How to Select Cat Food

When perusing the pet food aisle at your local store, what criteria do you use to select your cat’s meals? An Ipsos poll conducted last October surveyed pet owners on this very issue. Over 1,000 randomly selected adults, serving as a nationally representative sample, were interviewed online to determine how they select pet food. See how your own decision-making process rates in comparison to that of the survey respondents.

How Americans Choose Cat Food
Based on the survey results, Americans consider four primary factors when purchasing food for their cat or dog.

1. Listen to the experts. Thirty-six percent of pet owners cite personal recommendations from trusted sources, such as veterinarians, as the most important factor of diet selection.

2. Read labels.
Thirty percent rank ingredients as the most important criteria when selecting food. “If you pick up a bag of pet food and you see a vegetable-based protein (glutens) in the top few ingredients, it’s time to keep moving down the aisle,” says Dr. Katy Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., who is also a member of the Iams Pet Wellness Council. “High-quality foods are made with animal-based proteins and refined meals.”

3. Invest in your pet.
Nearly 25 percent rank price as a deciding factor. But good deals may not be all that you’ve bargained for. “The ‘least cost’ formulation could certainly explain the finickiness of many animals,” says Nelson. “If a company is scrimping on the cost of the food, they’re likely to leave out -- or at least decrease the level included -- of something that would greatly enhance palatability, as it is likely to cost the most to add.”

4. Consider your cat’s age.
Only 11 percent of U.S. pet owners take their pet’s age into consideration when determining which formula to feed their pet. “I always tell my patients that healthy checkups start on the inside,” says Nelson, who encourages feeding pets a high-quality diet that is specific to an animal’s age.

What Is Your Cat’s Stage of Life?

It’s important to consider the stages of life for cats when deciding on your choice of pet food. “Diet requirements -- including protein levels, calories and vitamins and minerals -- vary over the life of a pet,” says Nelson. “In turn, an animal’s needs change as it grows from a kitten to an adult into a senior.”

Nelson shares these basic guidelines:

  • One to 12 months Kitten formula at this stage should include DHA for brain and vision development. Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical service veterinarian, explains that DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid. “The benefits of a diet rich in DHA starts in the womb, much like pregnant women taking prenatal vitamins,” says Dicke.
  • One to 7 years Adult-formula dry cat foods should have crunchy kibbles to help keep teeth clean and tartar free. They should also contain a balanced omega 6-to-3 ratio for healthy skin and coat.
  • Seven years and older A senior formula with L-carnitine helps burn fat and keeps muscles lean. L-carnitine is a vitamin-like compound that helps turn fat into energy. Losing weight can mean losing muscle as well as fat, but adding L-carnitine to a diet helps overweight cats maintain muscle and lose fat. Weight loss diets may also feature enhanced levels of vitamin A to reduce weight regain.

Benefits of DHA for Your Growing Kitten

While animal experts puzzle over exactly what goes on in the mind of a kitten or a cat, one thing that’s understood is that DHA plays an important role in a kitten’s brain development.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, is essential to your young cat’s neural growth. Kittens naturally produce DHA, but their bodies don’t easily put it to use. The key to raising a smart adult cat is feeding your kitten a high-quality commercial food that contains DHA. “A diet rich in omega-3s for kittens is of extraordinary importance,” explains Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian.

Why DHA Matters
To see why DHA is so important, it helps to know about the brains of all mammals. Fat has plenty of negative connotations in today’s media, but we mammals can’t function without it. A healthy brain contains about 60 percent structural fat, and nearly one-third of that fat consists of DHA. This omega-3 fatty acid is not only abundant in the brain, but it’s also a major structural component of the retina, explains Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical service veterinarian with Iams.

Research conducted on puppies has demonstrated a marked difference in puppies that are fed a diet high in DHA as compared with those that are fed a low-DHA diet. Using the same training methods and the same types of dogs, researchers found that puppies that received plenty of DHA were far easier to train.

