A pair of glowing green eyes shimmers in the moonlit night…still and watching. Waiting. Patient. Then suddenly, like a spring—the shadowy figure leaps out and pounces on its unsuspecting prey.
Unwilling to end the hunt so easily, the Mighty Hunter tosses it into the air, letting it fly, again and again, down to the ground and up again, letting it fall to the earth and scamper free.
Just when Little Gray thinks it’s crafted an escape, it’s captured again. When Little Gray finally gasps its last breath, the Mighty Hunter revels in his moonlight snack.
Chances are, since you’re reading this article, you’re a cat owner and the above scenario rings a familiar bell. Why do cats display this perpetual hunting behavior, despite having a full bowl of kibble inside?
Cats were simply created to catch and kill prey. They are hard-wired that way.
House cats descended from their carnivorous wildcat ancestors who roamed the desert plains of Africa, feeding on mice and other small mammals. They have sharp, interlocking canines built for grasping, puncturing and tearing animal flesh. Their jaws are hinged to move up and down, unlike herbivores such as cows and horses whose jaws move side to side, performing a grinding motion that breaks apart fibrous material.
The first documentation we have of cat domestication is from Egypt, where they used them in granaries to keep mouse populations down.
Gradually, over the last thousand years, kitties have warmed their way into our hearts and through our front doors. We discovered what lovely companions they could be. Although they no longer have to fend for themselves, their transition from the wild has not been altogether helpful to their overall health, sadly enough.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s that we produced the first bag of cat food, more for our own convenience than the well being of our feline friends, whose digestive systems were designed to process live meat, a far cry from dry kibble.
The cat is more than a carnivore—she is an obligate carnivore. To survive, the cat must eat meat.
Basic Cat Nutritional RequirementsCats, like all animals, require six classes of nutrients:
- Essential fatty acids
Notice that carbohydrates are not listed. Cats have essentially NO requirement for carbohydrates, deriving all of their energy needs from a diet rich in protein and fat. The only carbohydrates their ancestors ate were the vegetables in the digestive tracts of their prey, which were already “pre-digested.” These carbohydrates made up about 3-5 percent of the cats’ diet.
The metabolic requirement for glucose in your cat is derived from proteins (glucogenic amino acids) and fats (glycerol)—she has no mechanism for converting carbohydrates to energy, like dogs and humans do. This is why animal protein is so crucial for cats.
Cats need more protein than other carnivores.
One reason for this is, certain liver enzymes that break down proteins are always functional in cats (they are turned “on” and “off” in other animals). Therefore, your cat uses some energy merely to fuel this process, and that energy has to come from protein.
Two amino acids that are particularly important for your cat are arginine and taurine. Cats lack the enzyme that allows them to convert other amino acids into arginine, so they must obtain this from their diet. Cats use taurine alone for bile salt synthesis, so they need much more of this than other animals.
The secondary source of energy for cats is fat. Cats require more fat than dogs or humans—it is recommended that 15 to 40 percent of the energy content of your cat’s diet be derived from fat.
Unlike proteins, excess fat can be wasted/excreted by your cat’s system; therefore, it’s not a burden to her kidneys. Consequently, as a cat enters her senior years, the fat content of her diet should be increased somewhat while the protein is decreased proportionately. This way, the proper energy content is maintained while easing the burden on her aging kidneys. 1
Even your cats’ physical organ structure reflects her highly specialized digestive system.
She has a fairly small stomach and small, short intestine, because her diet is supposed to be concentrated, highly digestible, and low in residue—i.e., mostly protein. When she eats an excess of carbohydrates, much of the food is only partially digested by the time it reaches the large intestine for fecal formation, overloading the digestive and excretory systems. 2
What’s In Your Bag of Cat Food?
Now, take a look at the label on that bag of dry cat food in your pantry. Even if you have a “reputable” brand, chances are it has a fair amount of vegetable-derived carbohydrate and grain ingredients:
One primary reason is that it’s hard to make a dry kibble without those things. Typical dry foods are 35-40 percent carbohydrate, and some are as high as 50 percent.
So, you’ve been feeding your precious felines a diet lower in protein, lower in moisture, and higher in carbohydrate than what they are biologically designed to eat.
The end result?
Cats now share one major health problem with their human companions: obesity.
The Dangers of Obesity
Twenty five to 33 percent of cats are overweight or obese. In fact, obesity is the most common nutritional disorder among dogs and cats in the United States today.
