Feeding for Health
Love doesn't equal unlimited amounts of food. It's better to keep your cat lean and healthy. Here's how.
Obesity is recognized as a serious health concern among Americans today, putting more and more of us at risk for chronic illnesses and earlier mortality. Unfortunately, the unhealthy eating habits of many Americans often extend to their pets as well.
Dr. Joe Bartges, professor of medicine and nutrition with the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, summarizes the health risks in cats. "At a cellular and metabolic level and in very simple terms, obesity puts a strain on the system, which may result in disease. Additionally, obesity is associated with greater body weight and is an extra load that needs to be carried."
A Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine follow-up to a 2,000-plus cat feline obesity study showed several serious effects:
- Overweight cats, including those considered "heavy" and "obese," are four-and-a-half times more likely to develop diabetes mellitus, compared to optimal weight cats.
- Obese cats are seven times more likely to require veterinary care for lameness, caused by joint diseases such as arthritis or muscle injuries, compared to optimal weight cats. Heavy cats are three times more likely to suffer lameness.
- Obese cats are three times more likely to be presented to veterinarians for non-allergic skin conditions, probably because the cats cannot reach all parts of their bodies to groom themselves properly.
- Obese cats are twice as likely to die in middle age, which for cats is six to 12 years.
By Deborah Nason
Taking Extra Steps
Should pets be put on special diets? "If they are obese, then weight reduction diets are often required to get the weight off. Historically, higher fiber and low fat containing diets have been used," says Dr. Bartges.
"Recently 'Catkins' diets have become available for use in cats and some cats appear to respond to this rather than the high fiber/low fat diets," says Dr. Bartges. "Atkins diets are basically high protein/low carbohydrate diets with moderate amounts of fat," he explains. "The idea is to stimulate the body to metabolize body fat for energy by restricting energy in the form of carbohydrates." (See May 2004 issue of CatWatch for related article.)
"As cats are true carnivores, [Catkins] diets are more likely to work; [however], it is still important to limit energy intake to induce weight loss as animals can still become obese on this diet if they take more energy in than they use," he says. "Which will work best is hard to say, but if one dietary strategy fails, then it's worth trying the other."
Check the pet food aisle at your local supermarket, and you'll find a dozens of varieties of food to entice your cat. Feed your cat too little or the wrong kind of food, and he won't maintain good health. Feed him too much, and he'll get fat. But you can help get your cat off on the right paw by establishing regular feeding routines. Although the food you feed your cat should be complete and balanced, the simple answer to how often you should feed him is that there isn't a simple answer.
Age Makes a Difference
Kittens require more food per pound of body weight to support their growth than do adult cats, and therefore should be fed more often throughout the day. "Growing kittens up to six months of age may require three meals a day," says Francis Kallfelz, DVM, PHD, board certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition and James Law professor of nutrition at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. "From age six months to maturity, most cats will do well when fed two times a day."
Once the cat becomes an adult, at about one year, feeding once or twice a day is appropriate in most cases. Senior cats, age seven and above, should maintain the same feeding regimen. "Once cats reach adulthood, once a day feeding is fine as long as they are healthy and have no disease problems suggesting a reason to feed differently," says Dr. Kallfelz.
The Health of Your Cat Matters
If your cat suffers from a health problem such as diabetes, you may need to feed him based on whenever he is administered insulin, depending on the type. "Talk to your veterinarian," says Dr. Kallfelz.
If your cat has hyperthyroidism, he may want to eat all the time. "Treat the disease," says Dr. Kallfelz. "If it is a treatable problem, treat it and then feed your cat normally."
When a cat ages, his teeth may go bad, or he may develop gum disease that may make it difficult to chew dry food. "If they get to that point, then offer them canned food or dry in a finer nugget size," says Dr. Kallfelz. You can also mash up the dry and mix it with water to make it easier to chew.
A Best Type of Food?
Many cat owners feed only dry food to their felines. "Dry food is fine as long as it is complete and balanced," says Dr. Kallfelz. Dry food may be less expensive than canned cat food and may stay fresher longer. Cats that eat only dry food need to be provided with lots of fresh water, especially if they are prone to developing urinary tract blockages. For all cats, constant availability of fresh, clean water is important.
Canned cat food is typically about 70 to 80 percent water, and can be fed in addition to or instead of dry. Some cats may find canned food more palatable. These cats may consume too much if they are allowed free access to food. Of course, this may occur with dry food as well. "Food with average palatability may be preferable," says Dr. Kallfelz. If it is extremely palatable, the cat may be more likely to overeat. If it is not quite so palatable, he may be less likely to overeat.
Super-sizing food portions is not just a problem for people. Since the feeding instructions on pet food labels are based on the needs of the average cat, you may be feeding more than necessary if your cat's needs are lower than average. If you feed your cat dry food, you may provide it to him at specific mealtimes in measured quantities. Dry food can also be supplemented with a small amount of canned food to make meals more appealing.
"There's no problem mixing the two types of food," says Dr. Kallfelz. "Just make sure the calories are what your cat needs and not more."
Free feeding dry food is acceptable for the cat who exercises self-control, but some cats like to snack, and for them, free feeding can add up to extra pounds. "If a cat can maintain his weight, free choice feeding is okay," says Dr. Kallfelz. Even dry food left out for your cat to free feed needs to be fresh, so be sure to provide new food each day. If free feeding doesn't work, you need to control how much they eat. "Several small meals may make them feel less hungry," says Dr. Kallfelz. "But one is okay nutritionally."
And here's a useful hint: If you have a finicky cat, switching foods occasionally may help keep from him becoming hooked on only one diet.
Consider Your Schedule
How often you feed your cat may depend on your schedule as well. Mornings may be hectic as you get the kids off to school and yourself off to work. Under those circumstances, feeding your cat may be easier in the evening when it's quieter and less busy. If you are running around a lot in the evening, feed your cat in the morning before everyone else is up. Find a schedule that works for you and your cat - and then keep it consistent.
In a multicat household, not all cats automatically come when called for dinner, potentially making it difficult for some to get food unless it is left out all the time. And other cats may eat too much when food is always available. "You just need to come up with a plan," says Dr. Kallfelz. You can feed them separately or in different parts of the house.
By Karen Commings