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Dr. Will Draper

When it comes to nutrition for cats and dogs, there are lots of choices, ranging from dry, wet, and moist foods, to raw diets, supplements, and enhanced treats. With all these pet nutrition options, how do you know if your cat or dog is getting the pet food that's right for them?

Pet Nutrition: Start With High-Quality Food

Whether your pet is a puppy, kitten, adult, or senior, most experts recommend starting with a high-quality food, one that is formulated to meet the nutritional needs required for their life stage. Although you'll want to follow the recommendations of your vet, you can start by looking for pet foods that display a notice of meeting the testing requirements of the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) on the product label.

"AAFCO feeding trials require the pet food manufacturer to perform an AAFCO-protocol feeding trial using the food as the sole source of nutrition," says Kara M. Burns, MS, MEd, president of the Academy of Veterinary Nutrition Technicians. Such tests are "considered the gold standard" says Burns, because pets actually eat the food for which the manufacturers are seeking approval.

There's a reason the pet food aisle contains foods specially formulated for kittens, puppies, dogs, and cats: Each has very specific nutrition needs.

Cat Nutrition: Cats Aren't Small Dogs

Cats are meat eaters and need more than twice the protein dogs do. At least 29% of a cat's calories should come from protein, say the pros, while dogs can get by on about half that amount. Cats also have no dietary need for carbohydrates.

Along with this need for plenty of protein, cats require some particular amino acids like taurine, as well as vitamin A and several other nutrients -- with each of these nutrients coming "from animal sources rather than plant sources," says Craig Datz, DVM, associate teaching professor at the University of Missouri Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. He adds that because of this nutritional requirement, cats can't be vegetarians, although dogs can be fed a vegetarian diet.

  • Kittens are generally considered to be kittens between birth to 1 year old. After weaning, kittens need a high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet that is specifically formulated for them, says Marla J. McGeorge, DVM, an Oregon veterinarian specializing in cat care. Kittens require more calories during their growth stage than do adult cats.
  • Adult cats are between 1 to 7 or 8 years of age, and they need fewer calories than kittens, although they do need a high-protein, moderate-fat, low-carb diet. Many vets recommend offering canned food rather than dry. "Cats don't have well-developed thirst centers," McGeorge tells WebMD. That makes canned food a good way to get more water into your cat's diet.
  • Senior cats, 8 years old and up, also a need high-protein, high-fat, low carbohydrate diet, although "opinions vary on protein restriction in cats with chronic kidney disease," says McGeorge. Because very elderly cats are often thin and have difficulty maintaining their weight, senior diets should not be calorie-restricted, McGeorge says. If a cat is obese, owners should talk to their vet about the best way to combat the extra pounds.