In addition to dietary factors, neutered or spayed cats actually require about 25-30 percent fewer calories than non-neutered. There is some evidence that neutering might lead to disordered leptin control of body fat in male cats. Just like you and me, cats store excess carbohydrates as fat.
I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t neuter your Tom, but you should adjust his diet appropriately.
Obese kitties are at risk for:
- Joint problems
- Heart disease
- Lower urinary tract diseases
- FHL (Feline Hepatic Lipodosis, aka “fatty liver syndrome”)
- Kidney problems, and
- Skin conditions
The majority of diabetes in cats is type II, at 65 percent, whereas in dogs, the overwhelming majority is type I diabetes (insulin-dependent). Since it is known that type II diabetes can be controlled and even prevented through diet, you have a very good chance of preventing your cat from developing this condition with the right choice of diet.
Excessive carbohydrates is directly linked to diabetes in cats. Carbohydrates break down into sugar, and sugar stresses your cat’s pancreas. Your kitty’s pancreas is designed to secrete insulin to balance the blood sugar, but when you’re feeding him an excessive amount of carbohydrates, which shouldn’t really be in the foods in the first place, diabetes can result.
High carbohydrate diets can lead to serious bladder problems for your kitty. Excessive carbs cause alkalization of your cat’s urine, which causes crystals cystitis and painful inflammation of the bladder.
Kidney and bladder stones can also occur from feeding your kitty food he wasn’t biologically designed to consume. In fact, the leading cause of death of cats in the United States is kidney failure.
Important Concerns Regarding the Overweight Kitty
Overweight cats have one particularly important health caution when it comes to diet and weight loss that I must mention, because it can be life-threatening. It is called Feline Hepatic Lipidosis (FHL, aka “Fatty Liver Syndrome”) and is characterized by excess fat accumulation in the liver of cats.
Fatty Liver Syndrome is the most common form of liver disease in cats in North America, and it is unique to felines.
It can occur in cats of any age or breed, and it occurs after a period of anorexia (loss of appetite) of a few days’ to a few weeks’ duration. After a few days without adequate food, the cat’s body will begin to use fat for energy. Cats do not metabolize fat well; therefore, the fat cells build up in the liver and rapidly prevent it from functioning normally. It isn’t long before the liver shuts down completely, which is life threatening if left untreated.
The cat developing FHL will begin to feel sick, which further suppresses his appetite, which accelerates the problem into a vicious cycle. Symptoms commonly seen with FHL are anorexia, weight loss, lethargy, vomiting, jaundice (yellow tinge to the skin, inside of the ears, and gums), and occasionally behavioral or neurological signs such as excessive drooling, blindness, coma or seizures.
Are You Feeding Your Cat High Quality Protein?
Another issue you have to contend with is the quality of the protein found in commercial cat foods.
Initially, proteins used in cat foods were from fresh, living, whole sources. But in time, as with all big business, the almighty dollar demanded cheap substitutes. This is when rendering entered the scene.
Rendering is the recycling of animal remains into usable material. It involves cooking down raw animal parts to separate out the moisture and fat. Rendering plants are like giant recycling kitchens, boiling down the carcasses of everything from road kill, dead and diseased farm animals, poultry waste and supermarket rejects.
When you see ingredients such as meat meal, fishmeal, poultry meal, meat by-products, tallow, beef fat, chicken fat, etc—these came from a rendering plant, which were then sold to feed industries, including pet food manufacturers.
Rendered means “not for human consumption.”
As important as recycling is today, the problem comes from the contaminants that go into the mix. Rendering plants are unavoidably processing toxic waste.
Animals are frequently tossed into “the pit” with flea collars still on, so you have insecticides going in. Pharmaceuticals given to livestock, euthanasia drugs given to pets, and heavy metals from pet ID tags, surgical pins and needles, and a variety of plastic ends up in the toxic soup. Every week, millions of packages of expired plastic-wrapped meat go through the rendering process and become one of the unwanted ingredients in animal feed.
Obviously, this recycled, ultra processed matter does not offer your kitty much in terms of nutritional value, and the sad fact is that rendered material exists in more than 90 percent of cat foods on the market today.
There is some good news, however.
There are a few smaller companies who offer quality cat food made with human-grade ingredients. They are a bit harder to find, but they’re out there. If you are in love with your current pet food and the label looks decent, I suggest you call the company and simply ask if the food is approved for human consumption. That’s a good start.
