How to feed cats for good health and good body condition
By Mary Fluke
Cats evolved as predators so the ideal cat diet is one that is high in protein and low in carbohydrate, with a fair amount of water (the components of a prey animal). For years we’ve told clients to feed dry food (“…because it’s better for their teeth!”) but more recently we’ve learned that dry food has some drawbacks, namely that it’s too high in carbohydrate and not high enough in protein. The effect of that is the same as in people who eat too much carbohydrate—weight gain!
Another interesting thing about cats is that they have very short intestinal tracts. They are designed by nature to eat small meals frequently.
Honestly, it’s amazing that any of our kitty friends maintain a normal body weight considering how we set them up for weight gain! We feed dry food, we spay and neuter them (which unleashes appetite and affects ability to burn calories), and we keep them indoors so they don’t get as much exercise. The good news is that we can take a few simple steps to feed our cats for good body condition (weight) and good oral hygiene and still keep them happy. (Much better than bad teeth, diabetes, and cancer!)
“It’s not what you feed, it’s how you feed!”
It’s the same for cats as it is for us—the key to normal body weight is to control portion size. Feeding a cat is like a math problem: so many calories consumed equals so many pounds of cat. Controlling calorie intake is the key to controlling weight. The hard part is that our spayed and neutered bored indoor cats eating dry food get awfully hungry and demanding for food so restricting them is tough, especially in multiple cat households.
Here are some strategies to use to feed cats in a healthy way.
- Feed a portion of the daily food intake as canned food. This works because canned food tends to be higher in protein and lower in carbohydrate than dry food, especially if you stay away from the sliced/flaked foods and feed the patè style food. Half of a regular sized (5.5 oz. can) is about equal to just under a quarter cup of average dry food. Higher protein diets are more satisfying so your cat will probably feel less hungry after eating canned food. (High carbohydrate diets have the opposite effect and increase appetite.)
- Feed a measured amount of food each day. It’s fine to dole the food out in several meals, but know how much food you are putting out each day. In a multiple cat household, use at least as many feeding stations as you have cats and put out food more than once a day (fixed total amount!) Even if you feed low calorie food, you’ll still need to limit the total amount to control weight.
- Feed an abrasive diet. Certain diets are made to be more abrasive and designed to give the teeth a work out (Science Diet Oral Care Adult Feline). Mix the dental diet in with the regular dry food, or use the dental diet as the sole dry food.
- Use food for environmental enrichment. Just like keepers in a zoo use food to provide some mental stimulation, you can use food to create games and problems for you cat to solve. Some ideas are listed at the end of this handout (Making the Food Fight Back!)
So how much is the right amount of food for the average kitty? The correct calorie intake can be calculated using a formula worked out for basal metabolic rate with additional calories for stress and other health factors. For a normal healthy 9 lb cat, the right amount of food is about a half cup of regular dry food (ballpark 350 kcal per cup). A sample feeding regimen would be to feed a rounded quarter cup of dry (with 30% dental diet mixed in) plus a half can (5.5 oz can of food, patè style) divided into 2-3 (or even more) meals a day. Every animal is an individual so you should pay close attention to your cat’s body condition and increase or decrease the food to maintain a normal healthy weight.
What is a normal weight for a cat?
Really, it’s about body condition, meaning how well muscled the cat is and how much body fat there is. The ideal kitty is well muscled, with a thin layer of fat covering the body under the skin. The ribs should be easy to feel but not stick out. The belly should look flattened on the side (an obvious waistline when viewed from above) and there should be a “tuck up” under the abdomen when viewed from the side. On a scale of 1 to 9, this is a 5.
The next step up is a 6/9, with the waistline starting to go and no abdominal tuck. Then there’s 7/9 which means that the ribs are hard to feel due to a thicker fat layer, with a rounded tummy and a small inguinal fat pad. When the waistline can no longer be identified, the belly is very round, the inguinal fat pad is big, and there are fat deposits over the back, that’s 8/9. At 9/9, the poor cat might be as much as twice as heavy as he should be, with thick fat pads all over his body.
