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Eating Habits and Needs

Unlike a dog, the cat is an obligate carnivore. That is, it requires certain nutrients that are available only from animal sources. The feline intestine is adapted for a high fat, high protein diet. Some people tend to treat the cat like a small dog, but the cat has very specific nutritional requirements. This is because, unlike dogs, the cat is unable to synthesize certain essential nutrients from other food components and, therefore, requires these nutrients to be pre-formed in their diet. Cats are also somewhat peculiar in their eating behavior. Cats will tend to eat and drink limited quantities on numerous occasions, consuming up to 16 small meals during a 24-hour period when fed on an ad lib basis.

Required Vitamins and Minerals

Cats need certain vitamins and minerals to stay healthy.

Cats have the highest requirement for protein of all domesticated species. When cats were evolving, a high protein and fat diet was always available so cats never found it necessary to conserve proteins. Cats always "waste" some of the dietary protein by breaking it down for energy.

Cats require taurine because they cannot convert other amino acids into taurine. Taurine is important to prevent visual, cardiac and reproductive problems and is found only in meat and fish. Fats: Cats also require both linoleic and arachidonic acids to prevent skin and coat problems and poor reproduction. Arachidonic acid is found only in animal sources of fat.

Pre-formed vitamin A must also be present in the cat's diet. Dogs can break b-carotene into two molecules of vitamin A; cats cannot. Pre-formed vitamin A is also found only in animal tissues.

For more information about pet nutrition, contact the ASPCA Pet Nutrition and Science Advisory Service toll free at (866) 816-4804 or e-mail petnutrition@apcc.aspca.org.

The Obese Cat

Obesity is an extremely common problem and, as in the human, can be detrimental to the health of your cat. The overweight pet has many added stresses upon its body and is at an increased risk of diabetes, liver problems, joint pain and other diseases.

Obesity develops when energy intake exceeds the energy requirements. The excess energy is then stored as fat. Once the pet is obese, it may remain obese even though excessive caloric intake may not continue. The majority of cases of obesity are related to simple over-feeding often coupled with lack of exercise.

Little data exists concerning obesity in cats, yet it is possible for a cat to become overweight. It has been suggested that cats have a much better ability to regulate their own energy intake. An additional factor to be considered when managing obesity in cats is hunting; it may be necessary to confine the cat to the house or to hospitalize it to prevent "additions" to the diet.

How to tell if your cat is overweight?

As a subjective assessment of body condition, you should be able to feel the backbone and palpate the ribs in a healthy-weight animal. If the ribs cannot be felt or cannot be felt without pressing, there is too much fat. Also, looking down on the animal from above, there should be a noticeable "waist" between the back of the rib cage and the hips. Viewed from the side, there should be a "tuck" in their tummy; the abdomen should go up from the bottom of the rib cage to inside the thighs. Cats that fail this simple evaluation may be overweight.


Weight Control

Diet: The need for calories drives the urge to eat in cats. Overweight animals consume more calories than they require. The patient's daily caloric requirement must be determined, a suitable food selected (one which will provide optimal nutrition along with caloric restriction) and the proper amount calculated to effect weight loss. The diet should contain a normal level of a moderately fermentable fiber and a fat system that prevents the skin and coat from deteriorating during the weight loss. Diets that dilute calories with high fiber lead to increased stool volumes, frequent urges to defecate and variable decreases in nutrient digestibilities.

Increasing physical activity can be a valuable contributor to both weight loss and ideal weight maintenance. Regular exercise burns more calories, reduces appetite, changes body composition and increases resting metabolic rate. In addition to restricting the cat's caloric intake through proper diet, it is extremely important to develop a suitable exercise program.

Owner Behavior:
A successful weight management program requires a permanent change in the behaviors that have allowed the pet to become overweight. Some tips for a successful weight loss program include:                         

  • Owner commitment to the pet's weight loss.
  • Separate the pet when the family eats.
  • Feed the pet several small meals throughout the day.
  • Feed all meals and treats only in the pet's bowl.
  • Reduce snacks or treats.
  • Provide non-food related attention.