Healthy Food For Cats

Updated on December 14, 2015

The Basics

So you're thinking of adopting (or already have) a new kitty. What must you know with respect to your new friend's diet and nutrition needs?

Cat Facts

Cats are Obligate Carnivores. They require amino acids (most notably Taurine) from animal-based protein and meat must be a significant part of their diets to ensure a healthy, long life. Felines cannot naturally produce sufficient amounts of Taurine, and cat food products often times use plant-based proteins (from wheat, corn, soy, or rice) as substitutes. A Taurine deficiency can cause all kinds of health problems for cats.


Kittens start to transition from their mother's milk at about 4 weeks, and are fully weaned by 8 weeks. As far as nutrients are concerned, kittens and cats both need high amounts of: protein (kittens need at least 30% of their energy from protein), minerals, some vitamins, some fat, and some fatty acids. It is sufficient to feed cats just twice a day but kittens should get 3-5 meals each day. Kittens gain weight and expend more energy at a much faster pace than adult cats. Veteranarians recommend that for every pound your cat gains, another 24-35 calories become needed.

Pay Attention To:

"Guaranteed Values" -- only lists maximum and minimums. Be weary if this is the only information provided regarding ingredient composition.

"Chicken Cat Food" (wet food) -- 95% must be actual chicken

"Chicken Dinner" (wet food) -- 25% must be actual chicken

"Chicken Formula" (wet food) -- 25% must be actual chicken

"Chicken Flavor" (wet food) -- 0% must be actual chicken

"Chicken Meal" (dry food) -- contains chicken meat with the water removed

"MBM" -- stand for: "meat and bone meal" and indicates presence of meat by-products. Poultry by-products tend to be labeled.

"Animal Digest" -- dry or liquid by-product of the meat-rendering process. This is ironically not easily digestible by cats, so it's best to avoid.

Preservatives -- avoid presence of BHA/BHT, ethoxyquin, propyl gallate

"Dry weight protein" -- should be at least 25% for an adult cat

Animal Poison Control Center

Keep the Animal Poison Control Center number handy in case of an emergency: (888) 426-4435

Understanding Ingredient Labels

In general, ingredient labels on pet food products lack detail and accuracy. For one, "guaranteed values" labels, found on mainstream supermarket pet food products, list maximums and minimums when it comes to ingredient composition. This fuzzy range is not particularly helpful for consumers who are concerned with the ratio of key ingredients like protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Distinguishing between the exhaustive list of brands and products can be difficult. Premium, quality cat food brands are, as expected, more expensive than generic supermarket brands. These brands and producers also tend to be more transparent about the contents of their products. The pet food industry certainly plays off of the fact that pet food ingredient label regulations have easy minimum standards to meet. The more information a brand is willing to provide about its product, the more credibility it has in my book.

Here are some key things to look out for:

  • The first ingredient listed should be the animal protein.
  • Check for carbohydrates (presence of corn, wheat, and rice).
  • The label may specify life stage (kitten, adult, senior) or it may be suitable for all life stages (multistage).
  • Contact information for the manufacturer (at least a phone number). A website is a plus.
  • Excess of animal by-products or animal digest.
  • A statement by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

Essential Cat Feeding Do's

  • Do make sure your cat gets enough water with each meal, particularly if feeding a dry food diet.
  • Do clean food and water bowls regularly.
  • Do read ingredient labels thoroughly.
  • Do tailor your cat's diet to its individual needs. Consult a vet about what those needs (allergies, etc).
  • Do change your cat's food gradually to allow time to adjust.
  • Do avoid foods that may negatively impact your cat's nutrition.
  • Do stick to the 10% rule when it comes to treats. Treats should make up less than 10% of a cat's daily caloric intake.
  • Do consult a vet if your cat skips at least two meals in a row or generally stops eating.

Canned vs. Dry (Oh My!)

There is some debate over which type (canned vs. dry) of food is best for health and longevity in cats. There is no right or wrong answer here. The debate does center around these questions:

  • Is your cat getting proper hydration with each meal?
  • Is your cat an all-day-eater or a meal-treater? In other words: what is your cat's feeding style?
  • Is your cat eating food rich in nutrients?

A perfectly healthy cat could be on a dry food diet or a wet food diet. Instead, ensure your cat's physiological needs are met and be aware of what those needs are. Many health problems -- Diabetes, inflamed bladders, obesity, heart disease, etc -- that cats experience can be a result of poor nutrition.

Proper Hydration

Fact: cats lack a strong thirst-drive. With all the fur they're constantly licking and eating, is that really all that surprising? In all seriousness, cats living in the wild derive most of their water from their food, and ASPCA experts say that water accounts for 60% to 70% of an adult cat's body weight. A canned food diet is one way to guarantee that your cat is consuming healthy amounts of water.

Be aware of how much water your kitty is drinking. It is advised that cats are given water with each meal, particularly if feeding a dry food diet. Fresh water should also be available in other locations. Some cats prefer to lick running water, so investing in a pet fountain may be a good idea. Plus it is oh-so-cute to watch a kitty consume water from a faucet.

Feeding Schedule

Does your cat like to graze (healthy amounts of) food all day long? Consider leaving dry food out throughout the day so that your cat can munch at his/her desire. If your cat tends to overeat, strict meal times are preferable. The grazing approach tends to be more favorable for kittens, who generally have more energy and smaller appetites compared to adult cats.

Nutrient Composition

Cats require a diet rich in animal-based protein. You should stick to expert recommended ingredient composition guidelines regardless of the type of food you are feeding your cat. Animal-based protein should be the primary ingredient, grain composition should be low, and stay away from that District 9 stuff.

Foods To Avoid Feeding Your Cat

Small Amounts OK?
Raw meat
May contain parasites or harmful bacteria
Raw eggs
Salmonella risk & slows absorption of vitamin B > can cause skin & fur problems
Raw fish
Can produce vitamin B deficiency > loss of appetite, potentially fatal
Probably, but not medically necessary
Breaks down red blood cells > anemia
Can be fatal
Not a protein replacement.
Yes. From time to time as a treat
Leftover bones
Cat can choke
May cause vitamin A toxicity > bone problems
There are other foods that may belong on this list: raisins, grapes, avocados, & walnuts.


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    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Wow, this is so useful! Over the 20 years I spent living with a cat, I only knew a tiny sliver of what you've shared here. I mean, really, we just bought the cat food that our vet recommended and left it at that.

      This is quite interesting! Obligate Carnivores, Taurine, MBM, oh my! Thanks for getting me up to speed in the world of cat nutrition :D


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