What if my cats are already fat?
In this case, prevention is worth pounds and pounds of cure, but sometimes you have to play the hand that you are dealt. Once a cat is already fat, the key is to stop the continued weight gain and then try to trim off weight where possible. The tricky part is that fat cats are very vulnerable to a type of liver disease called hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver, which can happen if calorie intake drops too fast, either due to loss of appetite from a disease, or overly aggressive calorie restriction for a diet. When we are starting a fat cat on a diet, it’s safest to cut calorie intake gradually, maybe 10-15% a week until the target is reached.
So the first thing to do is to identify the starting point. If you are already measuring out the food each day, you’re good to go—just start restricting calorie intake gradually. If you just fill the bowl from time to time and don’t really know how much your cat (or cats if it’s a multiple cat household) is eating, you’ll need to figure that out.
The Science Experiment—how to figure out your cat’s daily food intake
Start out with a measured amount of food in the bowl and keep track of any that you add over a 24 hour period. At the end of the 24 hours, measure how much is left. The difference between the total amount that went in the bowl and the amount that is left is what the cat ate. Do this for a few days to get an average amount. That’s your starting point. Start restricting the food offered, about 10-15% per week. It’s probably best to discuss this with your vet in order to avoid being overly aggressive. Monitor your cat’s weight weekly. A good rate of weight loss is ¼ to ½ lb a week. Faster weight loss than that is probably unwise.
Should I use diet cat food?
Most “light” cat foods aren’t really that much different from regular fat food, maybe 330 kcal per cup instead of the usual 350 kcal per cup. Some foods such as kitten food are much higher in calories (450 kcal per cup). Unfortunately, the pet food companies aren’t obligated to list calorie value on the label so you might have to do some research to find out the figure for each food. There are prescription diets which are much more calorie restricted than regular food (270 kcal per cup) but these should probably be reserved for the cat that can’t seem to shed pounds even with very strict control over food intake.
Does exercise help?
YES! Exercise is great. Outdoor cats tend to move around quite a bit during the day, oftentimes following a similar daily route over their home range, burning calories all along the way. Indoor cats don’t range very far (food bowl to couch and back again). Introduce a daily play session using toys on strings or laser pointers to get your cat to move around. Most cats are drawn to moving objects and will readily engage in this kind of play. It may be harder for the really overweight cat to play so start out slow and increase gradually. Remember that cats are sprinters, not marathon runners, so play sessions should be short.
What about a multiple cat household?
It’s really hard to feed all the members of a multiple cat household according to their individual needs. Usually there are one or more really fat cats, and at least one cat with a normal body weight. You can use the same kinds of techniques, but it’s a little harder to pin point the overweight cat. Do the science experiment to determine how much food the household is consuming and start your calorie restriction from there. Have at least as many feeding stations as you have cats, located in more than one area in the house. It’s ok to separate the cats if you have to in order to ensure that the lower status cats are getting equal access to the food. As a rule, the cat with normal body weight will maintain just fine but monitor everybody’s body weight as you work through the process.
My cat demands food all the time!
Some cats are really hard taskmasters and demand food loudly and forcefully. This kind of behavior usually works (anything to shut them up!) but of course this just means that the behavior gets stronger because it’s being rewarded. The best prevention is to never start feeding on demand, but it’s the kind of thing that sneaks up on you, just like the cats who get fat without anybody noticing. Once it’s started, it’s a hard behavior to eliminate.
Your can continue to feed on demand, but limit the total daily intake. Put the ration for the day in a container and make it last all day. Whether you feed 2 meals or 10 a day doesn’t matter as long as the total amount is fixed.
The other plan is to stop feeding on demand and feed on a strict schedule. This takes a lot of determination because your cat will be even more demanding for a while before the habit stops. If you relent even once, you won’t succeed.
