intake.

    “You should be able to feel the ribs, but they shouldn’t stick out,” Dr. Karnia says. “There shouldn’t be a big bag hanging down under the belly. Look from the top. Your cat should have an hourglass figure from the top.”

    Your veterinarian can help you learn to count calories so that your cat maintains the proper weight. Your veterinarian might recommend that you feed your cat a food designed for weight management or for older cats, which are often less active and burn fewer calories.

  5. A strong immune system If your cat eats a complete and balanced diet, your pal is more likely to fight off illnesses. Veterinary nutritionists are researching the role antioxidants might play in promoting a healthy immune system in cats, as they do in humans, says Dr. Scherk. You’ll find Vitamin E and antioxidants from sources such as tomatoes and spinach in some commercial cat foods, particularly those that emphasize natural ingredients. “If your cat is healthy, it’s probably because it’s getting good nutrition,” Dr. Karnia says.

  6. Strong bones Just like you, your cat needs calcium to form strong bones and teeth. Sometimes, devoted cat owners who try to feed their cats a homemade diet make the unfortunate mistake of not providing bone meal, says Dr. Scherk. This can lead to bone fractures.

    If a problem is suspected, your veterinarian can use X-rays to evaluate your cat’s bone density. A well-formulated cat food will include calcium, so look for it on the label of your pet’s food.

  7. A healthy heart Diet plays a critical role in your cat’s heart health. For instance, feeding your pal table scraps rather than a well-balanced, nutritious commercial food can lead to a deficiency of taurine, a critical amino acid. Taurine deficiency can lead to heart problems and even heart failure, but a nutritious commercial food will include taurine. A veterinarian can also monitor your cat’s heart health to make sure it’s in ticktock shape.

    If you can check off a “yes” for these seven vital signs, your cat is probably enjoying the food you provide and is likely energetic, playful and moving well. Your wise choices about cat food mean your feline is probably also in good condition, says Scherk. Veterinarians routinely evaluate kitties to check for ample muscle tone, lean body mass and a healthy fat level, says Scherk. A healthy diet can contribute to these desirable attributes.

    Karnia concludes, “If cats are healthy, it’s probably because they’re getting good nutrition.”

Multi-cat Foods Simplify Mealtime

According to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association, 71 percent of all domestic felines in the United States live in multi-cat households. Like a household with more than one child, owning multiple cats can be entertaining and fun, but it may also present some dilemmas, particularly at feeding time. “We have one dish for both cats, but usually the fat one pushes the skinny one out of the way, while the skinny one politely waits his turn,” says 32-year-old Amy Morgan of Brooklyn, N.Y. Morgan had tried to feed the felines -- calico cats Mashy and Ruki -- separately, but “both cats have grass-is-greener complexes. They would start at their own dish but then notice the other had something else. They ended up switching back and forth but not really eating anything.”

While Morgan would like to give Ruki, the larger of the two, a weight-control formula, she fears this would not be right for the naturally thin Mashy, so she feeds an adult formula cat food, trying not to worry about Ruki’s expanding waistline. According to Trisha Joyce, DVM, of New York City Veterinary Specialists, Morgan’s cats are typical of multi-cat homes. “You see it all the time in medicine,” Dr. Joyce says. “In multi-cat households, one always tends to be a chunky monkey and prediabetic, while the other one’s fine.”

Are Morgan’s cats good candidates for new multi formulas? Are yours?

Vittles for a Cat Crowd
Multi-cat foods are specially formulated for households with multiple, healthy adult cats. While Dr. Joyce stresses that “a fat cat needs a weight loss diet,” cat owners with slightly overweight cats who’ve lost the battle to keep their furry friends out of each other’s dishes might want to try multi-cat food. To address the very common weight issues of heavy-ish household cats, multi-cat foods contain L-carnitine, a fat burner, as well as Vitamin A, which works to prevent weight gain in the first place. For the leaner cat, there are the high levels of protein necessary for optimum feline health and muscle mass maintenance.

Multi-cat formulas are not simply for girth issues, though. For older cats sharing dishes with younger cats, Vitamin E helps maintain immune function. Many multi-cat foods also contain enough fiber to fight hairball formation, promote colon health and keep litter box odor to a minimum -- a special concern in households with more than one cat and possibly more than one litter box.

When to Consider a Multi-cat Formula
If you can respond with “true” to each of the following statements, your cats may benefit from a multi-cat formula:

  • More than one cat lives in your household
  • Your furry friends share their vittles
  • Each of your cats is over one year of age
  • None of your cats is pregnant or nursing
  • None of your cats is over the age of 12
  • None of your cats has diabetes, an inflammatory bowel condition or kidney disease

When Not to Serve Multi-cat Food
If you responded “false” to any of the above, multi-cat food may not be right for your pets. Kittens should not be fed multi-cat food. Neither should pregnant or lactating cats or cats with special health concerns, like diabetes or kidney problems.

