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Five tips for feeding a cat correctly

feeding a cat
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you have done any research on feeding a cat, you have likely noticed that there is a lot of available information online! Whether it’s the best dry cat foods, the best wet cat food or tips to improve your cat’s diet, everyone has their own opinions, and will try to tell you what is best. When evaluating nutrition information, it’s important to consider the author’s background and biases. Distinguishing fact from fiction can present a significant challenge when making decisions about feline nutrition. 

1. Evaluate pet food label claims carefully, and with a dose of skepticism

When you look at a pet food label, much of the information you will see is based more in marketing jargon than in fact. Terms like 'holistic' and 'organic' are of little value in assessing how nutritionally appropriate a diet may be for your cat, so it’s important to take these advertising buzzwords with a grain of salt.

The best way to determine whether a food is appropriate for your cat is to examine the Nutritional Adequacy Statement. This statement will list all life stages for which the food is appropriate, as well as indicating the grounds on which the pet food manufacturer is making that claim. For example, a Nutritional Adequacy Statement for adult cat food food may read, '____ Cat Food provides complete and balanced nutrition for adult maintenance.' First, ensure that the life stage that is listed on the food matches your cat’s life stage. Next, evaluate the grounds for that claim. The Nutritional Adequacy Statement will typically state that a food has either been formulated to meet established standards, or that the adequacy of the food has been demonstrated through animal feeding trials. In general, foods that have been substantiated through feeding trials are preferred. 

2. Consider feeding canned food (at least occasionally)

Many cat owners use dry food, due to its low cost and convenience. For most cats, dry food is a completely acceptable option that will help maintain appropriate nutrient levels and a healthy weight. 

In some situations, however, cats can benefit from canned food. This is especially the case in cats that develop chronic kidney disease or lower urinary tract disease. Unfortunately, cats that have been eating dry food for their entire lives may not readily allow themselves to be transitioned to a canned diet if the need arises. In order to make your life easier if your cat develops one of these common conditions, consider acclimating your cat to eating small amounts of canned food from an early age. This will make it easier to transition to canned food if a medical need to do so arises. 

feeding a cat

(Image credit: Getty Images)

3. Watch your cat’s weight and regulate their food portions

Obesity is a common problem in cats, with over half of United States cats categorized as overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. In many cases, feline obesity is a result of allowing free-choice access to dry food. You can help your cat maintain a healthy weight by paying careful attention to portion size and by reading our vet's guide to healthy weight loss for cats. Check the label on your cat's food to find the feeding recommendations for adult cats, based on weight. These recommendations are a rough starting guideline, although you may find that you need to modify the quantity of food that your cat receives in order to match your cat’s individual metabolism. 

If your cat is overweight, talk to your veterinarian about beginning a weight loss program. Your veterinarian can look for underlying conditions that might be causing your cat to retain excess weight, while also giving you tips on how to help your cat lose weight safely. Rapid weight loss in cats can cause a potentially fatal condition known as hepatic lipidosis, so it’s important not to cut your cat’s calories gradually, without any sudden changes. 

4. Consider feeding your cat in an active manner that simulates hunting behavior

Cats in the wild are constantly on the prowl, searching for their next meal. Contrast this to the average pet house cat, who spends much of the day laying on the couch, periodically waddling over to the food bowl to scarf down some food. It’s easy to see why our pet cats are prone to obesity, and also can demonstrate some problematic behaviors.

Fortunately, there are a number of feeders that are designed to deliver your cat’s meals in an interactive manner. Doc and Phoebe’s Indoor Hunting Cat Feeder, for example, is designed to allow your cat to 'hunt' for his or her food. Puzzle feeders, hunting feeders, and other variations on the standard food bowl can all encourage your cat to be more active during the course of the day, providing not just exercise, but also mental stimulation. 

5. Diet changes should always be made slowly and gradually

Food changes should always be made gradually, for several reasons. First, an abrupt food change is likely to cause gastrointestinal upset, leading to vomiting or diarrhea. Additionally, some cats are picky eaters, and will go hungry instead of trying new food. Cats, especially overweight cats, can experience significant negative effects from going more than a few days without food (such as hepatic lipidosis), so it’s important to ensure that your cat is actually eating the new food before you completely eliminate the old food. 

In order to change the food gradually, you should plan on transitioning over a period of approximately one week. The first day of your transition, add just a small amount of the new food to a bowl of your cat’s old food. The next day, add a little bit more new food, and remove a little bit of old food. By midweek, you should be feeding a 50/50 mixture of the old and new foods, gradually increasing the quantity of new food and decreasing the quantity of old food each day. By the end of the week, your cat should be fully transitioned to the new diet. 

Don’t be afraid to seek professional help

With the large number of cat food options and the endless supply of information, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. If you have questions about how to feed your cat, it’s always best to reach out to a professional. Talk to your veterinarian or a member of the veterinary team for tips on how to provide your cat with optimal nutrition. 

Catherine Barnette DVM

Dr. Barnette received both her Bachelor of Science degree in zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida. She’s an experienced writer, educator, and veterinarian, with a passion for making scientific and medical information accessible to public and professional audiences.