Canned or Dry?
From the perspective of moisture content, canned food is by far superior to dry food in meeting your cat’s needs, for the reasons discussed in the previous section about moisture content. Of course, we’re used to convenience, and it’s really easy and quick to scoop some kibble into a dish and leave it out, and expect our kitties to thrive.
Unfortunately, this is a convenience we need to break.
Dry food has been touted to be the saver of cat’s teeth. Supposedly, chewing the dry food cleans their teeth. However, this has not proven true since most cats swallow dry food whole, chewing very little of it, and what does get chewed often gets stuck between their teeth due to the type of jaw motion cats have. There, it ferments, causing dental problems.
In general, canned food is also higher in protein than dry kibble. The carbohydrate isn’t needed for “structural” purposes. Since your kitty doesn’t need the carbs for nutrition, this is just one more reason that canned food is better for him.
I challenge you to gradually wean your kitty onto a high quality, human-grade canned cat food. It is important to do this in a gentle way since cats don’t respond well to a mandate. It requires patience. But the benefit to your kitty’s health and happiness will be so worth the time and effort.
Once your cat is eating human-grade canned food, consider weaning him or her onto a balanced raw food diet. This is the most biologically appropriate food you could offer your cat.
What to Look For in Your Cat Chow
The canned food should be USDA-inspected and declared safe for human consumption, and it should contain essentially no carbohydrates (less than 3-5 percent). Here are some other considerations:
- The use of by-products: Heads, feet, bones, tendons, ligaments, intestines and other unsavory body parts can all be labelled “protein,” but are inferior sources of protein and difficult to digest. This means less nutrition and more clean up.
- Chemical preservatives and artificial colors: BHA, BHT, and ethoxoquin can be very harmful to pets. Artificial colors are also linked to health problems.
- Grains: Corn, soy, wheat gluten and corn gluten are often used instead of meat, but are nothing more than cheap fillers and are difficult for your cat to digest.
- Freshness: Many large manufacturers make pet food in huge batches formulated to last for a very long time, so you may be buying food that has been sitting on warehouse shelves for six months to a year.
- Cooking Method: Often companies use rigorous cooking techniques that destroy most of the beneficial nutrients—just like when you boil vegetables to death. The result is poor nutritional quality.
Now, look at the first five ingredients. These play a significant role in the nutritional make-up of the food. Ask yourself these questions:
- What are the protein sources? The primary source should come from quality animal protein, not vegetable protein or grain. Foods that list 2 or more grains in the first 5 ingredients might have more vegetable protein than animal protein, which is not as good for your cat.
- What are the fat sources? The primary fat source should be animal-based because animal fats contain a profile of fatty acids that are easily metabolized and thus generally more bioavailable to your cat.
- Are there by-products? You don’t want any of those!
- Are there other health-promoting ingredients? Vegetables and fruits, antioxidants, chelated minerals, bacteria cultures (probiotics), eggs, and essential fatty acids seed meal are excellent things to find in the ingredient list.
However, cats can’t convert ALA to EFA/DHA, so make sure it does not contain flax (unless you need to bulk up your pet’s stool).
You might need to call the manufacturer to get answers to some of these questions, since there is limited information on the label. Any company worth their salt should be happy to have a representative speak with you. Cats should be fed two to three times per day (consult your holistic vet if your cat has health problems). The days of the all-you-can-eat kitty buffet have come to an end.
To stimulate your cat’s desire to try new foods, you have to create a little bit of hunger throughout the day. Cats were meant to fast between meals, so these periods of hunger are actually good for their metabolism (although Sylvester will undoubtedly try to convince you he is close to dying of a cruel and painful starvation). Start by picking up your cat’s bowl in between 2-3 square meals a day. After your cat is regimented to twice daily feeding, begin slowly mixing in new foods with their old diet. With persistence and help from your holistic veterinarian, you can successfully wean your cat onto a healthier diet.
Don’t give in, no matter what! You KNOW how persuasive he can be. There are times your cat will want you to believe he is on his last, dying breath—especially if he’s been free-feeding and has forgotten what hunger feels like--but this will pass as he adjusts to his new routine. Don’t feed your cat when he’s begging for food…stick to feeding your 2-3 meals a day or you’ll only create a monster! By lovingly, yet firmly sticking to your commitment to improve your cat’s diet you can successfully wean you cat onto healthier food and create a healthier future for your feline friend.