“Kittens need special growth formula foods, which are higher in calories that they need for growth,” explains Dr. Joyce. “Pregnant and lactating cats need more calories as well. And cats with renal disease and diabetes need modified diets. They should be fed in separate rooms, if possible, to ensure they’re getting the appropriate formula for their needs.”

For obese cats, Dr. Joyce suggests putting the thinner cat’s food on a higher surface, where the aforementioned heftier feline may not be able to leap to access it. “Portion control is the most important thing with a heavy cat. A cat that grazes all day on its thin brother’s food is not going to lose weight.” 

As for Morgan, she plans to start feeding a multi-cat food. While it may help Ruki’s weight problem, it probably won’t do anything to change his me-first attitude. “We’ve taken care of that though,” she says. “We sneak Mashy extras when Ruki is sleeping.”

Is Your Cat Diner Up to Code?

You don't want to eat out of foul-smelling dishes on dirty tables and neither does your cat. If you think that human concerns like cleanliness don't cross a cat's mind, think again. "One of my cats is quite finicky," says 32-year-old cat owner Amy Morgan of Brooklyn, N.Y. "When she started flat-out refusing her food, though, I couldn't figure out why. A friend suggested I start cleaning her bowl after each meal. That did the trick -- she started eating normally again."

Restaurant owners and managers are well schooled in the strict safety codes that their kitchens must follow. To ensure that eateries adhere to these codes, many health departments require that restaurant employees take a city-sponsored food safety class. According to Vincent Delisi, who supervises restaurant inspectors in Austin, Texas, those classes offer information having to do with food handling and storage, as well as hygiene. When it comes to keeping human restaurants up to speed, "Education is critical," says Delisi. Here, with Delisi's input, we've designed a restaurant safety class for your furry friend's favorite caf

A Kitten's Kitchen

Your kitten's day is jam-packed with activity, so it needs the right amount of nutrition to fuel its playful pursuits. Not only that, but your kitten is also growing, seemingly by the minute. Every bite of its meals must include highly digestible protein to support this growth. Your kitten, therefore, has different dietary needs than a grown, less active adult feline. To help ensure that your little powerhouse is eating correctly, try following these dos and don'ts.

Don't judge your kitten by its cover
While your kitten may appear full-grown at about six months of age, it is still growing and maturing on the inside. The most rapid growth actually occurs during your kitten's first nine to 12 months. In fact, your kitten has twice the energy needs and nutrient requirements of an adult cat on a pound-per-pound basis.

Do feed three or four small meals daily
Your kitten might seem to have a lion's appetite, but its smaller mouth, teeth and stomach limit the amount of food that it can digest in a single meal. It may be best to divide its daily intake into at least three or four meals. Be sure to provide fresh water at all times.

Do remember that your kitten is a tiny carnivore
All cats, including kittens, are true carnivores, which means that they need meat in order to survive. This is especially true for the energetic kitten that depends on the essential amino acids provided by meat-based protein sources to fuel their activity and rapid tissue growth.

Do learn how to read pet food labels
Cats have a higher minimum requirement for protein in their food than dogs (26% to 30% vs. 18% to 22%), and these figures hold true for kittens as well as for adult cats. Besides protein, there are other important nutrients and ingredients vital to your kitten's diet:

  • Taurine This amino acid is essential to cats for maintaining healthy eye and heart function, reproduction, and fetal growth and development. Taurine is found naturally only in animal protein sources such as chicken and fish.
  • Essential vitamins and minerals They help support the immune system and help your kitten stay healthy during this critical stage of growth.
  • A fiber source, such as beet pulp This helps maintain your kitten's digestive system health, producing less litter box waste and odor.

These are important building blocks of nutrition. Look for them whether you choose dry or canned cat food and when you select treats.

Don't feed your kitten these foods:

  • Cow's milk A feline's system may not be able to completely digest it, so milk can lead to digestive upset and diarrhea.
  • Human foods and table scraps They might contain potentially harmful ingredients that are fine for you, but not for your kitty.
  • Chocolate It can be toxic to animals.
  • Onion powder and onions They contain oxidizing agents that can damage feline red blood cells and cause anemia.
  • Raw eggs They contain a protein that blocks the body's use of one of the B vitamins, which may lead to dermatitis, hair loss and neurological dysfunction.
  • Tuna This supposed feline favorite, unless especially formulated for cats, is low in calcium and too high in phosphorus. If fed exclusively, tuna may even lead to rubber jaw, a form of osteoporosis.

Do switch to adult food at around 12 months
Your kitten enters adolescence at approximately 6 months, so, like a hungry teenager, it's still growing and in need of kitten food. As its rate of growth declines, your cat is able to eat fewer, larger meals. When your cat is about 12 months old, gradually switch to adult food. Start by mixing 25% new food with 75% kitten food, adding more and more adult food over the next week until your cat is accustomed to eating 100% adult chow. During and after this transitional phase it is not necessary to change your kitten's food for variety. If you wish to supplement its diet, serve a nutrient-dense wet food for a nutritious change of pace.