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Feline Nutrition: The “Carnivore Connection”

Have you ever considered the differences between dog food and cat food? Or the differences between what our pet’s ancestors would have eaten, and what we feed them today? There is no species to whom this matters more than our feline friends. Both dogs and cats prefer to eat predominantly meat, but a cat’s physiology is quite different than a dog’s. Cats are considered “obligate carnivores,” meaning they would rely almost exclusively on eating prey, not plants, in their evolutionary setting. Dogs, by contrast, are more omnivorous, and can more readily use both plant and animals sources of nutrition. Cats’ evolutionary past sets them apart in a variety of ways, and this has important consequences for what we should feed them today.

What Wild Cats Eat and Why It Matters

brianacat11A wild cat’s prey would be predominantly rodents and small birds. These are food sources high in protein, with moderate levels of fat, and very few carbohydrates. Cats require two to three times more protein than omnivores, and a kitten’s requirement is even higher. Protein and fat are used as a source of energy, to synthesize new proteins, rebuild cells, and carry out all of a cat’s normal biochemical functions. If a dog is fed a diet low in animal protein, it isn’t a critical problem; dogs, humans, and other omnivorous species can synthesize the proteins they need from plant sources and their metabolism can adapt to what is available. Cats are not able to do this, and illness will result from a severe or long-standing deficiency. It isn’t just the lack of protein that presents a problem; an overabundance of carbohydrates may contribute to obesity, diabetes, osteoarthritis, urinary tract disease, liver disease, and skin conditions.

Cats’ unique nutritional needs do not end with protein. They also have a greater need for a variety of B vitamins, as well as vitamins A and D. Healthy cats rarely run into trouble with this, but a deficiency can develop quickly if a cat stops eating.

Prey is also a major source of water for wild carnivores. Cats are evolutionarily a desert species, and as a result they do not readily feel thirsty when they are becoming dehydrated. Research has demonstrated that a cat eating kibble takes in 50% less water in the course of a day than a cat who eats canned food. Cats who eat predominantly kibble may spend a significant portion of their lives dehydrated, constantly putting a strain on their kidneys.

So, What Should We Feed?

Pet food companies might have you believe that a “grain-free” diet is a “carb-free” diet. This is not the case. Carbohydrates are still present in all kibble diets, and in many canned diets too. A carbohydrate is necessary to form a kibble (trying to make kibble without a carbohydrate source is like trying to make a pancake with only eggs, milk, and oil). So how does the pet food manufacturer manage this? An alternate carbohydrate source such as potato flour will be used. It’s not a grain, but it’s still a carbohydrate! A carbohydrate source will ALWAYS appear somewhere on a dry food ingredient list, but a canned diet can be made truly carb-free. Paté-style canned foods are typically lower in carbohydrates compared to chunks-and-gravy style foods.

zoey2Will your cat eat canned food? If so, great, even if you find it convenient to still offer kibble at another meal. You can mix additional water in with her canned food to make it “soupy” and increase her water intake further. Look on the ingredient list for animal-sourced proteins as the first few ingredients: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, whey, etc. Do you see something like “poultry by-product” on the label? Fear not – it may not be the wrong choice. “By-product” earned its unpalatable-sounding name because it consists of parts of animals not typically used as human food, such as organ meat (liver, kidney, etc), fat tissue, bone, and viscera. Organ meat in particular represents a rich nutrient source. The word “meal” refers to the how the ingredient is prepared prior to use, in terms of size. The small particle size of a finely-ground meal aids in digestion; turkey meal may be more easily digested than whole turkey. Do plant sourced ingredients (such as rice, soy protein, wheat gluten, corn starch) feature prominently on a canned food label? They do not need to be there. The lower they are on the ingredient list, the better.

Does your cat prefer kibble? While it can be more challenging to meet a cat’s nutritional and water needs via a kibble-only diet, it has been suggested that a dry food contributes less to dental disease than canned food. Choose a variety of dry food that most closely matches the needs of an obligate carnivore by selecting one that lists animal-sourced proteins as the first two or three ingredients. Encourage your cat to drink plenty of water by providing multiple water bowls in different locations around the house.

mg24The array of pet foods available may seem endless, and there is no single best food to suit every cat. Food allergies, taste preferences, and lifestyles all come into play. If this article leaves you still wondering exactly what to feed your cat, we hope you will talk to your veterinarian about it at your next appointment. You might also be interested in reading further in our blog: we have also written an article called “What Should I Feed My Pet?