Notes Nelson: “Kittens are far too fussy to ever put up with an experiment to test their trainability.” However, experts say you can expect similar benefits from feeding your kitten a DHA-rich commercial food. “It is logical to believe DHA would provide similar trainability benefits to your kitten,” explains Dicke. In fact, says Nelson, human research is starting to examine the role DHA levels might play in ADD, ADHD and depression in children and teens.

DHA is particularly critical when your cat is young because its brain is still developing and growing. In fact, veterinarians consider the fatty acid so important they recommend that pregnant and nursing cats be fed DHA-rich kitten food to pass the benefits on to their kittens. “The benefits of a diet rich in DHA starts in the womb, much like pregnant women taking prenatal vitamins,” says Dicke.

Make sure your kitten receives a premium kitten food containing DHA, and your kitten is likely to see social benefits and learn more easily. Your kitten also will be less likely to engage in negative behavior.

Other Benefits of DHA
DHA plays other essential roles as well, explains Nelson. Possible benefits include better vision, less inflammation, healthier gums, a glossy coat and better digestion. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, DHA also plays a role in avoiding skin allergies. In turn, a healthy skin and coat means your kitten is less likely to groom excessively and to suffer from hairballs.

The Source of DHA
It is best for your kitten to obtain DHA through the fish, fish meal and fish oils in a commercial kitten food, since it’s difficult to ensure the proper balance of fatty acids and the proper nutrition through the use of supplements.

Feeding your kitten the right food is an easy step toward helping it to become a healthy, intelligent adult cat. Says Nelson: “They have to eat anyway, so feeding them a diet that is full of the best stuff is a way of giving them the biggest advantage as they start off in life.”

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.

Top Feeding Tips From Cat Owners

Dr. Amber Andersen, a Los Angeles veterinarian pursuing a master’s in public health, makes mealtime special for her cats by singing and talking to them while opening their food. “Mealtime should be a great human-to-cat interaction,” she says. It offers you the chance to spend quality time with your cat and to create a cherished routine.

The following tips and stories from cat owners can help you make feeding time special for everyone.

Maintain a Schedule
Andersen sticks to a regular mealtime schedule with her cats. “This way, pets know when to expect their food, and it keeps them from begging at other times,” Andersen explains. Your cat should also learn to wait patiently for its food. “You should be able to take the food away without incident.”

Talk to Your Cat
No matter how eager you are to begin your daily routine -- or hop into bed after a hectic day -- don’t miss out on the chance to interact with your cat. When cat owner Angela Megasko adopted her orange tabby, Robert, he was was just a “skin and bones” stray. Now, Robert weighs 15 pounds and is lavished with attention at mealtime.

“Our morning routine consists of fresh water and dry food, and it always starts with the same question: ‘Who wants breakfast?’” says Megasko. “The meows and rubs commence. Evenings are wet food, along with a similar question.’”

Introducing both wet and dry food may make it easier to hide medicine in wet morsels if necessary, notes Megasko.

Spread out Meals
Scheduling meals throughout the day and limiting snacking has helped make Kelly Williams’ cats, Jackson, Elliot and Scooby, healthier. “We just recently switched to feeding them on a schedule and picking up the leftovers to prevent them from overindulging all day long,” says Williams. “It has cut down on the amount of vomit and hairballs, and our obese cat lost 3 pounds.”

Morning begins with a hearty scratch behind the ears for the trio, then breakfast with Williams or her father. Williams’ husband sits on the floor with the kitties as the cats eat lunch. “They get a small dinner around the same time we eat dinner to keep them from trying to eat ours,” says Williams. “Before bed, they get just a tiny bit more to keep them out of our bed at night crying, ‘I’m hungry.’”

