PETS

What You Need to Know About Feeding Your Cat

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

Tuna

Cats can be addicted to tuna, whether it’s packed for cats or for humans. Some tuna now and then probably won’t hurt. But a steady diet of tuna prepared for humans can lead to malnutrition because it won’t have all the nutrients a cat needs. And, too much tuna can cause mercury poisoning. Remember the saying, “Honest as a cat when the meat’s out of reach.” Your cat will see an open can of tuna next to the sink as a dinner invitation.

Kitten in defensive crouch against onions & garlicOnions, Garlic, Chives

Onion in all forms — powdered, raw, cooked, or dehydrated — can break down a cat’s red blood cells, leading to anemia. That’s true even for the onion powder that’s found in some baby foods. An occasional small dose probably won’t hurt. But eating a large quantity once or eating smaller amounts regularly can cause onion poisoning. Along with onions, garlic and chives can cause gastrointestinal upset.

Milk pouring into glass, cat watchingMilk and Other Dairy Products

What could be wrong with offering your cat a saucer of milk or a piece of cheese? Most cats are lactose-intolerant. Their digestive system cannot process dairy foods, and the result can be digestive upset with diarrhea.

Two kittens looking at two shots of whiskeyAlcohol

Beer, liquor, wine, foods containing alcohol — none of it is good for your cat. That’s because alcohol has the same effect on a cat’s liver and brain that it has on humans. But it takes far less to do its damage. Just two teaspoons of whisky can cause a coma in a 5-pound cat, and one more teaspoon could kill it. The higher the proof, the worse the symptoms.

Cat looking hungrily at grape clusterGrapes and Raisins

Grapes and raisins have often been used as treats for pets. But it’s not a good idea. Although it isn’t clear why, grapes and raisins can cause kidney failure in cats. And, a small amount can make a cat ill. Repeated vomiting and hyperactivity are early signs. Although some cats show no ill effects, it’s best not to give your cat any grapes and to keep grapes and raisins off countertops and other places accessible to your cat.

Cat watching cream pouring into coffeeCaffeine

Caffeine in large enough quantities can be fatal for a cat. And there is no antidote. Symptoms of caffeine poisoning include restlessness, rapid breathing, heart palpitations, muscle tremors, and fits. In addition to tea and coffee — including beans and grounds — caffeine can be found in cocoa, chocolate, colas, and stimulant drinks such as Red Bull. It’s also in some cold medicines and painkillers.

Kitten hissing at stack of white & dark chocolateChocolate

Chocolate can be lethal for cats. Although most cats won’t eat it on their own, they can be coaxed to eat it by owners and others who think they are giving the cat a treat. The toxic agent in chocolate is theobromine. It’s in all kinds of chocolate, even white chocolate. The most dangerous kinds, though, are dark chocolate and unsweetened baking chocolate. Eating chocolate can cause abnormal heart rhythm, tremors, seizures, and death.

Kitten crouching towards gumdropsCandy and Gum

Candy, gum, toothpaste, baked goods, and some diet foods are sweetened with xylitol. Xylitol can cause an increase in the insulin circulating through your cat’s body, which will cause the cat’s blood sugar to drop. Xylitol can also lead to liver failure. Initial symptoms include vomiting, lethargy, and loss of coordination. The cat may have seizures soon after ingesting the xylitol, and liver failure can occur within just a few days.

Cat eying bone and fatFat Trimmings and Bones

Table scraps often contain fat trimmed off of meat and bones. Both fat and bones may be dangerous for cats. Fat, both cooked and uncooked, can cause intestinal upset, with vomiting and diarrhea. And a cat can choke on a bone. Bones can also splinter and cause an obstruction or lacerations of your cat’s digestive system.

Cat gazing at raw broken eggRaw Eggs

There are two problems with giving your cat raw eggs. The first is the possibility of food poisoning from bacteria like salmonella or E. coli. The second is rare problem but that a protein in raw egg whites, called avidin, could interfere with the absorption of the B vitamin biotin. This can cause skin problems as well as problems with your cat’s coat.

Cat gazing hungrily at salmon sushiRaw Meat and Fish

Raw meat and raw fish, like raw eggs, can contain bacteria that cause food poisoning. In addition, an enzyme in raw fish destroys thiamine, which is an essential B vitamin for your cat. A lack of thiamine can cause serious neurological problems and lead to convulsions and coma.

Cat eating dog's food, dog looking sadDog Food

An occasional bite of dog food won’t hurt your cat. But dog food is not a substitute for cat food. They do have many of the same ingredients. But cat food is specially formulated for a cat’s needs, which include more protein as well as certain vitamins and fatty acids. A steady diet of dog food can cause your cat to be severely malnourished

Cat gazing on bowl of raw chicken liverLiver

Small amounts of liver are OK, but eating too much liver can cause vitamin A toxicity. This is a serious condition that can affect your cat’s bones. Symptoms include deformed bones, bone growths on the elbows and spine, and osteoporosis. Vitamin A toxicity can also cause death.

Cat sniffing macadamia nut cookieToo Many Treats

Eating too much too often can do the same thing to cats that it does to humans. It can lead to obesity and even diabetes.

Cat looking up at rising bread dough
Yeast Dough

Before it’s baked, bread dough needs to rise. And, that’s exactly what it would do in your cat’s stomach if your cat ate it. As it swells inside, the dough can stretch the abdomen and cause severe pain. In addition, when the yeast ferments the dough to make it rise, it produces alcohol that can lead to alcohol poisoning.

Spoonful of medicine in front of yawning catYour Medicine

Ingesting a drug prescribed for humans is one of the most common causes of poisoning in cats. Just as you would do for your children, put all medicines where your cat can’t get to them. And never give your cat any over-the-counter medicine unless advised to do so by your vet. Ingredients such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen are common in pain relievers and cold medicine. And they can be deadly for your cat.

Cat sitting by open pantryKitchen Pantry: No Cats Allowed

Many other items commonly found on kitchen shelves can harm your cat. Keeping food items where your cat can’t get to them and keeping pantry and cupboard doors closed will help protect your cat from serious food-related illness.

Cat laying on couch with ASPCA phone numberIf Your Cat Eats What It Shouldn’t

No matter how cautious you are, it’s possible your cat can find and swallow what it shouldn’t. It’s a smart idea to always keep the numbers of your local vet, the closest emergency clinic, and the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center — (888) 426-4435 — where you know you can find them in an emergency. And if you think your cat has consumed something that’s toxic, call for emergency help at once.

Two cats eating chicken cat foodWhat Cats Can Eat

Cats are carnivores and need meat. Talking with your vet about the cat food you provide and following the directions on the label will help ensure your cat’s diet is balanced and your cat stays healthy. An occasional taste of cooked boneless beef or brown rice can be an OK treat. But it’s best to keep it small and infrequent.

 Pleasing Your Cat’s Palate

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

cat sitting at tableYou Can Share, Sometimes

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.

cat with beef jerkyMeat

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.

cat eating cerealWhole Grains

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.

cat with plate of fishFish

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.

kitten in an egg cartonEggs

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.

cat eating cucumberVeggies

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!

cat approaching cheeseCheese

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.

cat near basket of onionsFoods Cats Shouldn’t Eat

Steer clear of these foods when sharing your snacks. They’re toxic to cats:

  • Chocolate
  • Grapes and raisins
  • Onions and garlic
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Bread dough
  • Alcohol
  • 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.

cat with spoon of caviarAll Calories Count!

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.”

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