Feline Nutrition – View / Print as PDF


References and Further Reading:

The information in this article is based upon “The Carnivore Connection to Nutrition in Cats,” by Debra L Zoran, DVM, PhD, DACVIM. The original full-text article appeared in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vol 221, No. 11, on December 1, 2002, and can also be found at http://www.catinfo.org/docs/DrZoran.pdf.

There is a great deal of additional information at Dr. Zoran’s website, www.catinfo.org.


Tips for Exotic Pet Care


The title “Exotic Pets” refers to a huge range of animals – birds, reptiles, small mammals, even insects – but there are a few general ideas that can be applied to all of these “special species” to better manage their care.

1. Get the Basics Right – A huge proportion of exotic pets’ health problems are the result of owners not providing the correct care for the animal. It can be challenging to meet the needs of an animal that is native to any environment from a rainforest to a desert! Before choosing to adopt an exotic pet, seriously consider whether you can care for them properly. Reptiles and amphibians can be particularly challenging even for experienced pet owners to keep healthy in captivity. Research your pet’s needs thoroughly. In some cases, websites and pet store employees can be good sources of information, but often they are not up-to-date on the best level of care. Please, please, please, call or email your vet to get the best information. They may discuss the best standard of care with you in detail, or refer you to a web resource they trust.


2. The Value of a Routine – Exotic pets are often prey species, and as a result, they will generally hide signs of illness as long as possible. The reason for this is simple – if a prey animal allowed itself to appear sick or hurt in the wild, it would quickly be captured and eaten by a predator. Even though our exotic pets are safe from predators in our homes, this inclination to hide signs of illness is “built in.” How, then, do we know if an exotic pet is not feeling well? Subtle signs will often be present if we know how to look for them. One of the most helpful things an exotic pet owner can do is maintain a routine for their pet. Provide fresh water and a measured amount of food at the same time every day. This way, if less is consumed, you will notice the difference more readily. If you offer a new food item, begin giving just a small amount at first, and never give too much of any treat. Know what times of day your pet is normally active and alert and what times they generally rest. A pet who hides or sleeps more than usual may not be feeling well.

3. Monitor Health at Home – We must continually be on the lookout for signs of illness in our exotic pets. A few sneezes, a loss of appetite, or a day spent hiding may be the only clues our exotic pets provide before becoming seriously ill. One more tool we can use is monitoring our exotic pets’ weight. A gram scale – a kitchen scale or postage scale – can allow our small exotic pets to be accurately weighed once weekly. Young animals should continually gain weight and never lose it. Most species will reach their adult weight and maintain it, with only very small losses or gains over time. Some species, like reptiles, may continue to gain weight at a slow rate throughout their lives. Write down your pet’s weight weekly – if you ever notice a significant decline in weight that is outside of the usual pattern, this is likely a sign of illness. Of course, being significantly overweight is also a health concern.


4. Visiting the Vet – Exotic pets are often more stressed by a trip to the vet than our dogs and cats, and the benefit of seeing a vet has to be weighed against the fear they may experience as they leave their familiar environment. Fortunately, we can take steps to reduce the stress of a vet visit for exotic pets. Transport your exotic pet in a small solid-sided container (such as a Kritter Keeper), preferably covered so that it is dark. For some species, small fabric pet carriers available in pet stores work well. For others, a simple cardboard box may be effective if it can be closed securely. Assure your exotic pet is kept warm during transport in the colder months. Particularly for birds and reptiles, even a brief chill can be dangerous. Warm water bottles may be effective; there is also a product called a “Snuggle Safe” which is a microwavable heating pad that stays comfortably warm for several hours.

5. Talk to the Vet – If you notice something out of the ordinary and are concerned, feel free to call or email your vet before making an appointment – it may or may not be necessary to visit. In some cases, emailing a photo or video of what you are noticing can be helpful, too.

Here are some of our favorite online resources for exotic pet care:

Ferrets – Hugawoozel

Rabbits – The House Rabbit Society

Guinea Pigs – Guinea Lynx

Rats – Rats Rule

Birds – Up At Six 

Reptiles – Melissa Kaplan’s Herp Care Collection

Tips for Exotic Pet Care – View/Print as PDF