Create Feeding Stations for Each Cat
Dr. Deb Givin, a Portland, Maine, veterinarian with a cats-only practice, makes sure Bradlee, age 10, and kittens Walter and William have their own personal feeding areas. “Visual separation is important in multi-cat households,” says Givin. This also helps you become aware of each cat’s appetite, which is important in spotting illnesses early.

When you feed your kitty, Givin believes, you sometimes have to balance conflicting needs. For members of the cat species in the wild, hunting and eating are solitary activities. For people, providing food is an act of love, and mealtimes are seen as social events. It takes planning to mesh the two, says Givin.

She feeds wet food to her cats, and then she uses dry food in foraging toys to give them the experience of “hunting” for food. “Put a portion in a foraging toy to amuse your cat while you are at work,” advises Givin. “Hide a cache of dry food around the house so your kitty can ‘hunt.’”

Use dry food as a treat to reward good behavior -- you can try this after trimming your cat’s claws or grooming its coat. A regular snack of dry food in a cat carrier can also create a positive association, Givin says. “A pile of dry kibble in a bowl is boring and may be like an open bag of chips for some cats,” she cautions.

Spending time with your cat before a meal can lead to a better eating experience, since it mimics the hunt leading up to a meal in the wild. “Make mealtimes an event,” says Givin. “Interaction at mealtime is fun.”

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Your Cat’s Unique Nutritional Needs

Cat foods are currently available in a variety of specialized formulas. There are foods for sensitive stomachs, hairball issues and overweight cats; for adult cats and kittens; and for “multi-cat” households. This means that pet owners can now easily find foods that meet the nutritional needs of most cats.

“The number of foods that are available now is astronomical,” says Lori Jacobs, a Los Angeles-area mother whose family has five cats. Customized cat foods help Jacobs control one of her cats’ digestive problems -- and may benefit your cats too.

A Checklist for Nutritional Needs
To determine which cat food to feed your pet, experts say you should talk to your cat’s veterinarian and consider the following:

  • Age Older cats tend to burn fewer calories than kittens and normal adult cats. Therefore, nutritional needs differ based on age, says Dr. Katy J. Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., who has worked on pet nutrition issues. In general, cats can be divided into the following age groups: kittens (0 to 12 months old), adult cats (1 to 6 years old) and senior cats (7 years and older).
  • Weight Obesity in cats can become a systemic inflammatory disease and contribute to other problems like joint disease, a higher risk of cancer, and gastrointestinal problems, says Nelson. To determine whether your cat is overweight, try to feel its ribs, says Bonnie Beaver, past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association and a veterinary professor at Texas A&M University. If you have to push through too much fat and cannot feel the ribs easily, your cat is likely overweight. Foods for overweight cats often contain L-carnitine, a nutrient that helps the body turn fat into energy.
  • Activity level and size “There is a huge difference between a 15-pound tomcat and a dainty indoor cat or a strictly couch potato kitty in terms of energy output,” says Nelson. You want a food that promotes good digestion and properly energizes your pet.
  • Multi-cat households Having several cats under one roof can be a challenge in terms of meeting individual pet needs. For multi-cat owners, there are specialized foods that can meet the needs of cats of various ages and activity levels that are fed at one time.
  • Pregnant/nursing/neutered cats Cats that are pregnant or nursing may need a higher caloric intake than normal adult cats. Cats that have been spayed or neutered have lower energy requirements and metabolic needs. “Maintaining those sex organs takes a lot of the body’s energy and slows down a whole lot of processes,” Nelson explains.
  • Unique issues A healthy digestive system may be better maintained by feeding your cat food containing prebiotics, specialized fibers that stimulate the growth of “good” bacteria in your cat’s gut. Some foods contain ingredients that reduce tartar buildup and help your kitty maintain healthier teeth. Others help alleviate dry, flaky skin through essential fatty acids, such as the omega-3 and omega-6 fats found in sources like chicken, fish oil and eggs. For preventing joint and mobility issues, there are foods containing glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate and fish oil.

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