If you decide to feed on a schedule, you can either be unpredictable (this is actually best, but probably should be reserved for starting fresh with a new cat) or absolutely strict on timing. Cats quickly learn to anticipate feeding times and get very upset when we are late.
If I don’t leave food out all the time, my cat eats too fast and vomits!
This is a tough one, but not insurmountable. Sprinkle a small amount of food in the bowl frequently (keeping track of the total volume—try the container trick) to help retrain your cat to eating smaller amounts. This is another case where the canned food might actually work better since it’s more satisfying so the cat won’t feel so desperately hungry shortly after eating.
Making the food fight back
Cats are hunters by nature. Their brains are designed to be on the alert for potential food all the time. They are good at seeing movement at a distance, which helps them to zero in on the prey. Food that sits in a bowl makes for a pretty dull hunt and not much mental stimulation. Here are some things you can try at home to use food to help create mental challenges (and also slow down the eating!)
- Treat balls—these are toys that you can fill with food which falls out in small amounts as the cat bats the toy around. You can either purchase a treat ball or make one out of an old tennis ball (cut a small hole on one side big enough for the food to fall out, and a slit on the other side so that you can load the food in, sort of like an old fashioned change purse).
- Hiding the food—cover the food with a facial tissue and see if you cat can figure out how to move the tissue to get to the food. (Some cats are completely stumped by this problem.) You might have to leave a small area uncovered to give the cat a hint. If the cat masters the tissue, try a handkerchief, then a washcloth, then a hand towel. Ultimately, work up to jumbling the food up in a towel so the cat has to work through the whole towel to find all of the food.
- The old paper bag trick! Take a paper lunch or grocery bag and place it on its side, opened. Sprinkle some food just outside the bag. Next meal, sprinkle it just inside the bag, then farther in, then all the way in. Next step is to press the opening so that the bag is harder to get into, then folded over, finally crushed all around the food so that the cat has to rip at the bag to get the food out.
- Hiding food. Try changing the feeding stations on a regular basis. Walk all around the house and put food in different places. It’s ok for your cat to watch you doing this. The idea is to get your cat to start exploring the whole house to look for food, sort of like a real hunt. Lots of fun and burns calories!
Kittens are little growth machines, building muscle and bone, and burning calories with bursts of intense activity. Kittens should be fed a diet designed for growth and development, pretty much free choice. In nature, the mother cat brings prey home to the kittens so that they can learn to eat solid food (“…love to eat them mousie, mousie what I love to eat!”) As the kittens grow up, she brings the prey home in a livelier state so that the kids can learn how to kill prey for themselves as a precursor to learning how to hunt. A mom cat who is a good mouser will tend to bring home mice and will teach her children to be good mousers. Another kitty might tend to favor birds, or lizards, and her offspring will tend to reflect that in their future behavior.
We don’t need to give our kittens half dead mice to kill, but we can emulate the mother cat by offering the kittens a variety of foods. Offer your kitten a variety of foods, both canned and dry, with different flavors. This will help your kitten develop a broad palate which reduces finicky behavior in the future.
Feed kittens free choice, pretty much all the food they want. Once the kitty has reached a grown up body weight or pretty close to it (sometime between 6 and 10 months of age), it’s time to start limiting the food intake to a fixed amount each day and monitoring body condition. If your cat is too thin, feed more. If the cat starts to get a little “plush,” cut back the food just a trifle. Consider employing some of the “making the food fight back” ideas in kittenhood so that the kitten will be used to solving problems later in life.
Spaying and neutering are particularly important in cats—we usually try to do these procedures prior to full maturity, as early as 8-12 weeks of age, but certainly by 6 months of age. This is a pretty good time to start switching to a measured daily food allowance instead of free choice. The best way to deal with obesity is to avoid it so feed your cat for a lean and healthy life!