Feeding Your Adult Cat: What You Need to Know

Get expert tips for keeping your cat healthy, happy, and well fed.

From the WebMD Archives

Whether you’re pinching pennies or can afford to pay top dollar, when it comes to nutrition, you no doubt want to do right by your cat. But you don’t have to spend lots of money or frequent boutique shops to feed your adult cat well.

Here are some guidelines to help ensure that your cat gets nutritious adult cat food.

How can I select a high-quality food for my adult cat?

Jennifer Larsen, DVM, PhD is a nutritional consultant and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at UC Davis in California. Although manufacturer reputation is one reliable indicator of the quality of adult cat food, she says the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) provides some added assurance of sound nutrition. You can check for the AAFCO statement on your cat’s food label.

AAFCO uses two methods to evaluate the nutritional adequacy of adult cat foods: formulation and feeding test.

The formulation method involves doing a nutritional analysis of ingredients and comparing it with AAFCO nutrient profiles for a cat’s particular life stage. “That diet doesn’t have to be fed to any live animal before it’s sold,” Larsen says.

The feeding test method evaluates the digestibility and absorption of nutrients in live animals. “I strongly prefer foods that have been through AAFCO feeding tests,” Larsen says.

Although adult cat foods may contain a wide range of ingredients, Larsen says your focus should be on nutrients.

Mindy Bough, CVT, senior director of client services for the Midwest Office of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), agrees. “The presence of one or two ingredients may make the food appear healthy, but it’s the balance of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals that make a healthy cat food," Bough says.

When evaluating percentages of nutrients, keep in mind that these are measured on a “dry matter basis.” For this reason, a dry cat food may appear to have more protein than a wet food, for instance, but only because it contains less water.

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Canned vs. dry cat food: Which one is better?

The experts haven't reached complete consensus. But most agree on some of the pros and cons of dry and wet adult cat food.

Dry adult cat food:

  • Is more economical
  • Is convenient because you can leave it out and it doesn’t spoil as easily
  • Is energy dense, meaning a cat can consume lots of calories quickly
  • Has about 10% moisture content
  • Tends to have more carbohydrates and less protein than wet food
  • May be only slightly better than canned food at preventing dental disease

Canned adult cat food:

  • Is more expensive
  • Can spoil more easily and requires refrigeration after opening
  • Is less energy dense than dry food
  • Has up to 78% moisture content
  • Tends to have more fat and protein - especially animal protein - and fewer carbohydrates than dry food

“There are a lot of people who believe that cats only need to eat canned food and will be unhealthy if they eat dry food,” says Larsen, noting that most cats can do fine on either.

The bottom line? “More research is needed to determine whether wet food is better,” Bough says.

But the high moisture content in wet food can be beneficial to cats with urinary tract problems, diabetes, or kidney disease. It can help compensate for cats’ low thirst drive, which may be partly due to their evolution as desert animals. More study is needed to confirm whether feeding wet food can help prevent some of these problems from developing in the first place.

Higher protein levels more often found in wet food may be of benefit to strict carnivores like cats, who depend on consuming animals to meet their nutritional needs and require up to three times the protein of omnivores.

“But you can have a high-protein diet that’s still deficient in essential amino acids,” says Larsen, citing taurine as an example. “And the same is true for fats and essential fatty acids. So you need to make sure the subparts are covered.”

When and how much food should I feed my adult cat?

Mimicking a trend of many of their owners, one in five cats in industrialized countries today is obese.

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Many factors seem to contribute to this widespread problem, including inactivity, overfeeding rich foods, and neutering (castrated cats are up to four times more likely to be obese).

But you can take steps to help manage weight problems, including playing with your cat and controlling food intake around the time of neutering.

As for feeding times and amounts, here are a few things to keep in mind.

“There are equations you can use to predict the energy needs of a cat,” Larsen says. But many things -- including climate, activity, and the cat's metabolism -- affect that.

You can simply evaluate your own cat by looking at his or her silhouette and touching the belly from the top and sides, she says. If you can’t feel ribs, you may need to adjust how much you’re feeding your cat. If you want more guidance, you can find body condition scoring systems online.

Bough agrees that it’s difficult to evaluate the exact amount of food a cat needs. “You can start by weighing your cat and looking at the product packaging,” she says, “But watch your cat and work with your vet to determine how much your cat should weigh.”

There are several types of feeding methods owners commonly use, which may vary depending on the needs of their adult cats and their schedules:

  • Portion-control feeding involves measuring the food and offering it as a meal. It can be used for weight control and for animals that tend to overeat if allowed to feed at will.
  • Free-choice feeding means food - typically dry food, which is less likely to spoil - is available around the clock. Nursing cats are commonly fed free choice. But you can see why this method can turn into a problem for a cat that doesn’t know when to stop.
  • Timed feeding involves making food available for a certain amount of time, then picking it up after, say, 30 minutes.

Larsen recommends twice daily feedings. Bough says, “As a general rule of thumb, we recommend that cats be fed twice daily using the portion control feeding method. To do this, start by dividing the amount suggested on the label of your pet’s food into two meals, spaced eight to 12 hours apart. You may need to adjust portions as you learn your cat’s ideal daily maintenance amount.”

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What about treats? “Keep the calories from treats to less than 10% of daily calories,” Larsen says.

Otherwise, your cat might start to eat less of his or her regular adult cat food, which means his overall diet could lack essential nutrients. And, of course, too many treats can make kitty’s waistline that much tougher to recover.

WebMD Pet Health Feature Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on 1/, 012

Sources

SOURCES:

Jennifer Larsen, DVM, PhD, nutritional consultant and assistant professor of clinical nutrition, William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, University of California, Davis.

Mindy Bough, senior director of client services, ASPCA Midwest Office.

Committee on Nutrient Requirements for Dogs and Cats, Board on Agricultural and Natural Resources, National Research Council of the National Academies of Sciences; July 24, 2006. 

"Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs. A Science-Based Guide For Pet Owners" Zoran DL. 

Topics in Nutrition: The carnivore connection to nutrition in cats. JAVMA, vol 221, no. 11, Dec. 1, 2002.

Diez, M and Nguyen P. The epidemiology of canine and feline obesity. Veterinary Focus Magazine. vol 16.1: 2006.

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