Cats are carnivores. That’s the most important thing to keep in mind when considering what to feed yours.
“Cats are… different from us and from dogs,” says Louise Murray, DVM, vice president of the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York. “When it comes to nutrition, they are very inflexible, and owners must realize that.”
Compared to what their owners should be eating, cats need to eat a lot of meat for protein and for fat.
“If we ate like cats, we’d have heart disease by age 20,” Murray says. “They are not at all the same as humans and they are not little dogs.”
She’s explicit about this because it’s not uncommon for owners to treat their cats the same way they treat dogs, which can eat a variety of foods and remain healthy.
Foods Your Cat Should Never Eat
When choosing a cat food, check that the label says it meets the standards set by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). That ensures that the food meets at least the minimum nutritional needs of your cat.
You can ignore terms like “gourmet,” “premium,” “super-premium,” and “natural,” which have no standard definition.
You can ask your vet what type of food (wet or dry) they recommend for your cat.
Once you’ve made your choice, let your cat do a taste test. If your cat likes the food and doesn’t have any gastrointestinal upsets (such as diarrhea) afterward, you’ve chosen well.
However, if your cat doesn’t like the food, you need to be prepared to offer options. Cats often will go on hunger strikes rather than eat something they don’t like, says Murray, and such strikes are dangerous.
“A cat that won’t eat can suffer from liver failure and get fatally ill,” she says. “They can get themselves into big trouble.”
If you do need to switch from one food to another, introduce the new food gradually, in small amounts over a week. This helps prevent your cat from rejecting the new food outright and lessens the risk of upsetting your kitty’s stomach.
How much food will your cat need? It depends on some factors you might not expect.
For example, is your cat an indoor or outdoor animal? Has your cat been spayed or neutered? Both affect your cat’s dietary requirements. Your best bet is to seek advice from your vet, who will determine your cat’s ideal weight and daily calorie count, says Marla McGeorge, DVM, a veterinarian at the Cat Doctor in Portland, Ore.
“Be proactive about asking your vet about your cat’s weight and food,” McGeorge says.
Once you know how much food your cat needs, stick to it. It may seem like too little to you, but it will keep your cat at a healthy weight.
“For cats, it’s hard to get the weight off once they get overweight,” McGeorge says.
People Foods Your Cat Can Eat
Most of your kitty’s diet should be a nutritionally complete cat food, but you can give her the occasional table scrap. You just need to know how to choose feline-friendly snacks with nutrients she needs.
Cats are meat eaters, plain and simple. They have to have meat protein for a strong heart, good vision, and a healthy reproductive system. Cooked beef, chicken, turkey, and lean deli meats are a great way to give them that. Raw meat could make your cat sick. If you wouldn’t eat the meat, don’t give it to your pet.
Oats have a lot of protein per calorie, and they’re easy to make. Many cats like corn, and polenta, a coarsely ground cornmeal, has a good texture for them. You can try brown rice, barley, and wheat berries, but you may need to mash them. Cats tend to like smaller grains like millet and couscous. Make sure any grains are cooked so your kitty can digest them fully. Whole wheat bread crumbs are OK, too.
Fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help your cat’s eyes stay sharp as well as help with arthritis, kidney disease, and heart disorders. Canned or cooked fish is fine for a treat. But don’t share your sushi.
Eggs are another super source of protein for your cat. But make sure they’re cooked. Like raw meat and fish, raw eggs can harm your kitty.
Not all cats like vegetables, and even fewer like fruits (felines can’t taste “sweet”). But they’re a rich source of vitamins, and they’re loaded with fiber and water to help with digestion. Try fresh cucumber or cantaloupe, steamed broccoli, or asparagus. Although you might have better luck slipping him a veggie burger — really!
Cheese is a high-protein snack that’s fine for your cat in small amounts. But the protein in cheese is less “complete” than the protein in meat, fish, and eggs. Also, many cats’ tummies can’t handle dairy, so go easy on the cheesy treats, and skip the saucer of milk.
Steer clear of these foods when sharing your snacks. They’re toxic to cats:
- Grapes and raisins
- Onions and garlic
- Macadamia nuts
- Bread dough
- Xylitol, an artificial sweetener found in sugar-free gum and candy
Don’t let curiosity, well, you know. Keep foods not meant for your cat in a place she can’t get to them.
Kitty should only get “extras” occasionally. His regular meals should be a high-quality cat food (look for an AAFCO statement on the label). If you give him food that’s meant for people, talk to your vet about what and how often you’re adding to his diet. Overfeeding can lead to an overweight cat and health problems.
Next, schedule your cat’s meals. Cats like to eat small meals throughout the day, McGeorge says, so plan to leave food out so your cat can come and graze when they feel the need to nibble. You can put out half in the morning before leaving for work and the other half when you return.
Though you may like to give your cat treats, keep them to a minimum.
“Don’t let snacks dilute their nutrition,” Murray says. “Just like with people, you don’t want them on a diet of salty things.”